A Washington, DC Treasure

Rare Book Room at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, photo by the author.

I have come upon Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in several different contexts recently, so I’ve decided to dedicate this series of posts to exploring some of these encounters.  I mentioned one of its projects, on Plant Humanities, in a post last month, but the institution’s relationship to plants and horticultural is multi-faceted and justifies a closer look.  I have only spent one day at Dumbarton, but it was definitely memorable.  I made an appointment to see an exsiccatae guide to medical plants by the Danish botanist and physician Johannis de BuchwaldSpecimen medico-practico-botanicum (see earlier post).  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books, also found other items that intrigued me, including a British exsiccatae of grasses published by one of the many agricultural societies then working to improve farming.

After I finished in the rare book room, I toured the museum and learned a little more about its history.  Dumbarton Oaks is an estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. that Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred bought in 1920.  They were wealthy philanthropists and he was also a diplomat.  They enlarged the house and had Beatrix Farrand design a garden.  The couple also created a significant library of rare books and manuscripts as well as an art collection.  They had three areas of interest that Dumbarton Oaks still focuses on today:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  Robert Bliss was an alumnus of Harvard University, and he and Mildred left their estate and part of the surrounding gardens to Harvard, while 27 acres were given to the National Park Service as a public park.    

If the name Dumbarton Oaks is lurking in the history part of your brain, as it was in mine before it moved to the plant part, it’s probably because you learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in history class.  It was a 6-week-long series of meetings held in 1944 among diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union.  Along with participation from other nations, they worked out plans for an international organization designed to help rebuild the world collaboratively after the end of World War II and became the United Nations.  Being in Washington, DC makes Dumbarton Oaks not only attractive as a research institution but as a tourist attraction with a beautiful museum dedicated to its founders’ three areas of interest.  While these fields are very different, they play off each other beautifully in terms of the aesthetics of the displays.  In addition, the garden focus works into representations of plants in gardens in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art.  I didn’t have much time in the garden itself, but I did manage to visit the gift shop, with beautiful items to at least look at as well as a selection of books including many Dumbarton Oaks publications, among them The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that I’ll discuss in a future post. 

In connecting Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard University, Robert Bliss envisioned that the art and library would be well-used in education and research, and it is.  Over the years, there have been exhibits and conferences held onsite and many of these resulted in publications.  In addition, there are fellowship programs that allow graduate students and scholars to work in the library for considerable periods of time.  I’ve already mentioned the Plant Humanities Initiative (see earlier post), and there was a recent exhibit on the botanical artist Margaret Mee that included pieces by other distinguished artists.  Both these endeavors are tied to efforts to make the richness of plant biodiversity better known and its perilous condition in the present age better understood.  Dumbarton is definitely an elite institution, but like its founders, who funded an ambulance corps in France during World War I, it is responsive to present-day needs.  I think this is one of the reasons it seems so vibrant.  Though it is a scholar’s oasis, I left there feeling a renewed sense of cultural diversity as well as engagement with the living world.

Mildred Bliss was among several wealthy women who collected botanical and horticulture books and art in the 20th century.  They all created large and distinguished collections that are continuing sources of inspiration and knowledge today.  Rachel Hunt with her husband Roy, endowed the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  It has an outstanding library as well as large archives, and a notable collection of botanical art.  All three are growing collections, with the art program nourished by the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration series hosted by the Institute.  Then there is Rachel Mellon who with her husband Andrew W. Mellon created the Oak Spring Garden Library at their horse farm in Upperville, Virginia.  The library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which was founded after Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.

I am fortunate to have visited these three institutions.  Each is a notable destination.  Dumbarton is tied to a rich museum, the Hunt is part of a great university, and Oak Spring is nestled on a farm in Virginia horse country.  They are amazing places not only for the riches these women had the intelligence and taste to acquire, but also because of the wonderful people working there that keep the joy of botany alive in all its beauty.

Reference

Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plant Digital Humanities

Watercolor of Bombax heptaphyllum by unnamed Indian artist in Roxburgh Collection, Botanical Survey of India

Though I’ve already discussed many digital humanities projects that deal with plants, including most notably the Plant Humanities Lab (see earlier post), there are many projects that I haven’t mentioned, and in fact, there are so many that I could only choose a few I find particularly interesting to discuss here.  They cover a broad spectrum, from historical to artistic to philosophical, and as would be expected, many touch on two or more areas:  the digital humanities are nothing if not interdisciplinary.  The website with the intriguing title The Philosophical Life of Plants is a collaboration among four British and one German institution and presents a wonderful selection of essays that would appeal to anyone interested in plants.  They are grouped into three areas:  Goethe’s views on the stages of plant form development, the history of research on whether or not plants can be considered sentient, and recent work on trees, both scientific and literary.  These three obviously cover a lot of territory as any good digital humanities project should.  The Philosophical Life website is supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, a major funder of such endeavors, including the Sloane Lab I discussed in the last post.

