Tag Archives: scientists

Alfred Russel Wallace: forgotten hero of natural selection

ARW in 1869.Small_2013 marks the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a naturalist and biologist who was born in Llanbadock near Usk, Monmouthshire.  In the last hundred years he has been mainly overshadowed by his contemporary Charles Darwin; but with the anniversary of his death, his work has started to be commemorated recently in TV programmes.  The most recent was broadcast on BBc2 on Sunday 21st April 2013, and featured the comedian Bill Bailey heading to Indonesia to follow in the footsteps of Wallace, who collected thousands of specimens there.

In his younger days he spent time in a variety of places around the country, including London and Leicester, before living and working  in Neath as a surveyor with his brother for several years.  Finally in 1848 he set off on his first voyage abroad as a naturalist, travelling to Brazil with the entomologist, Henry Bates.  From 1854 to 1862 he travelled through what was then known as the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia).  His discoveries there were eventually published in 1869 to great acclaim.

Wallace developed theories on evolution and natural selection independently of Darwin; the two men corresponded and exchanged ideas, stimulating each other’s thought processes, but these days it is Darwin who people tend to remember.

SCOLAR holds a number of Wallace’s books, including The geographical distribution of animals :  with a study of the relations of living and extinct faunas as elucidating the past changes of the earth’s surface (1876), Tropical nature : and other essays (1878) and Darwinism : an exposition of the theory of natural selection, with some of the applications (1889).

Discovery of a long-lost book from the library of Sir Isaac Newton in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

When I set out to learn more about the provenance of one of our rare books, I could not have predicted the twists and turns that would lead directly to the library of one of the world’s greatest scientists. Our copy of John Browne’s Myographia nova, or A graphical description of all the muscles in humane body was published in London in 1698. When it appeared on my desk for cataloguing I expected to find some interesting (and gory) anatomical engravings and not much else. I opened the book to reveal an unusual bookplate bearing only a Latin motto, “Philosophemur”, with no indication of the previous owner’s name. On closer examination it was apparent that this bookplate had been pasted directly over an earlier, smaller bookplate, obscuring it completely. There were two handwritten shelfmarks, one at the top left of the page, “732_24”, and one at the foot of the bookplate which reads “Case V. E.7. Barnsley.”

The “Philosophemur” bookplate with the Barnsley Park shelfmark

Intrigued by this mysterious provenance, I set out to do some detective work in the hope of identifying some of these previous owners. After a little searching I was able to determine that the “Philosophemur” bookplate originally belonged to a Dr. James Musgrave, Rector of Chinnor, near Thame in Oxfordshire. On his death, he left his library to his son, the eighth baronet Musgrave and owner of Barnsley Park, Gloucestershire, and the books were removed to the library there in 1778. Baronet Musgrave evidently did not feel the need to affix his own bookplates, but the books were recatalogued on arrival and the Barnsley shelfmark added to each volume.

The text of the Huggins bookplate is just visible through the Musgrave plate

More detective work revealed that James Musgrave originally purchased his library from his predecessor at Chinnor, a man called Charles Huggins, and it is his bookplate which is just visible beneath Musgrave’s. Although the plate is covered, the words “… in Com. Oxon” can be made out and Charles Huggins is known to have used a bookplate displaying the Huggins coat of arms with “Revd. Carols. Huggins, Rector Chinner in Com. Oxon” beneath. Huggins received his books from his father, John Huggins, Warden of the Fleet Prison, who in turn purchased the library from the estate of his neighbour, Sir Isaac Newton.

Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of Isaac Newton in 1689

Apparently when Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727, he neglected to leave a will behind and his house and all his possessions, including his extensive library, were put up for auction. John Huggins purchased the books for £300 and a list was made referring to 969 books by name, with others grouped together under miscellaneous headings (an inventory of Newton’s house recorded a total of 1,896 volumes in the library). The Musgrave library was catalogued in 1760 and our book makes an appearance as “Browne’s On the Muscles, with Cutts, 1698”. Presence on the Huggins list is commonly taken as proof that a book belonged to Newton. The Musgrave catalogue is considered less reliable as it also includes later books added by the family, however the existence of both the Huggins and Musgrave bookplates and the two shelfmarks can, according to John Harrison’s (1976) advice on identification, be taken as strong evidence that our book once stood on Newton’s shelves.

