Digitizing Collections

2 iDigBio

The Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference at Ann Arbor, Michigan was cosponsored by the University of Michigan and the iDigBio project, which deals with the digitization of natural history collections at non-government institutions in the United States. iDigBio is a 10-year project now in its sixth year. As Larry Page its director noted, it is designed to provide the infrastructure necessary to store and distribute the results of natural history specimen digitization efforts and also offer training and tools to support these projects. In addition, it aims to encourage development of a community to further this work and to ensure that these electronic resources are maintained and upgraded in the future. That is obviously a tall order, and just how tall became clearer during the two-day conference.

The first general sessions set the stage with Maureen Kearney of the Smithsonian arguing for the importance of “liberating” data from the paper silos where they have been kept and also for including paleobiological information to provide a longer view. Pam Soltis of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida discussed the difficulties of linking heterogeneous data, for example, information on specimens, genomics, and phylogeny. Yes, there are data sets dealing with each for many species, but the challenge is to make it all available through one portal. Issues include locating disparate data and dealing with its patchiness and with format differences. There are also vagaries of taxonomic names and of finding ways to get these systems to talk to each other. Progress is being made, particularly in the automation of some phases, such as recording label data using optical recognition systems, but this work takes a great deal of time and money, and it’s never finished, as maintenance is a key issue.

Next came Donald Hobern, executive secretary of GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to which the US contributes data in the form of information not only on specimens but on species occurrences. From the GBIF portal, researchers can create species checklists for particular areas and also access data on particular taxa. The GBIF network has over 700 million georeferenced occurrence records making it a massive resource. Organizationally, it is divided into geographic nodes, with each node responsible for inputting and maintaining its data. In the afternoon, I attended the session on the North American node, which includes contributions from Canada and the United States. There Hebern spoke again outlining the network’s three main goals. The first is to remove obstacles to collaboration in the sharing and use of biodiversity data, in other words, to provide tools that allow for uploading and maintaining data in a usable form. Second is to organize evidence of recorded occurrence of any species in time and space, that is, users should be able to access data on species occurrences worldwide or within a particular geographic area and timeframe. Finally, GBIF aims to support the development of a global virtual natural history collection. In one sense, this goal has already been met because there is so much data in GBIF from so many areas, but it is hardly complete in terms of extent or data richness. In order to function at such a large scale, GBIF can only provide limited information on each occurrence. However, the infrastructure that GBIF has created and is continuing to develop is a firm foundation for a richer and robust information system in the future. An indication of this is in Science Review 2017, its annual review of the scientific articles published over the past year using GBIF data. Along with this is a bibliography of these 438 peer-reviewed articles.

The next speaker presented still another acronym, or really two. Gerald “Stinger” Guala of the US Geological Service is director of both BISON (Biodiversity Information Serving Our Nation) and ITIS (Integrated Taxonomic Information System). BISON provides access to 375 million US occurrence records, including 275 million in GBIF. However, for US records, more data on some records are available than just what’s in GBIF. Essentially, BISON is a clearinghouse for US government information on natural history collections. It cleans the data, formats it, takes quality control measures, and allows for data discovery. One of its major services is providing checklists at the local, state and national levels; a user can draw a map around an area and get a species checklist for it. Datasets on particular areas or species are also downloadable. ITIS is more limited in scope; its aim is to provide stable nomenclature. It is linked to the Catalogue of Life, a worldwide database that publishes an annual checklist with over 1.7 species. The biggest difficulty for the latter, as discussed by its director Tom Orwell of the Smithsonian, is how to deal with synonyms. This is a tough problem for all taxonomy and for all biodiversity projects, as noted by Stepen Garnett and Les Christidis (2017) in a recent Nature article on how “taxonomic anarchy” impedes conservation efforts. To put it simply: it’s difficult to enforce regulations on an endangered species if its name changes.

These presentations were followed by two about Canadian projects; James Macklin spoke on CBIF, Canada’s GBIF node, and Anne Bruneau on Canadensys, which aims to provide richer information on species than that available in GBIF. Jon Coddington of the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN) then brought up a whole different set of issues, namely those involved in storing genetic information, both sequences and specimen data. And Martin Kalfatovic the program director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) discussed its role in providing links to relevant literature. In all, this was a mind-bending session that helped me see the differences among the many portals I have come across as I try to educate myself botanically and technologically. In the next post, I’ll discuss some even more ambitious projects that move into the 3D realm.


Garnett, S. T., & Christidis, L. (2017). Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation. Nature, 546, 25.

Collections Everywhere

Soldier's hut, Valley Forge

Soldier’s hut at Valley Forge

Since I dabble in art and sewing, I decided to treat myself to a week-long workshop with the Canadian artist, Dorothy Caldwell, who uses stitching in her work. Held at the Crow Timber Frame Barn near Columbus, Ohio, it ended a couple of days before a workshop on Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I tacked that on to my road trip. Driving home, I realized that the theme of collections and preservation pervaded my entire journey. In this series of posts, I’d like to discuss why. I will eventually get to herbaria, but first I’m going to meander through a few other collections, much as I meandered through several states. Heading west when I set out, I came upon signs for Valley Forge, and since I’d never visited, I made a stop there. I didn’t have much time, so I just walked a trail and visited the Washington Memorial Chapel, a beautiful structure, built more than a 100 years after the Revolutionary War. Near it is an old reconstruction of one of the huts Washington’s soldiers used during the terrible winter of 1777-1778 (see figure above). It gave some sense of the cramped, uncomfortable quarters, but a lovely day in May is not the best time to experience what Valley Forge must have truly been like back then. The park is quite expansive and several old farm buildings are on the site so it’s easier to picture this area in peacetime. This is one of several places I visited on this trip where I felt grateful to the people who had the foresight to preserve such locations with their rich history and biological interest as well.