A small project is funding a doctoral student to investigate:  “The Duchess of Botany: Mary Somerset, Jacob Bobart, and the Formation of the Oxford Botanic Garden.”  Somerset was the Duchess of Beaufort, but her title here is appropriate because she was well versed in horticulture and botany.  Jacob Bobart the Younger taught botany at Oxford University and was also director of its botanic garden.  He and Somerset kept up a correspondence and also traded specimens and living plants.  She was known for the wonders she performed in her hothouse growing exotic plants, coaxing into bloom species that botanists only knew as seeds or specimens.  Not only Bobart, but Hans Sloane and James Petiver, two avid specimen collectors, visited her garden to see and study her plants.  When she died, she left her 12-volume herbarium to Sloane. 

Bobart and Somerset had a mutually beneficial relationship, trading information on growing plants, as well as seeds and plants.  Bobart also had many other contacts in the botanical world, as did his father who was the first director of the Oxford garden.  It is thanks to their records, that we know what was grown there in the 17th century (Harris, 2018).  The herbarium and botanical library at Oxford also contain the herbaria of William Sherard and his protégé Johann Jacob Dillenius for whom his will funded a chair in botany.  Researching these botanists among others, Stephen Harris, the present herbarium curator and a professor of botany, has done a great deal in the plant humanities field.  He has written books such as The Magnificent Flora Graeca (2007) about Oxford professor John Sibthorp’s collecting expeditions to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and the 10 volumes illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer that were ultimately published to describe the species he discovered.  Harris (2021) also recently published a book marking the 400th anniversary of botany at Oxford with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden.  This is a quintessential plant humanities work, combining narratives about botanists, specimens, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.  The Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy at Oxford also has extensive resources online, including digitized historical collections. 

I have to tear myself away from Oxford and mention a number of other projects that focus on the digital.  I joined the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network as a way to stay connected during covid, to learn about a wide variety of conferences, exhibitions, and projects in the plant humanities.  This group includes many in literature and philosophy who are interested in critical plant studies, but there are also offerings that are more in the art and botany areas.  While the network is relatively new, a broader one that is useful is NINES: Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online, providing links to a variety of topics.  Type in “botany,” and you will get some interesting finds.  This is a site that I found through someone in literature; it sometimes pays to hang around with such people.

Another site that is also broad but contains material of interest to botanists, particularly those who don’t mind straying from time to time, is hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  It’s called “Digital Collections for the Classroom” and could be used as such, but many topics are simply interesting to explore, such as one on “Sugar and Power in the Early Modern World,” that features the library’s holdings of images of everything from preparing sugar confections to the role of enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in the West Indies.  And finally, I recently found a site hosted by the Botanical Survey of India that has been working for a decade to digitize type specimens as well as illustrations by Indian artists along with other plant-related materials such as fabrics and dyes stuffs.  This makes for an intriguing combination of botanical and cultural objects and points the way to other projects linking botany with economic botany and art.  While the botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have large collections of botanical art by Indian artists, this project seems a big step toward broadening what is available online.  The BSI has an impressive collection of 6000 paintings.  This site is one more step toward decolonial collections that I wrote about in a previous post

References

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhx015

Harris, S. A. (2021). Roots to Seeds: 400 Years of Oxford Botany. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Digital Humanities: Many Approaches

Specimen of Pinus virginiana collected by John Clayton, Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

I wrote in the first post in this series, Digital Humanities is a broad term that describes many different kinds of projects.  In this post, I will look at a few that are germane to the botanical world but not specific to it.  One just getting underway is The Sloane Lab: Looking Back to Build Future Shared CollectionsHans Sloane has cropped up in many of my posts because he had one of the foremost plant collections of the pre-Linnaean era, and most importantly, it is still extant today at the Natural History Museum, London.  Sloane’s specimens from his time in Jamaica have been digitized, as have other portions of the collection including specimens of John Clayton from Virginia, Paul Hermann from Sri Lanka, and George Clifford from his garden of exotics in the Netherlands.  But there are many other important collections that have yet to be digitized or extensively studied.  In addition, there are Sloane’s correspondence and other manuscripts in the British Library, art and anthropological objects he owned in the British Museum, and Sloane items in several other British institutions involved in this project.

Digitizing more of these resources will be a major boost to research on Sloane, a pivotal figure in British science and culture.  His roles as a chronicler of the British colony in Jamaica and owner of enslaved persons who worked on his Jamaican sugar plantation make him important in the effort to decolonize British cultural collections.  The Sloane lab is just one of five projects funded by the British Arts and Humanities Council for five years, with an emphasis on new ways to connect institutions, areas of knowledge, and communities within Britain.  This is the digital humanities writ large, and it will be exciting to view the results, open to all of us online.

