Monday, March 27, 2017

Celebrating Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the most important botanists of the 19th century and Kew Gardens' most illustrious Director (1865-1885). To celebrate the bicentenary of his birth this year, BHL is joining the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to highlight Hooker's works and contributions as part of the #JDHooker2017 campaign.

To coincide with the opening of a new exhibit at Kew's Shirley Sherwood Gallery, BHL is featuring Hooker's publications and related artworks in our online book collection and Flickr albums. Learn more about the BHL collections here.

Learn more about Kew's exhibit, which opened on 25 March, in the post below. Then, be sure to follow #JDHooker2017 on social media as we celebrate Hooker's life and works.

We hope you'll also join us again the week of 26-30 June 2017 as we continue our celebrations as part of a larger campaign in conjunction with The Making of Modern Botany conference at Kew Gardens, hosted on 30 June 2017.

Joseph Hooker the ‘King of Kew’ 

By Rebecca Carter 
Gallery Assistant, The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art 
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, pen and ink on paper (1886) by Theodore Blake Wirgman.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a highly respected botanist and relentless explorer, who is regarded as the founder of modern botanical classification. He held the position of Director at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for twenty years, adding thousands of specimens to its collection.

To mark the bicentenary of his birth, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery has curated an exhibition exploring his extensive travels and contribution to the field of botany. The collection at Kew contains numerous artifacts, sketches and paintings relating to Hooker’s incredible life and professional journey, of which a proportion is showcased in this exhibition. By showing a diverse selection of work, the exhibition looks to uncover the impact Hooker had on the botanical world, as well as discovering what made Joseph Hooker the ‘King of Kew’.

The title of the exhibition, Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place, refers to Hooker’s belief that specimens should be collected and then classified scientifically. He also proposed that plant’s habitats should be better understood and that there should be a place and opportunity to elevate the scientific status of botany to the same scholarly status as other sciences such as physics.

Kew was at the very heart of Hooker's career and through his travels and publications he transformed Kew from a rather run-down royal pleasure garden into the world-class scientific establishment it is recognized as today.

The public at the time met with Hooker’s desire to protect Kew’s role as a serious scientific institution with apparent antipathy; it was reported in newspapers that Londoners were outraged to find the gates to the Gardens locked in the mornings on bank holidays. This public outcry led to Hooker clashing with politicians and the public several times and ended with him conceding to early openings. On display in the exhibition are cartoons and notices from contemporary newspapers, exploring this fascinating history whilst Hooker was Director of Kew.

Kew Gardens Grievances notice from The Times, published October 1879, facsimile print.

Today, Kew is a leading centre for scientific botanical research and it is partly down to Hooker’s explorations that this foundation was set. On 30 September 1839 when he was 22 years old, Hooker set off on his first voyage. He was the youngest crew member on Her Majesty’s Discovery Ship Erebus, serving as the ship's assistant surgeon and the expedition’s botanist.

On his many travels he drew and collected plants, naming many previously unknown-to-science plants and trees. Hooker named many plants after botanists and friends as a way of thanking and acknowledging fellow scientists. For example, Hooker named the Tasmanian gum tree Eucalyptus gunnii after his friend the collector Ronald Campbell Gunn. Hooker also had plants named after himself, such as the New Zealand ‘golden wand’ Bulbinella hookeri which was named by his friend and New Zealand missionary William Colenso.

Hooker didn’t confine his drawings to plants. He also sketched houses, animals and landscapes. Our favourite pieces on display in this exhibition depict his time in the Himalayas. The selection of sketches below reveals detailed drawings of a variety of views of Lacham valley and Lamteng village.

Hooker’s good friend and talented artist Walter Hood Fitch drew the middle sketch at the top, which is a re-work of Hooker’s original drawing. Fitch often sketched Hooker’s drawings, preparing lithographs for botanical books such as his Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya (1849-51).

The intricate sketch of the village and landscape shows that Hooker was also thinking about the habitat and the environment the native plants were exposed to. His drawing of a Yak also demonstrates an understanding of local culture and way of life. Yaks were the most important domesticated animal in the Himalaya and the detail in this sketch is exquisite.