The next day I headed to Pittsburgh and visited another area full of treasures: Schenley Park. Both the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History are located on the park’s periphery. The latter has a lovely plant exhibit with beautiful replicas of plants and fungi that are amazingly lifelike. There is also an herbarium, but since I visited on Sunday, I couldn’t stop in. A couple of blocks away is the Phipps Conservatory, a late-nineteenth-century aggregation of connected glass houses, each devoted to a different plant group including cacti, orchids, palms, and ferns. There are hundreds of species represented and to walk among them is an impressive experience. Andrew Carnegie and Henry W. Phipps were business partners in the steel industry and obviously both appreciated the importance of philanthropy and of preserving nature. They did it in different ways but visitors can still reap the rewards of each.

While I knew of Phipps and Carnegie, I had never heard of Beman and Bertie Dawes, the couple who created the 2,000-acre Dawes Arboretum near Columbus Ohio in 1929. It is an amazing place, particularly because it is perfectly maintained and is free to visitors. The Dawes home is preserved as a museum, and there is an impressive living plant collection of over 5,000 different types of woody plants (see figure below). Engraved in the memorial to the Dawes family is a quote from Henry Van Dyke: “He that planteth a tree is the servant of God. He provideth a kindness for many generations, and faces that he had not seen shall bless him.” This to me is what all important collections are about: taking future generations into account.

1b Dawes Arboretum, from Japanese Tea House

Japanese Tea House at Dawes Arboretum

I visited the arboretum the day after the end of the Caldwell workshop, called “In Place,” so I was particularly attuned to my environment. We had done a series of exercises on experiencing place, and Caldwell had asked us to bring a soil sample (see figure below) as well as a collection of a 100 items related to where we live. Not surprisingly, I brought pressed leaves and had assumed that others would also bring natural history materials, and some did—sticks, seeds, stones, fungus, and lichen—but there were also collections of buttons, photos, found objects. This made me realize the obvious fact that place also includes the indoors. When all the collections were spread out on tables, they made an impressive array and caused us all to recalibrate what sense of place means. We also collected around the Crow barn where we had class. Art quilter Nancy Crow and her husband own over 100 acres of Ohio farmland so we could roam widely. We each claimed a two-foot-square plot to observe closely for the week, not only sketching what was there but listening, smelling, feeling the environment. I am particularly interested in bark, so I chose a site with a tree, but found myself also drawn to the grasses growing there—and to the insects exploring the plot along with me. My sense of this place thus became richer and more dynamic.

1a Soil samples from Caldwell workshop

Soil samples displayed at Dorothy Caldwell workshop

I went to the Caldwell workshop to learn something about art and sewing—and I did—but I also came away as a better, or at least changed, observer of place, something that very much relates to herbarium specimens. Location is noted on every well-labeled herbarium specimen, but often the information is sketchy: along rte. 5, near the railway station in Butte, on the shore of Lake Placid (Faden, 2005). Many recent labels include lists of other species at the site to give a sense of the specimen’s milieu, but this is hardly standard procedure, so the plant’s attachment to place is often severed conceptually as well as physically. This is where field notes become important; there a sense of place is likely to be more fully recorded, in words, maps, drawings, and in the case of David Griffiths’s work on cacti, nature prints of prickly pear fruits. As the collections at Caldwell’s workshop suggest, there are a great many elements that contribute to a sense of place, and the question becomes how best to preserve this sense into the future. This was among the issues discussed at the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference that I headed to when leaving Ohio and that I’ll discuss in my next post.


Faden, R. B. (2005). Day flowers: Family Commelinaceae. In G. A. Krupnick & W. J. Kress (Eds.), Plant Conservation: A Natural History Approach. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

William Baldwin and His Herbarium

4 Last Baldwin Specimen

Fig. 1 Last specimen collected by William Baldwin, Aug. 8, 1819; Darlington Herbarium at WCU

This is my last post on Pennsylvania botanists, all of them related in one way or another to specimens in William Darlington’s (1782-1863) herbarium at West Chester University (WCU) (see earlier posts: 1, 2, 3). Now I want to introduce William Baldwin (1779-1819), a physician and botanist who was Darlington’s good friend. They had attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school at the same time, during which Baldwin nursed Darlington through a serious illness. Baldwin was from the same area as Darlington and was also friendly with Moses Marshall (see last post), so there were many threads, all involving plants, that wove their lives together. After a stint as a surgeon on a merchant ship, Baldwin settled in Wilmington, Delaware where he practiced medicine and pursued his interest in plants, developing a substantial herbarium (Harshberger, 1899). He also made contact with yet another Pennsylvania botanist, Henry Ernst Muhlenberg, and they continued to correspond until the latter’s death.

4b Last Baldwin label 2

Fig. 2 Label on the last specimen Baldwin collected; Darlington Herbarium at WCU

In 1811, Baldwin and his family moved to Savannah because they hoped the climate would improve his weak respiratory system. There he continued to work as a physician through the War of 1812 while at the same time exploring the excitingly different plant world he found there. In 1817, because of his botanical expertise, he was selected to serve on a US frigate bound for South American ports. He went hoping the warmer climate would be healthier for him. He sent back letters to Darlington describing his botanical finds and when he returned, Darlington helped him get an appointment as a naturalist on the Long Expedition which left to explore the Upper Missouri in the summer of 1819. Baldwin’s health, however, continued to decline, and he died in Franklin, MO on September 1. In the Darlington Herbarium at WCU, there’s a specimen [Fig. 1 at top] with a Baldwin’s label [Fig. 2 above] as well as one on which Darlington wrote “Rudbeckia triloba ? This appears to be the last plant poor Baldwin collected.  The latest date in his journal is Aug. 8, 1819.” This is the same date this specimen was collected [Fig. 3 below]. *

4a Last Baldwin label

Fig. 3 Darlington’s note on Baldwin’s specimen of Rudbeckia triloba; Darlington Herbarium WCU