A very different project, but also very ambitious, has been going on for several years and has matured to the point that many of its fruits are available, while others continue to develop.  This is the Making and Knowing Project founded in 2014 by the historian of science Pamela Smith of Columbia University.  In her research Smith has (2003) argued for the importance of craft in early modern science.  This work led her to investigate precisely how crafts like metal casting and preparing pigments for paints were done.  She fashioned projects where her students attempted to reproduce close to original conditions in order to recreate tools and materials early modern artists and scientists used.  One major result of this work is a massive website, Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France.  It was built around a translation of a 16th-century French manuscript composed of handwritten entries on medicine, life casting, painting, dying, metal working, printing, and more.  In addition to the translation alongside a digital copy of the manuscript, are over 100 essays on various aspects of the document, including reports on attempts to reproduce the methods it describes.  A recent review of the site by Lan A. Li (2021) of Rice University notes its many strengths, including a “restrained” technological design.  In other words, it doesn’t have a great many bells and whistles so it will not be difficult to maintain and is likely to remain available.  This is something I can appreciate as a number of my favorite digital humanities sites have disappeared due to complex data architecture that didn’t age well. 

Smith’s work has been influential in the education not only of historians but artists, particularly those interested in the intersection between these fields.  This approach is now used in many institutions and one of my favorite examples is the work of a young historian and artist, Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is researching 17th century flower painting by making pigments and then using them to create plant illustrations.  She writes that she used painting as a way to relax from her research, and slowly it became part of her work.  She has even taught online classes in creating pigments from plant material. 

While I am not ready to dive into this world, I can see both its attraction and its value.  Grinding pigments and mixing in other ingredients is not trivial work.  There is a reason few artists do this today.  However, there is still a reason to attempt it, just as there is in mounting your own specimens.  That quiet work allows time for thinking, and for looking at the material aspect of science and craft in a new way.  Here I am purposely mixing art and science.  Both involve close observation, and one of Smith’s key ideas is that early modern craft workers, including painters, were such close observers of nature that this translated into their art.  It was this art, naturalistic plants by artists like Albrecht Dürer, that led to closer observation by botanists and the artists who worked for them.  There is some evidence that Hans Weiditz, the artist of Otto Brunfels’s 1532 herbal, may have been trained by one of Dürer’s students.  This is a beautiful example of one aim of digital humanities projects:  to make such cross fertilization more obvious in the hope of creating new examples of it.

References

Li, L. A. (2021). Crafting Digital Histories of Science: A Review and Tour of Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. Isis, 112(3), 586–589. https://doi.org/10.1086/715712

Smith, P. H. (2003). The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections

Avocado Persea americana by John Tyley. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

In the last post, I wrote about how difficult it is to define the digital humanities.  The same holds true for decolonizing collections, which is basically about viewing collections in a broader cultural perspective as well as returning items that were inappropriately acquired.  It also means bringing to light what have often been aspects of natural history long hidden by colonial powers who downplayed or ignored those who actually collected specimens, played a role in directing the search, and explained the significance of finds.  I used the term in the title of this post as shorthand for opening up collections by expanding the questions asked about them beyond the purely scientific.  As I mentioned, this is an aspect of the extended specimen concept that is underplayed. 

There is a great article by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) on:  “Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections.”  The term “decolonial” seems better than “decolonize.”  The latter more precisely describes the process by which colonial nations became independent, more than ferreting out how natural history collections were shaped by colonial power.  Das and Lowe begin quite directly with a Twitter comment by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection to the effect that natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit.  The challenge is to describe this racism and find ways to change the situation. 

This piece includes an analysis of the racist nature of many anthropological exhibits in natural history museums.  Then the authors discuss what is missing in zoological and botanical exhibits, such as an exhibit on Colombian butterflies in which the cultural history of Colombian science was ignored.  They attribute this to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits.  The thought crossed my mind that this may be why so many economic botany exhibits and even collections have disappeared:  they were too much about culture and not enough about the plants themselves in the way taxonomists see them. 

Lowe and Das then present a section on hidden figures:  the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world.  They lay out several cases where contributions have been neglected, including an enslaved Ghanaian named Graman Quassi who was taken to Suriname by the Dutch where he worked as a scout and negotiator.  He was able to buy his freedom and became a noted healer who discovered that a plant, which Linnaeus later named after him, could be made into a tea to treat intestinal parasitic infections.  It is still used today.  And there is John Edmondstone, a freed Guianan slave, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin, then a student in Edinburgh.  They also mention Hans Sloane’s extensive notes on enslaved Africans’ knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses. 