Front pastedown of the book with the bookplates and shelfmarks

The later history of Newton’s library is an extraordinary one.  As late as 1775 it was known that Musgrave owned Newton’s books, as visitors wrote about travelling to view the library, but after 1778, when Musgrave died and the books were transferred to Barnsley Park, the connection to the scientist appears to have been lost. Until 1920 it was thought that Newton’s library had simply vanished. In that year the Musgrave family decided to sell their house at Thame Park, and the “Philosophemur” books were sent over from Barnsley Park to be included in the sale. Newton’s books were sold in bundles with no indication of their importance and for a fraction of their true worth. It has long been believed that many of these books ended up in the United States, though it was feared that many more were sent to the mills for pulping, and many are still unaccounted for.

Newton in later life, by James Thornhill

Happily, not all of Newton’s books were scattered and lost in 1920. After the auction a further 858 volumes from the great scientist’s library were discovered at Barnsley Park, secreted throughout the house in cupboards and closets. This time the provenance was firmly established by Richard de Villamil and in 1943 the remaining books were purchased for the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Newton did so much of his remarkable work.

De Villamil, R. “The tragedy of Sir Isaac Newton’s library,” The Bookman, March, 1927, 303-304
Harrison, John. “Newton’s library: Identifying the books,” Harvard Library Bulletin, Volume XXIV, October, 1976. No. 4, 395-406

Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

I was very happy to come across this 1667 edition of Robert Hooke’s fascinating Micrographia among our Early English collections. Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses was the first book in English about the microscope and comprises a detailed record of Hooke’s observations of plants, insects and fossils through his lenses, and a demonstration of the power of the emerging science of microscopy.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight and studied at Westminster School before becoming assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle in Oxford. He had very wide interests in astronomy, biology, physics, architecture and chemistry, and, after being appointed Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in 1662, became arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century, although Hooke’s legacy has long been overshadowed by that of his more famous contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

First issued in 1665, Hooke’s Micrographia was the first major work to be published by the Royal Society and has claims to be the first scientific best-seller, inspiring much public interest in the unseen miniature world. Samuel Pepys went so far as to proclaim it “the most ingenious book that I have ever read in my life”.

Micrographia is best known for its detailed copperplate engravings of Hooke’s discoveries, including several magnificent fold-out plates such as the famous flea below. The book also describes a fly’s eye and a plant cell for the first time (Hooke himself coined the biological term “cell” because the walls in plant cells reminded him of monks’ cells in a monastery).

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.”

Hooke was the first scientist to examine fossils under the microscope and the first to note the similarities between living shells and fossil shells, which had up to then been considered a type of stone rather than a once-living organism.

Robert Hooke devised and constructed his own compound microscope

He claimed in Micrographia that the fossils were really “the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance.” More than 200 years before Darwin espoused the theory of evolution by natural selection, this remarkable man had discovered that changes in life on Earth were documented in the fossil record.

A woman in science: Eleanor Ormerod and her sketchbook

An unusual volume in the Border Counties Collection of E.R.G. Salisbury held at Cardiff throws interesting light on the youth and early education of Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901), a 19th century entomologist.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor was a renowned expert on the turnip fly and other agricultural pests: she became a consultant at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and an examiner at the University of Edinburgh. She was awarded medals by the University of Moscow and was the first woman granted an honorary LL.D. at Edinburgh. Eleanor Ormerod grew up at Sedbury Park in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, one of a family of ten children of the antiquarian George Ormerod (1785-1873). George Ormerod is chiefly remembered as a historian of Cheshire, and it probably for this reason that a volume of plates of sketches made by the Ormerod family is to be found among the books collected by Salisbury, Cheshire being one of the main counties represented in his Border Counties Collection.

Despite her later fame as a scientific expert, Eleanor had been privately educated at home with her sisters, and she was largely self-taught in her field. Her education included painting lessons from the pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt. The illustrations in this volume are attractive landscapes and local scenes from both sides of the River Wye near Chepstow and around her home at Sedbury Park.

"SW view of Penhow or St. Maur Castle in Monmouthshire" (1852)

There are twenty illustrations by various members of the family: the mother Sarah and sisters Susan Mary and Georgiana, and four by Eleanor herself. The sketches are dated between 1834 and 1852. According to an anecdote related of Eleanor, her interest in insects was ignited on 12 March 1852 when a rosy-winged locust was caught at Chepstow: possibly she lost interest in sketching local landmarks after this date!

This is a charming volume from a little-known part of the Salisbury Collection, and it shines some light on the private education and background of a woman who was a pioneer  in a scientific field.

"Offa's Dyke in its ascent towards its termination on the Sedbury Cliffs and the shore of the Severn Estuary"