Despite his long struggle with ill health, Baldwin managed to make a number of contributions to botany. As has already been noted, being from Pennsylvania meant it was relatively easy for him to connect with a number of important botanists and his travels gave him exposure to many different habitats. He took full advantage of this by doggedly collecting up to the last weeks of his life, as the specimen in the Darlington Herbarium indicates. He only managed to publish two brief papers, but his notes on the Cyperaceae were essential to the monograph John Torrey published on the family. Asa Gray used Baldwin specimens and notes for his publication on Rhynchospora. However, William Baldwin’s greatest botanical legacy was probably his herbarium, and that itself has an interesting history. Because his health was never good, he had written to Darlington asking him to see to his specimens and notes. After Baldwin died, his widow offered to sell the collection to Darlington, but he declined, arguing that he couldn’t give it the attention it deserved because he was serving in Congress at that time. Instead, she sold it to another Quaker botanist, Zaccheus Collins, also a friend of Baldwin’s. Torrey wasn’t happy with this turn of events because Collins wasn’t known for publishing about his specimens, so Torrey could imagine interesting Cyperaceae species, one of his specialties, languishing in Pennsylvania while he could make good use of them in New York. There is evidence that Collins intended to give his collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANS). However, he died without a will and his family decided to sell his collection at auction. It was held on June 3, 1833 and was the first public auction of an American herbarium. The herbarium was divided into three lots: Collins’s own specimens, exotic species, and finally, those of Baldwin described as “neatly packed in between forty and fifty portable boxes” (Stuckey, 1971, p. 448).

From accounts written by participants, the auction was a lively affair. The Baldwin portion was considered the most valuable of the three auction lots because of the rich holdings from Georgia and South Carolina. Lewis Schweinitz, who had corresponded with Baldwin, acquired the latter’s collection. Of course, Schweinitz also knew John Torrey and promised that after he sorted through the collection, he would send Torrey duplicates, particularly of Cyperaceae. Unfortunately, Schweinitz died in 1834 and his collection went to the ANS. However, several American botanists including Thomas Nuttall and Stephen Elliott learned much from it. Torrey was able to obtain a portion of the Baldwin herbarium from Schweinitz’s widow; the specimens included Cyperaceae from southern states.

This is an interesting story of the twisting paths specimens take to their final resting places in institutional herbaria. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to trace the steps. As Ronald Stuckey (1971) chronicles in his article on the 1833 auction, most of Baldwin’s specimens were poorly labeled to begin with, and when Schweinitz mounted the specimens he removed the original labels. In many cases the only indication that they were from Baldwin is the notation “Bald” that Schweinitz made on some of them. Stuckey characterizes this as a “catastrophe” for botanists. Still, thanks to Baldwin’s letters to William Darlington and other materials that Darlington published in his memorial to Baldwin, we have some sense of Baldwin’s achievements in botany and of his passion for plants. Darlington, through his own collection, and through his writings on Baldwin as well as on Humphry Marshall and John Bartram, did a great deal to preserve the work of these Pennsylvania botanists who made important contributions to our understanding of American plants.

* I am grateful to Sharon Began at West Chester University for allowing me access to the Darlington Herbarium on several occasions.


Harshberger, J. W. (1899). The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work. Philadelphia, PA: Davis and Sons.

Stuckey, R. (1971). The first public auction of an American herbarium including an account of the fate of the Baldwin, Collins, and Rafinesque herbaria. Taxon, 20(4), 443–459.

Humphry Marshall and the American Grove

3 Marshall's Garden 1819

Specimen of Atriplex hortensis collected by William Darlington at Marshshall’s Botanic Garden; Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University*

In the last post, I discussed the noted colonial American nurseryman John Bartram and in the post before that, I mentioned that another Pennsylvania botanist, William Darlington, collected the correspondence of both John Bartram and Humphry Marshall in an effort to preserve their writings. Why did Darlington put these two men together? The foremost reason was that he had access to source materials for both and considered these writings worth saving. Also they were each prominent in the botanical community in colonial Pennsylvania. Finally, there were family ties: Bartram and Marshall were first cousins, and it was Bartram who had sparked Marshall’s interest in plants. As to why Marshall was important in botanical circles, like Bartram, he was a farmer and nurseryman who supplied plants and seeds to European horticulturalists. But more notably, he was the author of Arbrustum Americanum: The American Grove published in 1785 in Philadelphia, making it the first botanical book produced in America written by a native-born American on American plants.

Born in 1722, Humphry Marshall was a Quaker who lived in West Bradford, Pennsylvania in an area now called Marshallton. He became a stone mason while also working on his father’s farm which he inherited and where his skills allowed him to build a stone and brick home that still stands today. Soon after this, in 1773, he began work on a botanical garden and it became a showpiece in the area. It was modeled after his cousin’s in Philadelphia. Marshall’s garden began to deteriorate soon after his death in 1801. However, there are a number of specimens collected at Marshall’s garden in the 1820s and 1830s by the West Chester botanist William Darlington and preserved in the Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University (see earlier post and photo above).

Focusing on trees and shrubs, Marshall’s nursery trade with European horticulturalists began in 1768 with such wealthy landowners as the Quaker John Fothergill (1912-1780) who bought material from Marshall until the Revolutionary War interrupted trade. It was to build up his business after the war that Marshall began work in the early 1780s on a book about American trees.   As a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, having been encouraged to join by his friend, Benjamin Franklin, Marshall explored the possibility of the Society’s publishing the book, but they didn’t have the necessary funds. Even so, he dedicated the book to the officers and members of the Society, including the President, Benjamin Franklin. Marshall took on the cost of publication himself and had the book printed by Joseph Crukshank in Philadelphia in 1785. Unfortunately, as a British reviewer noted, there was a typographical error in the very first word of the title Arbrustrum Americanum; it should have been Arbustrum Americanum. As was common at the time, the information on the title page was quite extensive, but also very informative. After the subtitle, The American Grove, it went on: “or, an Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the American United States, Arranged According to the Linnaean System. Containing, The particular distinguishing Characters of each Genus, with plain, simple and familiar Descriptions of the Manner of Growth, Appearance, etc. of their several Species and Varieties. Also, some hints of their uses in Medicine, Dyes, and Domestic Oeconomy. Compiled from actual knowledge and observation, and the assistance of botanical authors, by Humphry Marshall.”