Das and Lowe make the argument that ignoring these aspects of collections alienates audiences who could be more interested in the scientific aspects of plants if they saw a relationship to their own culture and experiences.  And I would add, these stories are fascinating, no matter what your background.  They are coming to light in such projects as the Plant Humanities Lab narratives that I wrote about in the last post.  However, there is so much more to do.  In its new science strategy, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recognizes the need to tackle the issue and acknowledges it central role in British colonial management of plant wealth around the world.  One response is the new Plant Humanities Centre being planned.  Kew has already had an important conference, Botany, Trade and Empire, on the colonial botanic gardens that were administered by Kew and resulted in the cultivation and dissemination of everything from rubber to cinchona to hemp worldwide (Brockway, 1979).  The conference focus was on what were designated Miscellaneous Reports that the garden directors sent to Kew.  Now digitized, these are a storehouse of information that has only begun to be mined, with interesting case studies done on cinchona, for example. 

There is also a massive correspondence archive at Kew.  J’nese Williams of Notre Dame University has used this, among many other sources, in her study of Alexander Anderson, who was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811, and John Tyley, a free person of color, who worked there as an illustrator.  Williams presented at a conference on Natural History and Visual Art from the Margins sponsored by the Linnaean Society that also included papers by Josepha Richard of the University of Bristol on the British trader John Bradby Blake’s work with the Chinese botanical artist, Mak Sau in Canton, and by Malini Roy of the British Library on a collection of Indian zoological illustrations by an artist identified at Haludar.  These presentations required digging into the archives of a number of institutions and finding links between disparate types of information.  They are in essence treasure hunts, which make them all the more interesting.  As more archives come online, the hunts will be easier to do, but only if the data is prepared in a way that is highly searchable, and that can be linked to taxonomic databases so specimens that may be related to these stories can also be studied.  This is hardly a trivial matter.  But the stories that have been uncovered so far make is clear that the work involved is worth it to blur the line between science and the humanities. 

References

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

The Plant Humanities Lab

Figure adapted from the Biodiversity Collections Network’s 2019 report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I’m interested in herbaria writ large, that is, how they relate not only to areas of biology beyond botany, but to the arts and humanities.  That’s why I’ve delved a bit into the field of digital humanities and how it might enrich the herbarium world.  From what I can gather the term digital humanities covers a lot of territory, but all related in some way to harnessing digital technology.  This can range from textual analyses such as tracing the frequency of use of a term in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to creating an online archive that brings together all her poems.  There’s also a great deal of work on developing new tools for visualizing social networks, linking different types of information, and creating new forms of communication.

In many cases, the humanities are doing much the same thing that the natural history community is doing:  using digital tools to not only make resources available online but to provide tools to use these resources in powerful and creative ways.  The problem is that the two are working in separate spheres and approaching similar issues in different ways, suggesting that the two cultures of C.P. Snow (1959) survive into the 21st century.  Snow (1905-1980) was a physical chemist and novelist; functioning successfully in the two spheres allowed him to appreciate what divided them.  Since he wrote, a great deal of work termed “interdisciplinary” has attempted to bridge the divide that Snow saw as dangerous, with each side unable to appreciate the other’s perspective.  Yet the problem remains.

My pet example is one that I’ve brought up here before.  What is coming to be called the Digital Extended Specimen is the vision that eventually a natural history specimen can be linked to many other types of information including species’ genome sequences, ecological data, field notes, field images, phylogenies, etc. (see figure above).   The focus in these conversations is on various scientific databases linking to each other.  This is a massive job and one that is just beginning.  But what I would like to see, even at this early stage—particularly at this early stage—is to make the job more massive by building history and art collections into the infrastructure.  Now is the time to do it, when frameworks on both sides are still being developed and haven’t yet become so complex that adaptation becomes almost impossible.  The FAIR principles for scientific data management could also apply in the other areas, making digital objects:  Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

While I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of two realms unable to talk to each other, there are some wonderful projects that do link science and the humanities in interesting ways.  In the botanical world, perhaps the most notable at the moment is the Plant Humanities Lab, a joint project of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and JSTOR Labs.  This grew out of what could only be termed a summit at the library that included botanists, historians, librarians, and technology experts.  They outlined a series of different approaches to linking botanical, historical, and cultural resources (see video).  This was just a set of ideas, and over the next few years the library and JSTOR developed a plan and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Plant Humanities Lab. 

The lab’s first manifestation was a set of narratives on such plants as boxwoods, watermelons, agaves, and bananas.  Each gives a well-written introduction to the species and outline not only its biology but its social history as well.  The narratives, richly illustrated, often with art from the Dumbarton Oaks collection, have hyperlinks to more information on everything from species descriptions to food, gardening, and colonial exploitation of crops and medicinal plants.  They do indeed connect history, art, and science, revealing how these are inseparable from each other.  These are wonderful stories for those interested in delving deeper into particular aspects of a plant.  One thing that becomes clear is that the history of plant use by humans is a long and winding road, sometimes stretching back millennia, with many problems along the way including the difficulties of breeding plants wrested from their native soils and brought to very different climates.  Then there was the use of indigenous knowledge about plants without in anyway acknowledging it and with no benefits to those who provided it.  In addition, there are the intriguing characteristics of so many of these species.  The subjects seem to be chosen carefully to provide many paths to different kinds of information in order to attract a variety of audiences who can explore them in their own ways. 

