Plants in Toronto: History of Science

The History of Science Society (HSS) met in Toronto in November, and there were enough plant-related papers on the program to keep me happy.  The trip also gave me the opportunity to visit  the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum and investigate its history.  This series of blogs will report on my experiences, beginning with a summary of some the sessions I attended.

For me, the conference was a success because there was a paper about Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a noted plant morphologist who also delved into the history and philosophy of science.  I’ve studied her work for years (Flannery, 2005), but learned something new from Andre Hahn’s paper on her approach to analogy in science.  He is a graduate student at Oregon State University, investigating the influence of Goethe’s botanical work on 20th-century botanists.  Arber (1946) not only produced a translation of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants, but also used his work as the basis for her morphological argument in The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950).  Hahn focused on Arber’s views on analogy as central to biological inquiry that are outlined not only in this book, but in the later The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint (1954).

In the same session, Darryl Brock of the City University of New York described the long-term research Nathaniel Lord Britton, the first director of the New York Botanical Garden, oversaw in Puerto Rico in the early part of the 20th century.  The next day, Elaine Ayers, a grad student at Princeton University, spoke on Rafflesia arnoldii, one of the plants referred to as a corpse flower because of the fetid odor it releases.  It’s also notable for the size of its flower and parasitic habit, but Ayers focused instead on how the plant came to be known in Europe despite the fact that live specimens were impossible to transport from its native Sumatra.  On Saturday there was a session on Pharmacology and Plant Medicine in Global Context that included two papers on Indian medicinal plants.  Both highlighted issues of language, for example, translating not only information but plant names from Persian and Sanskrit into European languages and associating scientific names with names used locally.  One problem was that often the same name was used for different plants in different parts of the India, not surprising because of the country’s size and breadth of ethnic diversity.

Besides these sessions on specific historical topics there was also a wonderful program on 19th–century history of science resources on the web.  Several months ago, I wrote a post in which I described my dreams of digital botanical resources in the future.  At the HSS meeting I was introduced to at least part of that dream coming true.  At the moment, it doesn’t include any herbarium specimens, obviously a major oversight at far as I‘m concerned, but it does link a number of resources that were either not accessible on the web at all, or not available from one portal.

I should say at the outset that this project, called Epsilon, does not yet have an open website, but the developers expect to make it public in September 2018.  It’s definitely something to look forward to.  Epsilon stands for “Epistles of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century,” and this Greek letter is used as a variable in many branches of science and has meanings including “set membership” and “elasticity.”  These last were attractive to Epsilon’s developers because they see this “collaborative digital framework for c19 letters of science” as being flexible in that it can expand and include many nineteenth-century scientists, so membership in the set will increase over time.  This enterprise grew out of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which began in the 1970s with the aim of publishing all letters that could be found to or from Charles Darwin.  The publication of the last of 30 volumes will be completed by Cambridge University Press in a few years.  Open online access follows four years after the publication of each volume.  The letters have not only been transcribed but also heavily footnoted with background information and references.

At the moment, Epsilon plans to include the Darwin correspondence as well as that of John Stevens Henslow, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Michael Faraday, and John Tyndall.  Leaders of the Epsilon project presented at the HSS meeting because they wanted to make it better known among historians of science who would of course be major users of its resources.  As Epsilon is expanding beyond Darwin and beyond biology, it also hopes to expand beyond British science.  Obviously, John Torrey and Asa Gray came to my mind immediately.  Their correspondence, held by New York Botanical Garden and Harvard University respectively, has already been transcribed and is digitally available through these institution’s library websites and also through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  If this is the case, what would be the advantage of adding them to Epsilon as well?  The most obvious answer is that they would be searchable at once along with all the other correspondence, including that of Darwin and Hooker with whom Torrey and Gray exchanged many letters.  Also, the interface for Epsilon will introduce new search features making it easier to delve deeply into these collections.  It is definitely something to look forward to in 2018.  Until then, botanists can find the Hooker correspondence at the website of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and the Henslow papers through the Darwin Correspondence Project site.


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

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