That Marshall used the Linnaean System within 30 years of the publication of Species Plantarum indicates his botanical sophistication, but he stuck with an alphabetical listing of species because he wanted to make the book accessible to those who might be interested in purchasing from him the plants described. Unfortunately, the book did not sell well in the United States, though both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson owned copies. At this time the nation was suffering from economic problems due to the aftermath of the war and to a weak central government. Inflation was rampant, so the two dollar price was hardly insignificant.

However, the book did find a market in Europe. It sold well in England and was eventually translated into both French and German. There was definitely interest in American plants among European gardeners, and those with large gardens also had the money for books to feed their interest. Marshall’s book contained information not only on horticulture, but also on agricultural and medicinal uses for the plants. In a sense, he was doing what Jefferson, Franklin, and other Americans with a scientific bent were doing: attempting to convince Americans and Europeans alike that American species were hardly inferior to those in other parts of the world, as the French biologist Comte de Buffon had contended (Thomson, 2008). From Marshall’s list of clients, it would seem that his efforts were successful. Joseph Banks in England, Frederick de Beelen Bertholf, an Austria diplomat, and Jacques-Louis Descemet, a French nurseryman, would send yearly orders. Marshall also had numerous clients in the Philadelphia area and along the East coast of the United States.

After Humphry Marshall’s eyesight began to fail in the 1790s, his nephew Moses Marshall took over the correspondence for the plant business and also prepared shipments. He continued the business for a short time after his uncle died in 1801, but he did not sustain it for long, nor could he maintain the botanical garden either. Marshall’s accomplishments live on thanks to Darlington’s published memorial to him.

* I am grateful to Sharon Began at West Chester University for allowing me access to the Darlington Herbarium on several occasions.


Thomson, K. (2008). Jefferson, Buffon and the moose. American Scientist, 96(3), 200–202.

John Bartram

2 Bartram House Front

The house John Bartram built on his Philadelphia farm [my photo]

Born into a Quaker family who had arrived in Pennsylvania with William Penn, John Bartram (1699-1777) owned a farm on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. He built a stone house and barns that are still standing on a remainder of the original acreage (see photo above). He became curious about botany beyond that needed for farming, and eventually made contact with a British Quaker and merchant, Peter Collinson, who was also interested in plants and in obtaining new species from the colonies. Thus began a 40-year relationship of friendship and trade, in which Bartram sent Collinson pressed specimens, seeds, and cuttings, which the latter then distributed to interested gardeners including John Fothergill and Lord Robert Petre. In turn, Collinson dispatched books, paper, and other items to support Bartram’s work. An important part of the exchange was information. Bartram would send specimens and keep duplicates for himself. Collinson would identify the plants and send Bartram the information. The flavor of the relationship is apparent in the correspondence documented in a book on Collinson’s horticultural interests (O’Neill & McLean, 2008).

One of Bartram’s chief patrons was Lord Robert Petre, a young landowner with a passion for gardening. He was also one of Collinson’s dearest friends. Petre planted thousands of trees from Bartram seeds and cuttings, and also kept an herbarium that included scores of Bartram specimens. The entire herbarium amounts to 16 volumes, two of which have Bartram material (McLean, 1984). While there are also Bartram specimens in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Natural History Museum, London, the Petre herbarium is in a less likely venue: the Sutro Library at California State University, San Francisco (see post). What all these specimens indicate is the fervor with which Bartram studied plants and collected specimens, and the equal fervor of those receiving them. Horticulture was the main driver: the ability to grow the latest imports from the colonies was very fashionable in Britain. But there was also something more, the passion to learn more about the living world. Since Collinson and Fothergill were both Quakers, they shared with Bartram an appreciation for learning about nature.

While Bartram was acidulously communicating with England, he was also busy connecting with colonial gardeners. They were interested in the native the plants he was propagating, including those he collected on trips he made with his son William; one was a long exploration in the South extending all the way to Florida. He also sent William on other expeditions while he remained in Philadelphia to tend his farm and nursery. William was passionate about plants and in addition was an artist. He did illustrations of native plants and animals for Fothergill, and many of these are now at the Natural History Museum, London. He was also a more facile writer than his father. His Travels recounting his trips South in the 1770s is filled with observations not only of the natural world, but of the Native Americans and colonists he encountered. This work is an important document by an American-born observer of what the South was like right before the Revolutionary War began. These journeys ended in 1777, the same year in which John Bartram died.

Obviously John Bartram had had strong ties with England especially through Collinson and other patrons. Collinson even managed to have him named King’s Botanist for North American, a title that came with a yearly stipend. Not surprisingly, since his farm was in Philadelphia, Bartram also had ties with leading revolutionaries. He had known Franklin for years, and since the latter had spent time in England, he knew many of Bartram’s patrons. Desiring to nurture respect for American species both at home and abroad, Franklin encouraged Bartram to write a book on American flora. However, Bartram was too busy with his farm and nursery business to settle down to such a project.

That business attracted the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both bought plants and seeds from John Bartram, and also from his son, John Jr. who took over the business after his father’s death. In her wonderful book The Founding Gardeners Andrea Wulf (2011) describes how passionate these two future presidents, as well as John Adams and James Madison, were about their gardens and farms. She tells a great story about how Madison and other members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 visited Bartram’s garden during a break in the negotiations, and she sees this healing experience as contributing to the Great Compromise that was reached shortly afterward. For those like myself who don’t remember what the compromise was about, it dealt with the House of Representatives having proportional representation as the states with large populations advocated, and Senate representation being the same for all states, as the smaller states wanted. As I have noted elsewhere, as my interest in botany has grown, so has my curiosity about history, especially American history. When I learned about the Constitution in school, I never thought that its development was in anyway related to botany. Now I know that everything is related to botany! In my next post, I will discuss another colonial Pennsylvania nurseryman that also made history: Humphry Marshall.


McLean, E. P. (1984). A preliminary report on the 18th century herbarium of Robert James, Eighth Baron Petre. Bartonia, 50, 36–39.

O’Neill, J., & McLean, E. (2008). Peter Collinson and the 18c Natural History Exchange. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York, NY: Knopf.