It’s obvious when using this site that it has a sophisticated framework.  Created by JSTOR labs over several years, the wonderful thing about it is that this digital tool is open access and now available to users as Juncture in the Beta version.  It does involve some knowledge of coding and accessing needed tools from GitHub, so this will pretty much eliminate people like me from using it.  However, we can still benefit from the sites created by those who do use it, and from the continuing development of new and more sophisticated plant narratives.  One problem with Juncture is that is allows linking to so many different kinds of information that there are endless rabbit holes to fall into, but each is just another wonderful aspect of the plant world.  Also it can be used to create narratives on any subject.  JSTOR is developing it as a tool of the future for education and research.

Reference

Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Circulating Specimens: Getting Stuck

Acer circinatum collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the Academy of Natural Sciences Herbarium at Drexel University, owned by the American Philosophical Society

The last post dealt with the way specimens have been moved around since the first herbaria were created in the 16th century.  But like the human circulatory system that can suffer from clots and narrowing arteries, specimens can end up stuck in forgotten cabinets and cluttered attics.  In the late 19th century Thomas Meehan was a botanical curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Its herbarium is home to specimens collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, though a portion of the original collection was lost in transit and some are still unaccounted for.  Once during the expedition and then after it, collections were sent, at President Thomas Jefferson’s direction, to the noted Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Barton, who had written the first botany text published in the United States.

Barton enlisted the aid of a German botanist Frederick Pursh who came to the United States to collect,.  Pursh worked on the plants, but eventually left for England with some of the specimens.  There he published a work describing many new species both from the Lewis and Clark specimens and also from those of Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury who had collected in the United States and sent material back to Britain (McKelvey, 1955, p. 73).  Pursh got to examine and describe the plants before the two arrived home in a notable bit of taxonomic piracy.  He eventually sold the Lewis and Clark material to a voracious British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert whose collection was auctioned after his death.  A young American botanist, Edward Tuckerman, bought the lot with the Lewis and Clark specimens and eventually donated them to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, also the home of another portion of the expedition’s collections.  However, the plants were put in storage and remained in relative oblivion for decades.

If your head is spinning at this point, botanists working at the Academy of Natural Sciences have written two very lucid accounts of this and other aspects of the Lewis and Clark material (Spamer & McCourt, 2002; Spamer, Hawks & McCourt, 2002).  But now back to the late 19th century and Thomas Meehan.  He was on the hunt for the Pursh specimens when someone told him that they might be at the APS.  Some searching finally brought them to light.  Since the ANS was nearby and had a significant herbarium plus the staff to curate it, the APS agreed to have the Lewis and Clark specimens transferred there, but the APS retains official ownership.

An even older collection had a different fate.  John Fraser was a British plant collector who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786.  He made contact with the French botanist André Michaux who had a nursery there, and also with Thomas Walter, who had a plantation outside the city and was writing a flora of the Carolinas.  Walter and Fraser went collecting together, and Fraser also traveled on his own more widely, going along the Savannah River with Michaux and traveling into what is now part of North Carolina on his own.  He made a collection of specimens, and Walter identified plants for him and even wrote descriptions of new species, which Walter added to his flora.   When Fraser was returning to England, Walter asked him to see to the publication of the flora.  Fraser did so and the specimens were bound in a volume with “Thomas Walter’s Herbarium” on the title page.  They became part of the collection now at the Natural History Museum, London, and didn’t receive much attention until the botanist Daniel Ward (2007) did a thorough study and published an article entitled “The Thomas Walter Herbarium Is Not the Herbarium of Thomas Walter.”  He argues that most of the plants were probably collected by Fraser, since many of the labels are in his handwriting and some of the plants are from areas visited by Fraser, not Walter.  Ward’s work was part of his effort to find type specimens for the plants Walter described.  In the process, he brought attention to Fraser and this rather obscure collection (Ward, 2017).

The work of Meehan and Ward played out before the mass digitization of specimens, but that effort has done wonders for the specimen circulatory system not only for the obvious reason of making them available on the internet.  A side effect is that preparing specimens for digitization has brought to light many interesting finds.  The curators at the University of Connecticut’s George Safford Torrey Herbarium discovered two specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau.  Moving to a new space is another was to revive circulation.  When the Cambridge University Herbarium relocated into a new building, historical collections were unearthed that have yet to be thoroughly studied (Gardiner, 2019).  Even more spectacular were the results of the project at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris to renovate the herbarium and at the same time digitize the collection.  The result was estimating the backlog of unmounted specimens at over 800,000; the process of organizing them is definitely the herbarium equivalent of open-heart surgery (Le Bras et al., 2017).  I find all these discoveries cheering, not only because I like surprises, but because they hint at still more interesting finds yet to come.

