Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: Francis Willughby and Martin Lister

2 Lister shells

Plate from Historiae Conchyliorum, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of posts, I’m looking at the lives of a number of British naturalists active during the early years of the Royal Society of London (RS), of which they were all members.  This week’s post deals with two men who are not known for their work in botany, so why would I even give them a second thought?  Like most naturalists of the time, they did not restrict themselves to a single group of organisms.  Particularly in their early years, they delved into the plant world and spent time with John Ray, the subject of the last post.  Also, Francis Willughby (1635-1672) and Martin Lister (1639-1712) are both subjects of new books on their areas of expertise:  Willughby in ornithology (Birkhead, 2018) and Lister in conchology (Roos, 2018).

Ray and Willughby worked closely together for a number of years.  They met at Cambridge University where Ray tutored Willughby and became good friends who often went on collecting trips together, several through Britain that lasted for weeks or months.  Eventually, they toured Europe for a year and half, visiting the Low Countries, Italy, and France, often accompanied by one or two other naturalists.  While I focused on Ray’s interest in plants in my post, he shared some of Willughby’s passion for insects, birds, and fish.

Willughby had the money to collect art depicting interesting species, including entire albums, that are still housed at his family’s estate.  Also there is one of the two specimen cabinets he ordered while in Europe, and it contains some of his collection of bird eggs as well as drawers of seeds.  In the most personal passage in his book, Tim Birkhead describes his thrill in sifting through this treasure chest and finding notations in Willughby’s handwriting.  Ray and Willughby themselves worked their way through Ulisse Aldrovandi’s massive natural history collection in Bologna, attempting to identify some of the new species they had encountered on their travels.  Eventually the two went on to Montpellier and collected plants in the area.  Some of these specimens are in Ray’s herbarium, now part of the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.

The two continued to collaborate after they returned to England in 1666.  Willughby was supporting Ray after Ray lost his position at Cambridge because he refused to take an oath of loyalty to the king.  This arrangement lasted until Willughby’s death in 1672.  Before then, they worked on Willughby’s interests in insects, birds, and fishes with an eye toward publications on all three, though none had been completed before he died.  What made it difficult for Ray to complete them is that the family would not give him access to Willughby’s specimens or his notes.  Ray had to rely on what he had written about the collections.  The fish book was farthest along and was published first, while the insects needed the most research and came out last.  But the most original work, with the most first-hand information, was in ornithology.

In his biography of Willughby, Birkhead makes the argument that the importance of the Willughby/Ray publication on birds was due much more to Willughby’s contribution.  He takes a stand against that of Charles Raven (1950) in his Ray biography where he considers Willughby the junior partner, and Ray the genius of the project.  To this day, Willughby’s descendants fume about what they see as the injustice of this viewpoint, and Birkhead makes a good case for their opinion, despite the fact that little remains of Willughby’s notebooks and manuscripts.

While Ray was in Montpellier, he also collected with Martin Lister, who was spending three years there as a student.  It’s not surprising that fellow countrymen, particularly with shared interests, would gravitate toward each other.  However, they had to leave France in 1666 by order of the French king, in anticipation of a war between France and Britain.  Once back in England, Ray spent three months botanizing with Lister and the apothecary Peter Dent.  Lister was particularly interested in grasses, insects, and spiders, but eventually became enthralled with mollusks and focused on conchology, the study of their shells.  He wrote a three-part natural history of spiders, terrestrial and river mollusks that was illustrated by William Lodge.  However, when he set out to create a more comprehensive work on mollusks, Lodge was not particularly interested, so Lister decided to teach his two oldest daughters, Susanna then eleven years old and Anna aged nine to draw.  Eventually they even learned to engrave.

One of the reasons I’ve decided to include Lister here is because some of his experiences in studying mollusks are similar to those of botanists.  A number of the latter also used the talents of family members, usually females, in creating illustrations.  From the notes and drawings left by the Listers, it’s clear that in their case, the sisters made very careful observations, sometimes using a microscope, to work out mollusk anatomy; their drawings weren’t limited to shells.  In the last edition of Historiae Conchyliorum of 1692, there were 1067 plates.  In addition, Susanna created illustrations for papers by other authors in the RS’s Philosophical Transactions.  Roos’s book does a good job of presenting the work of her and her sister as integral to the success and value of her father’s opus.


Birkhead, T. (2018). The Wonderful Mr. Willughby. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roos, A. M. (2019). Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters: THE Art of Science in the Seventeenth Century. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.

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