William Darlington and the Pennsylvania Botanical Circle

1 Darlington Gravestone sm

Darlingtonia californica on William Darlington’s gravestone [photo by author]

At a Botanical Society of America meeting a few years ago, someone told me about an old herbarium collection at West Chester University (WCU) in Pennsylvania. It is named after William Darlington (1782-1863), a native of West Chester whose botanical work was significant enough for John Torrey to name a pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, after him (see earlier post). In examining Darlington’s herbarium, which I will briefly describe here, I discovered links between him and several other notables from Pennsylvania botanical history including John Bartram, Humphry Marshall, and William Baldwin. They will all be featured in this series of blog posts, but I want to begin with Darlington—even though he was born last—because it was in following his trail that I learned more about the others. All four were born Pennsylvania Quakers. I don’t think this is a coincidence in terms of their interest in the natural world. Quakers saw studying nature as a way to come closer to God, and Francis Pennell (1948) has written of the many Quaker botanists both in Britain and America.

William Darlington spent most of his life in West Chester after apprenticing to a physician in Delaware and then receiving a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There his interest in botany was encouraged by Benjamin Barton, the author of the first American botany textbook. After a tour as a surgeon on a merchant vessel that sailed to India, Darlington settled down, practiced medicine, married, and raised a family in West Chester. He became a leading figure in the town, serving as president of the local bank and railway, canal commissioner, three-term Congressman, and one of the founders of the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1826, this institution soon had a building for its natural history collections, including the plant specimens of Darlington and several other members. This collection is now at the heart of the WCU herbarium which was named for Darlington in 1965 (Overlease, 1992).

As has happened to me with a few other people I’ve encountered over the years, the more I learned about Darlington, the more intrigued I became, especially after I began examining his collection and reading his letters. Here was a physician, businessman, and politician who still found time to diligently study the plants in his home area. In 1826, he published a flora of Chester County and about a decade later, an expanded version. He worked hard to enlarge his collection of local plants, as well as those from farther afield. His letter books reveal that he solicited specimens from the likes of William Hooker, Augustin de Candolle, and Carl Agardh, offering to send them American plant material if they would send specimens from their collections. In these three cases, though not in some others, the solicitations paid substantial dividends. All provided specimens, Hooker sent several illustrated publications, and de Candolle named a genus after Darlington though it was later synonymized.

Darlington used the same tack with American botanists like John Torrey and Asa Gray, with whom he had long-term correspondence. He also traded specimens with Charles Short, another physician/botanist living in Kentucky and with Harry Beeson Flanner of Ohio (Stuckey, 1983). Ron McColl*, who has examined the letter books in detail notes that there is more correspondence recorded with botanists than with any other group. The picture of Darlington that reveals itself in archives at both WCU and the Chester County Historical Society is that his passion for botany was closely tied to his other interests. He had a serious sense of civic responsibility, and this in part was signified by the energy with which he participated in the activities of the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences. He wrote about agricultural practices in relation to botany because he was living in a farming area and came from a farm family. Also, Chester County is located in the Brandywine Valley, an area steeped in colonial and Revolutionary War history, a history that Darlington didn’t want forgotten. He was involved in the arrangements for Lafayette’s visit to the battlefields of Brandywine in 1825 and gave welcoming remarks at the ceremony.

More important to the development of American botany, Darlington’s plant collection contains specimens that tell a great deal about Pennsylvania plants and the people who nurtured them. There are a number of specimens from the Bartram nursery in the 1820s, when it was run by John Bartram’s granddaughter Ann and her husband Robert Carr. Two botanists have written a paper on these specimens and their significance in terms of the state of horticulture in Pennsylvania at that time (Schneider & Potvin, 2009). Also in the collection are specimens from trees at the Peirce Arboretum founded by the Peirce family who owned a farm and forest that was the basis of their lumber business. In the early 20th century, when the forest was up for sale, it was purchased by Pierre du Pont who turned it into the magnificent Longwood Gardens. There are also specimens from Humphry Marshall’s botanical garden, where Darlington collected on a number of occasions. While the garden is not longer extant, traveling through the area—where the roads are still narrow and many of the homes from that time, including Marshall’s, are still intact—gives a feeling for what it must have been like in Darlington’s day.

Besides his specimens, Darlington’s most lasting contribution to botany was in his writings. Along with his flora, he published in one volume memorials to John Bartram and Humphry Marshall along with their correspondence. He was prescient enough to realize that these documents would soon be lost to time and neglect, and carefully transcribed them from the originals which were still held by the respective families. This was after he had produced a memorial to his friend William Baldwin, a botanist who died young while on the Long Expedition in 1819. These three men will be the subjects of my next posts.

* I am grateful to Ron McCall of Alvernia University for sharing his research of William Darlington with me, especially the information about the letter books.


Overlease, W. R. (1992). A short history of the William Darlington Herbarium with an annotated list of plant collectors represented. Bartonia, 57, 82–94.

Pennell, F. W. (1948). Quaker Botanists. Bulletin of the Friends’ Historical Association, 37(2), 63–82.

Schneider, W. M., & Potvin, M. A. (2009). The historic Bartram’s (Carr’s) Garden Collection in West Chester University’s William Darlington Herbarium (DWC). Bartonia, 64, 45–54.

Stuckey, R. L. (1983). Dr. William Darlington’s botanical contacts on the Western American frontier. Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 5(3), 213–243.

Conrad Gessner: Image and Text

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Tree Mallow and Bryony. Gessner Notebook 1, page 98r: University Library Erlangen

As I have mentioned in earlier posts (123), the sheets of plant drawings that Conrad Gessner produced in the years before his death in 1565 are an astounding visual treasure and also contain many written notes (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). Most are his, though a number are the work of Thomas Penny, an English botanist, who was staying with Gessner in 1565 and working on the collection (Raven, 1968). Some of Penny’s notes describe his observations on particular plants or refer to specimens he collected; many of Gessner’s deal with characteristics of the plants including their habitats, growing habit, and rarity. Along with Gessner’s observations, there are quotes from writers including Pliny, Galen, and Rembert Dodoens and from correspondents such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Johannes Kentmann and Ulisse Aldrovandi. The notebooks really are a meeting place of many minds, of many perspectives on the same plant.

