Like many people during the covid pandemic, I became more dependent on social media for links to the world. I didn’t spend that much more time on Twitter, but I used it differently. It had been a way for me to find out about the latest articles and books on botany, as well as the goings on in herbaria and botanic gardens. Then I began using it to find online opportunities. For example, the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine has been around for over 10 years, but I had never become involved. A notice on Twitter sent me to the consortium website where I discovered, and joined, two of its groups: Collections and Collecting, and Visual Cultures in Natural History, the Life Sciences, and Medicine. Each hosts seminars by group members, with a paper for the monthly meeting available beforehand so participants can be ready for a discussion that is always thoughtful. I come away with both information and an intellectual high. This year the Visual Cultures group also hosted a three-day workshop on “The Circulation of Images in the Life Sciences.” This seemed like a perfect opportunity to think about the history, and future, of the circulation of plant specimens. This series of posts is drawn from the work I presen
My central argument was that at this moment in time there’s a great shift going on in the circulation of herbarium specimens. More and more of it is virtual rather than physical thanks to the large-scale digitization projects. I outlined how specimens circulated in the past in contrast with today, and both the advantages and challenges of each. I will do something similar in these posts, beginning with this one on how mobile specimens were even from the earliest days of herbaria.
The Italian botanist Luca Ghini, one of the first proponents of using pressed plants, was known for his generosity in lending specimens to others, along with his notes and illustrations. This was one way he propagated the herbarium habit; others saw how useful it was to have a hortus siccus, dry garden, or hortus hyemalis, winter garden, for reference. By the mid-16th century, the practice had spread throughout Europe (Arber, 1938). The German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals, traded specimens, illustrations, and notes with Ghini, some of which were in Fuchs’s possession when Ghini died. To Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who was preparing a translation of the ancient materia medica text by Dioscorides, Ghini sent several hundred specimens. A little later in the Netherlands, Carolus Clusius and Rembert Dodoens compared the collections they made on their travels to get a fuller picture of plant diversity.
Botanists also shared specimens in other ways besides lending. If they had collected more than one example of a species, they might give the duplicate to a colleague. The botanical etiquette related to such a “gift” was, and is, to send back a comparable specimen of a different species, usually of similar worth. Something common in the sender’s area might be gifted or traded for something common in the recipient’s region. A rare plant might be met with the return of more than one specimen. If a colleague identifies an unnamed plant, the understanding is that they could keep the specimen. Routinely the plants are sent unmounted. A mounted specimen is “worth” more than an unmounted one because of the labor involved and the cost of the paper.
Some plant collectors financed their expeditions by selling specimens to those who couldn’t or didn’t wish to travel. Those with means built large collections by buying from such entrepreneurs and also purchasing entire collections. These often became available after a collector died, and the family either needed the money or the space taken up by piles of dead plants for which they had no use. That’s how the British collector Hans Sloane acquired many of the 265 volumes in his herbarium now at the Natural History Museum, London, and the French financier Benjamin Delessert amassed much of his collection now at the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Garden in Switzerland.
Another form of accumulation was that of colonial powers, the British Empire being perhaps the premier example. Particularly from the time of Joseph Banks, Britain purposefully set about sending plant collectors throughout the world to find new species, especially those that could be useful for the empire’s economic engine. One collector could send back hundreds or even thousands of specimens, along with seeds for cultivation either at botanical gardens, like Kew and Edinburgh, or at colonial gardens where tropical species were more likely to flourish and could then be grown on plantations. This is how breadfruit got from Asia to the West Indies, rubber from Brazil to Southeast Asia, and cinchona from Peru to India (Brockway, 1979). The result of all this circulation was that plants were grown worldwide, while specimens tended to accumulate in Europe forming what Bruno Latour (1990) terms “centers of calculation.”
Still, no herbarium can have everything a botanist needs when thoroughly investigating a particular group of plants. That’s why they will ask other institutions to lend them what they want to see. These requests are usually honored, another long-held tradition in natural history. In some cases, the borrower may have to pay for postage, but that’s about it. In “payment,” the sheet will receive a determination slip to either confirm the species name on the label or to revise it if the borrower thinks it belongs to a different one, or if the name has been updated since the label was made. In any case, the specimen is returned with value added.
Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.
Latour, B. (1990). Drawing things together. In M. Lynch & S. Woolgar (Eds.), Representation in scientific practice (pp. 19–68). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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