References

Gardiner, L. M. (2019). Cambridge University Herbarium: Rediscovering a botanical treasure trove. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 31–47. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3603520

Le Bras, G., et al. (2017). The French Muséum national d’histoire naturelle vascular plant herbarium collection dataset. Scientific Data, 4(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2017.16

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Spamer, E., Hawks, C., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 2. Notulae Naturae, 476, 1–16.

Spamer, E., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 1. Notulae Naturae, 475, 1–46.

Ward, D. B. (2007). The Thomas Walter Herbarium is not the herbarium of Thomas Walter. Taxon, 56(3), 917–926.

Ward, D. B. (2017). Thomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Works of a Pioneer American Botanist. New York: New York Botanical Garden.

Circulating Specimens: History

Silene fruticosa collected by Paolo Boccone in 1674, now at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

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. 

References

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.

Herbarium

Herbarium, Barbara M. Thiers

This post marks the start of my sixtieth set of posts over five years for Herbarium World.  As you may know, I have a monthly theme with four posts.  Doing the math (which I just did), that means 240 posts, yet I’ve never titled one simply, “Herbarium,” until now.  To mark this milestone, I am going to discuss four books that celebrate herbaria, and it seems fitting to begin with Barbara Thiers’s Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants.  No one is better equipped than Thiers to produce such a book.  She is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director Emerita and Honorary Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  When I was beginning my exploration of herbaria, she graciously took time to speak with me, though she obviously had more important things to deal with in overseeing one the world’s largest herbaria, now with over 7.9 million specimens.

I know that number because it was published in the latest report from Index Herbariorum, the best source of information on the number of herbaria worldwide and the size of each collection.  Thiers is the editor of what is now an online database but began as a printed publication that was moved online by her predecessor as herbarium director, Patricia Holmgren, for whom Thiers’ endowed position is named.  They are both formidable women, both excellent botanists and administrators. 

In Herbarium, Thiers provides a highly readable tour through the history and development of plant collections and then explains why they are so essential to the future of the earth’s biodiversity.  The first thing that’s obvious is that the book, published by Timber Press, is beautifully produced.  It is filled with colored photographs of what I consider “eye candy,” that is, herbarium specimens from the 16th to the 21st century, many from NYBG, but also from collections around the world.  In addition are pages from significant publications such as Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae and illustrations by great botanical artists including Georg Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redouté, many from the holdings of NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.  There are also photographs of plants and landscapes, pictures of botanists, and maps. 

But the meat of the book is the text.  Not surprisingly, Thiers begins with the history of herbaria, including of course the origin of cryptogamic collections since she is an expert on liverworts.  Along the way she clearly presents enough botanical information to guide the non-botanist.  Then she moves on to the age of exploration and describes both the general landscape of plant prospecting over the centuries, and also delves into a number of interesting cases.  These include the adventures and collections of the British privateer William Dampier who was the first to gather specimens in Australia and of the French botanist Philibert Commerson who traveled on a portion of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.  Commerson made many notable botanical discoveries, though he may be best known not for what he found but for whom he brought with him on the voyage:  his mistress Jeanne Baret.  Thiers tells the tale in some detail, including how Baret posed as a male seaman, and how she and Commerson eventually left the expedition in Mauritius and collected in the area until Commerson’s death.   

While the exploration chapter takes a global view, the next one deals with the development of collecting and collections in the United States from colonial times.  Naturally the 18th-century Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram is discussed as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with the winding journey taken by many of its specimens.  John Torrey and Asa Gray as key to the development of botany in the United States appear, with Thiers noting that Torrey’s specimens, donated to Columbia College (now Columbia University), eventually became the foundation of NYBG’s herbarium.  Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s pivotal role in the creation of NYBG is covered as is the work of George Engelmann and Henry Shaw in founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, and West Coast botanists in creating the California Academy of Sciences herbarium.  All of these institutions are still at the forefront of botanical research today.

The last two chapters return to a global perspective, with descriptions of how collections were both made and eventually housed in Australia, Africa, India, and East Asia.  Issues of colonial exploitation obviously arise there, and in addition Thiers presents fascinating information on how herbaria around the world are now being created and developed.  This leads to the last chapter on the future of herbaria.  Thiers knows this topic well because she has been a leader in projects designed to create that future, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants initiative (now JSTOR Global Plants) to image and digitize label information for type specimens, the Biodiversity Heritage Library for botanical literature online, and iDigBio, the US digitization effort that put millions of natural history specimens online, in addition to developing projects and tools to use that information in learning about the world’s biodiversity.  The challenges created by climate change and habitat loss are driving these efforts, and people like Thiers are continuing work to make the available information as useful as possible.  She makes it clear that herbaria have a wonderful future and her book is a wonderful introduction to it. 