The concept of a particular species apparently changed over time as notes and drawings were added and amended. Sachiko Kusukawa (2015) uses as an example a specimen that Gessner first encountered in 1654 and couldn’t identify. He made a drawing and kept adding information over the years as he encountered the plant—in life and as a specimen—until finally, he discovered it was the tobacco plant, which had recently been introduced to Europe from the New World. This is a beautiful example of building the concept of a species over time, and he did this with about 800 plants. Long before Egmond worked on this collection, it was carefully and lovingly studied by Heinrich Zoller et al. who produced an eight-volume facsimile edition in 1972. There is a set at the New York Botanical Garden Library, and I’ve poured over it, even though the text is in German. It includes transcriptions of the information on each page as well as numerous commentaries. All the notebook pages are reproduced in color, though only some are full-page illustrations.

It was when examining this work that I came to appreciate the close association between text and image that Egmond discusses. The combination of drawing and writing helps to guide attention and control sight (Hoffmann & Wittmann, 2013), supporting Gross and Harmon’s (2013) view that a scientific argument, such as the idea of a species, is an interplay of the visual and verbal. Lorraine Daston (2008) writes of the need for systematic observation in order to make discoveries and brings in Ludwig Fleck’s (1979) concept that direct perception of form takes time; it is a gradual process. In another article, she argues that note taking binds together the practices of observing and reading, something that is very evident in Gessner’s notebooks (Daston, 2004).

Egmond adds to this analysis by emphasizing the gradual nature of this enterprise. Gessner’s concepts slowly accreted as he gathered more information; the sheets were his way of organizing his knowledge, both visual and textual. It would be wonderful to know how herbarium specimens fit in here; there are a few references to them in his notes and letters, but they were obviously kept separately which is probably why they were lost over time. Shortly before Gessner died of the plague in late 1565, he gave his entire collection, including manuscripts, to his friend Kaspar Wolf, who also suffered from ill health and only managed to have a few woodcuts of Gessner’s plants published. Wolf in turn sold the collection to Joachim Camerarius the Younger, who also published a few Gessner illustrations. Two hundred years later, C.J. Trew acquired the drawings and blocks. Many of these were published by C.C. Schmiedel, but they came into a very different world and did not have much of an impact (Arber, 1938).

I would like to think that work on Gessner’s notebooks by historians such as Sachiko Kusukawa (2012), Brian Ogilve (2006), and particularly Florike Egmond (2016), will lead to renewed interest in what he accomplished, particularly in terms of the way he developed and organized botanical knowledge. Long after Gessner’s time, drawing remained an important part of biological inquiry in zoology, botany, microbiology, and cell biology. Yes, many biologists like Gessner employed artists, but they often took on some of the drawing themselves, again like Gessner. I contend that working with artists was in some way similar to drawing that images were negotiated through what Daston and Galison (2007) call four-eyed sight.

Another bright spot in the field of Gessner plant studies is the attention now being paid to a third notebook that is not in Erlangen, but at the Tartu University Library in Estonia (Leu, 2016). There are some animal illustrations, but a good portion of the manuscript is made up of copies of drawings from a Johannes Kentmann manuscript. Kentmann was a good friend and frequent correspondent and collaborator of Gessner’s. While the Gessner notebook is not yet available electronically, the Kentmann manuscript is (Kusukawa, 2009). It’s worth looking at for two reasons. First for the beauty and detail of the images found there. But more importantly for how different these are from Gessner’s work. He may have started by having the Kentmann images copied, but then went on to add to them. They served as a guide to what else Gessner wanted to learn about a species: what did its flowers and seeds look like; when did it bloom; where did it grow and how common was it? Kentmann provided one reference within the larger context created by Gessner in his massive and unfinished research project.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Daston, L. (2004). Taking note(s). Isis, 95(3), 443–448.

Daston, L. (2008). On Scientific Observation. Isis, 99(1), 97–100.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Fleck, L. (1979). Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gross, A. G., & Harmon, J. E. (2013). Science from Sight to Insight: How Scientists Illustrate Meaning. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hoffmann, C., & Wittmann, B. (2013). Introduction: Knowledge in the making: Drawing and writing as research techniques. Science in Context, 26(2), 203–213.

Kusukawa, S. (2009). Image, text and “observatio”: The “Codex Kentmanus.” Early Science and Medicine, 14(4), 445–475.

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kusukawa, S. (2015). Drawing as an instrument of knowledge: The case of Conrad Gessner. In A. Payne (Ed.), Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science and Technology in Early Modern Europe (pp. 36–48). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Leu, U. B. (2016). The rediscovered third volume of Conrad Gessner’s “Historia Plantarum.” In A. Blair & A. Goeing (Eds.), For the Sake of Learning: Essays in Honor of Anthony Grafton (Vol. 2, pp. 415–422). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Raven, C. E. (1968). English Naturalists from Neckham to Ray (reprint). New York, NY: Kraus.


Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum (Facsimile). Zürich, Switzerland: Urs Graf-Verlag.

Conrad Gessner: Drawing as Research

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Monkshood. Gessner Notebook 2, page 347r: University Library Erlangen

For years I’ve been interested in the relationship between art and biology, and have espoused the view that they impact each other. Admittedly, it’s easy to cite examples of science influencing art in everything from perspective in the Renaissance to the many art/science collaborations of the present day (Kemp, 2000). I find it more difficult to discover examples of art really supporting science, aside from its use in communicating science through illustrations. Obviously art was essential to the development of botanical science, but Omar Nasim (2013), whose writings I cited in my last post, provided me with new insights into why this was so. Though he focuses on astronomy and nebula, he makes the case for drawing as a means of discovery. This made a great deal of sense to me and changed the way I look at the relationship between drawing and inquiry; I now see art as more central to discovery.