Reference

Thiers, B. M. (2020). Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants. Portland, OR: Timber.

Women’s Ways of Representing Plants

Linnaea borealis, collected and mounted by George Watt, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

This is the last post in a series on women and botany (1,2,3), and my title brings to mind botanical illustration, which by the late 18th century had become a common pursuit for women who had time for such activities.  The stories and the art of Maria Merian and Elizabeth Blackwell are brought up in almost all discussions of this topic, but there were many women painters of plants from professional illustrators to gifted amateurs.  An example of the former is Françoise Basseporte (1701-1780) who was taught by the Claude Aubriet at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and after his death took up his position as official botanical artist for the garden.  In the 19th century many women illustrated botanical books, sometimes for their husbands, and in other cases as professional artists.  Among the latter was Sarah Drake, who worked for the British botanist John Lindley and for many years lived with his family.

There are great websites (1,2,3) and books (Kramer, 1996) on women botanical artists of the past and present, but here I want to look beyond those who produced published work.  With the internet, and the digitization of museum and library collections, more botanical illustrations are available on the webThe Linda Hall Library has a botanical manuscript with watercolors by a young woman named Mary Major.  They are based on Frederick Nodder’s illustrations for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany.  The Whipple Museum of the History of Science has an album created by Eliza Brightwen that combines drawings with cutouts, notes, and even a few specimens.  It’s a reminder that there are all levels of sophistication in botanical art.

When the Royal Horticulture Society’s library at their Wisley garden relocated to a new building, the librarians found a copy of James Edward Smith’s The English Flora with the name of the owner Isabella A. Allen written inside.  However, they could discover no information about this individual.  When the BBC posted an article on the find, there were many replies and within in 24 hours, she was identified as Isabella Ann Allen (1810-1865) who lived in the Malvern Hills near the Cotswold.  The BBC ran another post a few weeks later, as did the RHS.  The reason for the interest was that the book not only contained plant cuttings between its pages, but an elaborate and whimsical watercolor labeled “The Botaniste” with a woman’s head popping out of flower, presumably Isabella Allen.  

Beyond watercolor, there were other ways women documented plants, embroidery being one of the most common.  There is the famous case of Mary Delany and her almost thousand paper cutouts of flowering plants.  What is less well known is a technique from around the same time that was practiced by Queen Charlotte, wife of the British King George III, and by her daughters.  They were all accomplished artists, having taken lessons from, among others, the famous German artist, Franz Bauer, who worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for many years when it was also a home of the royal family (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Henry Noltie, a curator emeritus at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and a historian of botanical art, has written a blog post about a small painting on black paper attached to a herbarium specimen at Kew.  It was included in an exhibit on the accomplishments of Charlotte and two other women in the royal family (see earlier post).  Noltie saw the sheet and was intrigued, so when the specimen was returned to Kew he took a closer look and investigated its backstory.

The drawing is of a small plant Erophila verna and is attached to a specimen in the collection of John Lightfoot, which, after his death, was bought by George III for Charlotte to add to her herbarium (see image above).  Lightfoot was chaplain and botany teacher to Margaret Bentinck, a friend of both Charlotte and Delany.  in fact, many of Delany’s cutouts were done while she was staying at Bentinck’s estate, Bulstrode, which Charlotte and George often visited.  That’s where Charlotte saw Delany’s cutouts and then urged Joseph Banks, the unofficial head of Kew, to provide the artist with plants.  By 1788, both Bentinck and Delany were dead, but Charlotte still had a passion for plant art and became fascinated by a technique devised by a wealthy couple, William and Frederica Lock, who had also known Delany and were later presented to the royal family.  The Locks would take a flattened specimen and forcefully press it into a piece of black paper to make a good impression.  Then they would paint the impression with gauche, an opaque watercolor paint.  It was a clever way to get a head start on a drawing.

Charlotte took to this process enthusiastically, and according to her friend Fanny Burney, the Queen had “a violent hankering” for the technique in which she was instructed by the Locks, who also taught her three daughters in “almost daily” lessons.  Unfortunately, Noltie could not find clear evidence that the E. verna was done by a royal, but the date on it of March 1788 is telling since at this time Burney wrote of Charlotte’s “hankering,” and the queen herself had written the Earl of Bute, one of her botanical advisers, about the technique.  I am not sure why I find this small painting and its story so intriguing, perhaps it’s just the idea that a queen could be subject to the latest crafting fad like anyone else.  In any case I am very grateful to Henry Noltie for doing so much research on this little piece of botanical history.