Nasim’s work led me to investigations by others exploring such links, again, outside of botany. Barbara Wittmann (2013) has analyzed drawings done by a scientific illustrator for a publication on a new species of fish. In attempting to depict its nasal tube, the artist probed it and also used a binocular microscope, varying the depth of field to learn how the structure emerged at the surface. In doing this, he discovered something new about the anatomy of this structure that was then added to the species description. In other words science emerged out of the art, and Wittmann notes: “The central epistemic benefit of drawing is probably based on this methodical alternation between the disintegration of the comprehensive image and the reintegration of detail” (p. 378). She also comments more generally that drawing is a special form of observation, a type of perception training: “professionalizing the gaze” (p. 375).

While Wittmann is writing about present-day research, her point is equally true for much earlier work, as Florike Egmond (2016) demonstrates in her recent book: An Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. This is an impressive study. Reading it convinced me to do this set of posts on Gessner, whose plant notebooks are among the collections of drawings Egmond covers (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). Her argument is that a great deal can be learned about early modern botanical and zoological research by looking not at printed documents, but at manuscripts that never resulted in publications. Obviously, I’m going to focus on Gessner’s work, but she also analyzes several other collections of plant drawings, including those of Felix Platter, Leonhart Fuchs, Pietro Antonio Michiel, and Charles de Saint Omer’s Libri picturati (de Koning et al., 2008), all preserved in European archives. Her contention is that many interesting visual aspects of these documents rarely found their way into print. So there is a lot that can be learned from studying them, and particularly from studying entire collections. In them patterns of presentation, and therefore patterns of thought, become more obvious.

Egmond gives special attention to Gessner’s work because his images provide particularly good examples of several techniques she examines. Most obviously, plants are portrayed in isolation, decontextualized against blank backgrounds. As she points out, this is hardly a new approach since medieval herbals also displayed plants in this way to make them easier to identify. Since these manuscripts were primarily used in medicine, distinguishing the correct plant was important, and this quest for accuracy was crucial in the development of botanical science.

In most early modern representations, the entire plant is depicted, often including the flowers and roots. Exceptions are made for shrubs and trees too large for this portrayal; then a branch stands in for the whole in a technique called pars pro toto. But Gessner and his contemporaries realized that neither of these depiction types gave the full story of the species. Rarely are flowers and fruits found on a plant at the same time, and often young plants look very different from more mature ones. It was not uncommon for book illustrations to show both flowers and fruit on the same plant, in a sense conflating the seasons. However, less frequent in publications were additional drawings of close-ups of plant parts, sometimes at different amounts of enlargement: what Egmond refers to as zooming. This was seen more often in the drawings she examined, especially in Gessner’s. Even though he worked before the age of the microscope, there is evidence from his description of tiny foraminifera that Gessner used a magnifying glass (Ali, 2014), and this might have been the case for some of his plant research as well. For example, a cross-section through a flower may be presented twice as large as in the accompanying image of the entire plant, and next to that might be a further enlargement focusing on the anther. These were presented next to each other to lead the viewer from one to the next, making the series of images intelligible.

It is simply a joy to study the pages of Gessner’s notebooks; the more time spent with them, the more information the images convey. But there is also associated text that is much richer than that found in the other collections Egmond analyzes. In the next post, I’ll delve into the relationships between the images and texts in Gessner’s work.


Ali, S. (2014). The Cell: Organisation, Functions and Regulatory Mechanisms. New York, NY: Pearson.

de Koning, J., van Uffelen, G., Zemanek, A., & Zemanek, B. (Eds.). (2008). Drawn After Nature: The Complete Botanical Watercolours of the 16th-Century Libri Picturati. Zeist, the Netherlands: KNNV Publishing.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kemp, M. (2000). Visualizations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittmann, B. (2013). Outlining species: Drawing as a research technique in contemporary biology. Science in Context, 26(2), 363–391.

Conrad Gessner: Drawing for the Eye and the Mind


Saw-Wort and Black Pea. Gessner Notebook 2, page 341r: University Library Erlangen.

As I noted in the last post, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) kept voluminous notes on plants in anticipation of publishing a major work on as many species as possible. Usually, he devoted one page to each species. These notes were both textual and visual. He cited ancient writers as well as his contemporaries. The drawings were almost all in pen-and-ink with watercolor washes over some portion of them to indicate what the plants looked like in life. He had in fact seen many of them growing either during his field trips or in his garden, where he planted as many species as he could acquire from colleagues. He also had an herbarium, which is how I have justified to myself devoting posts to Gessner on a blog called HerbariumWorld. None of it has survived, but there are references to it in his correspondence, and it had a communal aspect, with lending and trading going on among his peers (Kusukawa, 2012). Thomas Penny, who worked on Gessner’s notebooks, had an herbarium, as did Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, and Leonhart Fuchs, all of whom were in contact with Gessner.

There was also trafficking in images. He pleaded with correspondents to send drawings if they couldn’t send the plants themselves. He would even pay for having the image drawn, but was careful to mention that he only wanted rare plants, ones he hadn’t already recorded (Egmond, 2016). Yet he did often need more than one drawing of a plant since he wanted to record the different stages of its life cycle, as well as close-ups of significant structures such as buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds. It is these drawings that I want to focus upon here, and in particular, I will argue that they were at the heart of his research. This is hardly a new idea; several authors mentioned in this and the following posts have made it. However, I want to slightly broaden the context by citing both early 20th-century work on the relationship between art and science, as well as recent research on drawing-as-discovery.

Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a British plant morphologist, was trained as an artist by her father, a professional landscape painter. She created all the illustrations for her dozens of articles and three monographs on monocot morphology. Toward the end of her life she produced a work on the philosophy of biology called The Mind and the Eye (1954). She argues that for plant morphologists, there is no divide between art and science. Art is key to this work because there is much about the visible characteristics of a plant that cannot be put into words: “Artistic expression offers a mode of translation of sense data into thought, without subjecting them to the narrowing influence of an inadequate verbal framework; the verb, to illustrate, retains, in this sense, something of its ancient meaning—to illuminate.” (Arber, 1954, pp. 121). In Gessner’s time students of botany were relying on ancient texts for information on plants, and this was proving inadequate for two reasons. First, the plants described were Mediterranean species that didn’t necessarily grow in northern Europe. Also, the information focused on medicinal uses, while Gessner and his colleagues wanted broader data; they were becoming interested more generally in plant characteristics—in plants for their own sake (Ogilve, 2006). They learned by really looking at plants, recording their observations, and also studying plants in the field. Drawing was integral to this process. They did not yet have the words to describe all they saw, and as Arber wrote, words could “narrow” or distort the observations.