References

Kramer, J. (1996). Women of Flowers: A Tribute to Victorian Women Illustrators. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Women and Specimens

Specimen and drawing of Erophila verna, Lightfoot Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

In the last post, I wrote about women who were such serious gardeners that their estates and greenhouses became laboratories for learning about new species and their cultivation.  Any serious gardener is a careful observer and often a notetaker, so they can build on their expertise and use the information in the future, therefore it’s not surprising that women also took cuttings and preserved them to document what they grew.  Sometimes, as in the case of the women described by Nicole LaBouff and discussed in the last post, they sent specimens, particularly of plants in flower, to the botanists who sought their assistance.  In other cases, as for Mary Somerset in the early 18th century, a herbarium was a way to preserve a record her cultivars and the exotic plants she nurtured.  Plants and gardens are ephemeral.  Somerset’s garden in Chelsea is long gone, but her anemone varieties are preserved in Han Sloane’s herbarium (Carine, 2020). 

Later on in the 18th century, Margaret Bentinck kept a herbarium as a way to study plants and to remind herself of the different plant families she was learning about from her chaplain and botany teacher John Lightfoot.  In the 19th century, keeping an herbarium was often part of the botany curriculum for both male and female students.  Among the most elaborate sheets I’ve seen was one that Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh showed me.  It was created by George Watt, a botanist who worked in India, where he did a great deal of collecting.  But the specimen Noltie showed me was from Watt’s student days in the 1860s (see image above).  I know this post is about women’s specimens, but I just couldn’t resist including Watt’s because it puts to rest the idea that women were the only ones executing such decorative work.

From the late 18th century on, botany was considered a part of the curriculum for women, particularly for those in the upper classes who were well-schooled.  As the 19th century proceeded and middle-class girls were educated, the number of botany books directed at them increased.  The most noteworthy in the United States was Elmira Hart Lincoln Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany that went through many editions.  For her, making a herbarium was a necessary part of the curriculum.  In some cases, the plants were mounted in notebooks where the students were obviously coached as to the format for recording information on scientific name and family, collection site and date, and of course, collector name, which must have been the fun part to include.  Later, special notebooks were printed with room for the specimen and then space to write in the relevant information next to preprinted prompts.  Many of these collections are now housed in herbaria and botanical libraries.  I suspect in the near future some of the more data-rich will be mined in attempts to discover what was growing in areas that are now covered with buildings and roads. 

It’s not surprising that as women learned about plants in school, some of them retained that interest as adults, since they had the intellectual tools with which to continue learning—and collecting.  Often they gathered plants close to home and corresponded with male botanists who could help them identify their finds.  Since some of these women were pioneers living in remote areas of the western United States or Australia, botanists encouraged their collecting as a way to receive plants they were unlikely to otherwise encounter (Gianquitto, 2007).  Women made discoveries that intrigued botanists, who were happy to cite the contributions of the collectors in their publications as a way to encourage more collecting. 

Sometimes attributions went awry.  Laurence Dorr (2019) writes of a collection of Madagascar lichens and plants made by Mary Pool, who along with her husband William was a missionary there from 1865-1875.  She died shortly after their return to England, and William contributed the specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The sheets cite William as the collector, while Laurence provides detailed evidence that in fact it was Mary who did almost all of it.  This seems more a bookkeeping error than thoughtlessness on William’s part, but it is one more example of why women’s place in the history of botany is so tenuous. 

In a very different case, it was the wife who survived the husband and honored him.  Mary Strong Clemens accompanied her husband Joseph Clemens on his various assignments as a US Army chaplain.  Mary collected plants wherever they went, including their four years in the Philippines.  After he retired in 1918, they returned to the Far East and collected widely from China to Borneo.  Mary gathered the plants and William prepared the specimens for shipment; this continued until his death from food poisoning in 1936.  She recorded his death on a specimen, noting:  “It was under this tree (Myristica lancifolia var. clemensii) that my soul companion for over 40 years of wedded life, bade me farewell for the higher life.”  I found this story in a post written by Michael Gallagher from the long-defunct JSTOR Plant Science blog (August 6, 2010).  I printed it out because it was such a beautiful way for a botanist to remember her spouse.  After William’s death Mary collected in New Guinea until the start of World War II and then worked at the herbarium in Queensland.  She is representative of the transition women were making from amateur to professional botanists, and she was one of many who without much formal botanical education developed exceptional expertise.

References

Carine, M. (Ed.). (2020). The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloane’s Extraordinary Herbarium. London: Natural History Museum, London.

Dorr, L. J. (2019). Mary and William Pool and their (mostly her) Malagasy lichen and plant collections. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 134–138. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2019.0561