The work of another scientist/philosopher from a different time and discipline can also illuminate Gessner’s work. Investigating the astronomical research of John Herschel and William Parsons on nebulae during the first half of the 19th century, Omar Nasim (2013) argues that drawing was essential to the discovery process, that in a very real sense nebulae as scientific objects were created by sketches because “drawings are productive epistemic explorations and avenues into the nature of something” (p. 35). Nasim contends that nebulae were so gossamer and difficult to observe, let alone describe, that they only became real to those, like Herschel, who observed them, by being pinned down in drawings. He writes that drawing was crucial to the development of the concept of the nebula because this practice involves “exploratory, attention-directing, discriminating, and stabilizing activities” (p. 37), all necessary for discovery.

Like Gessner and Arber, Herschel’s art was his research. It wasn’t just how he communicated his ideas, it was how he created them. His observations became real and more understandable through drawings: “The process begins at the intimate level of an individual observer as he begins to mark down, usually in a manner peculiar to him, a variety of inscriptions in his observing notebook. Familiarization at this personal, visceral, and haptic level therefore acquaints one with what is being seen, with how to draw what is seen, and with the object’s known, unknown, and challenging features” (Nasim 2013, p. 16). Gessner’s notebooks indicate such a process. It’s obvious that drawings were central to his work, that they made looking concrete. Sachiko Kusukawa (2012) notes, the drawing then became an object of further study. In the next post, I want to examine why I consider these ideas so important.


Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Conrad Gessner: Publish or Perish

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Hollyhock and Mallow. Gessner Notebook 2, page 338v: University Library Erlangen

The five-hundredth and first anniversary of Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) birth was celebrated this year, with the Biodiversity Heritage Library hosting a webinar on the Smithsonian’s Rare Book Library’s collection of Gessner works. He was a prolific writer, publishing 72 books, many of them compilations of contemporary knowledge in a number of different fields. His major aim seemed to be to organize information. In the BHL webinar, his five-volume Historia animalium (1551-1558) was highlighted, known more for its impressive woodcut illustrations than for the text, which was primarily an amalgam of information from ancient writers. Gessner was planning a companion publication on plants, but he didn’t live to see it into print. This is why he is better known for his zoological rather than for his botanical work, despite evidence from his letters and surviving manuscripts that he was more devoted to the study of plants than to anything else.

This could be a case of knowledge perishing because it wasn’t published, if it were not for a pair of notebooks at the University Library Erlangen, Germany. They contain over 800 pages of pen-and-ink drawings, most at least partially painted with watercolors. They are a joy simply to look at and PDFs of the two volumes are available on the web (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). It is these notebooks that I want to discuss in this series of posts. Gessner did have an herbarium, but it’s not extant, so it would seem that this collection is not a fitting topic for a blog called HerbariumWorld. However, I can’t resist spending time looking at these images and delving into their meaning, and in fact, herbaria are part of this tale because they were important to Gessner’s studies, and there is evidence for this in the notebooks. But before I plunge into them, I should say a little more about his background.

Gessner was born in Zürich in 1516, was trained in the classics, taught Greek for three years, and eventually gained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Basel. He then became the city physician for Zürich, where he spent the rest of his life. However, his main passion seemed have been for collecting information and organizing it into publications. Besides the Historia animalium he wrote books on fossils, on medicine, and on the history of words; in addition, he published bibliographies on other subjects. These works supplemented his meager salary as a physician, but obviously, beyond monetary aims, he had a fire to learn, and this was nowhere more apparent than in his work on plants. He published Historiae plantarum, an edition of Dioscorides’s first-century text on medicinal plants and herbal, with commentary by Valerius Cordus (1515-44) who had died at a young age of malaria. Gessner also published Cordus’s manuscript Historia stirpium, which is considered important because of its excellent descriptions of plants. In 1542, Gessner produced a work shown in the Smithsonian webinar: Catalogus plantarum, a list of plant names in Latin, Greek, German, and French. It was an attempt to organize plant knowledge, reconciling names across language barriers so physicians and apothecaries could be more certain that they were all referring to the same plant. This was very much in the style of Gessner’s work in other areas. He was a compiler, and to do this he relied on the assistance of others who had the knowledge and source material he needed.

Ann Blair (2011) has written on how early modern scholars, including Gessner, amassed and organized information, and last year I heard her speak on “Credit, Thanks and Blame in the Works of Conrad Gessner.” She focused on printed acknowledgments in his publications, including dedications, title pages, appendices, and notes. It is remarkable what she has been able to glean from these. Because books were so costly and rare, Gessner could not hope to own all the ones he wanted to consult, so he relied on the collections of others. He either went to visit other bibliophiles or asked, and sometimes begged, for books to be sent to him. In either case, he thanked his lenders profusely when he published using their sources. He was hardly unique in this type of exchange, though some of his dedications do border on groveling. This was not only out of gratitude, but to smooth the way for further lending. However, Gessner didn’t just want to consult books, and this is where the herbarium specimens come in. Since he was interested in acquiring information on essentially all known animals and plants for his planned publications on these organisms, he requested information, drawings, and specimens—sometimes alive and sometimes preserved—of everything from rodents to lilies, insects to fungi. In return he promised not only acknowledgement but, if the sender had unearthed a new species, Gessner would gladly name it for him.

Blair notes that Gessner listed 81 individuals who assisted him with Historia animalium. He was obviously well connected and his voluminous correspondence, much of which still exists, indicates how important this community was to him, and how much he relied on it and also contributed to it in order to keep the information flowing. For at least the last ten years of his life, Gessner was planning an ambitious work on plants as a companion piece to Historia animalium, one that would treat as broad a spectrum of species as possible and would be illustrated.   I’ll describe this project in the following posts with an emphasis on how images were central to his research.


Blair, A. (2011). Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.