From above Lamteng village looking up Lachem valley, (1848) Joseph Dalton Hooker, pencil, pen and watercolour on paper, with lithograph.

The galleries at Kew have more than one reason to be grateful for Hooker’s influence as Director of Kew. In 1879, Marianne North wrote to Hooker offering to build a gallery in which to display her botanical artwork. Hooker gave North permission, and the Marianne North Gallery was duly built in a mixture of classical and colonial style, finally opening in its finished form in 1886. Without Hooker’s permission, Kew would not have this significant collection of Victorian botanical art, which serves as an important catalogue of the world’s plants. Alongside the 833 paintings on display, North also collected samples of wood from the countries she visited. The unusual way in which the gallery was curated is unique to Kew, and it is always a breath-taking experience.

In summary, Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place looks at a range of fascinating artifacts and paintings to explore the professional journey of Joseph Hooker as second Director of Kew. It primarily looks at how Hooker revolutionized botany to a scientific status and examines his influence on Kew’s transformation from a simple pleasure garden to the scientific centre of research it is known for today.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

John Torrey's Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York (1818, 1819 & 1820)

By Daniel Atha
Director of Conservation Outreach
The New York Botanical Garden

With contributions by Susan Lynch, Vanessa Bezemer Sellers and Stephen Sinon of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at The New York Botanical Garden

Crayon drawing of John Torrey by Sir Daniel Macnee. From the collection of Sir William Hooker, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.

John Torrey (1796-1873) was a preeminent early American botanist. From 1818-1820, Torrey kept a careful record of the plants that he encountered in and around New York City and called his work Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York. The Mertz Library at The New York Botanical Garden is the proud owner of this remarkable manuscript, which was recently digitized and added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The image below depicts a full page spread from the Calendarium, showing Torrey’s neatly written and methodically arranged list of plants.

Torrey, John. Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York. Digitized by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden.

The map below shows many of the locations noted in the Calendarium, including Greenwich (now Greenwich Village), the Elgin Botanic Garden (now Rockefeller Center), Bloomingdale (now the Upper West Side of Manhattan), and Hoboken, New Jersey. The map dates from 1811, shortly before Torrey started work on the Calendarium, and helps us visualize the region where Torrey lived and conducted his early studies.

Eddy, John H. Map of the Country Thirty Miles Round the City of New York. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Torrey's Calendarium is what today is called a phenological record; a document registering the name of an organism and the date of some biological phenomenon. Torrey's Calendarium lists the plants by scientific name, date of first bloom, and the locations for several hundred species; in this case plants observed around the New York archipelago, from the salt marshes of Brooklyn to the cedar swamps of New Jersey. On his travels through the City, Torrey detailed the common plants of roads, gardens, and woodlots of lower Manhattan, including the stagnant waters around Greenwich, the swamp flora behind the Elgin Botanic Garden, and the wildflowers of Bloomingdale woods. Through his eyes and through his pen, we are witness to the last generation of Rock Harlequin, Tall Thimbleweed, Tuckahoe, Pinweed, Slender Rose Gentian, Smooth Yellow False Foxglove and many others plants soon to be extirpated from the island of Manhattan, as the hills were leveled and the rubble used to fill the swamps. Some species, like Sphagnum Moss, Sundew, and Three-leaf Goldthread (shown in the images below), were eradicated entirely from the boundaries of the City, and, due to a warming climate, are difficult to grow today even under cultivation.

Coptis trifolia or Three-leaf Goldenthread observed by John Torrey. Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York by John Torrey. Digitized by The New York Botanical Garden.

Coptis trifolia or Three-leaf Goldenthread from American Medical Botany: Being a Collection of the Native Medicinal Plants of the United States by Jacob Bigelow. v.1. 1817. p.60. Digitized by Missouri Botanical Garden.

In the year 1818, the first year in which observations were recorded in the Calendarium, John Torrey, only 22 years of age, graduated with a degree in medicine from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. During this time, he was also helping to found the Lyceum of Natural History in New York (the forerunner of the New York Academy of Sciences), and published several important articles in the first issue of the Lyceum’s Annals. Meanwhile he was also nearing completion of a Flora of the vicinity of New York, and he was laying the foundation for his lifelong ambition to publish a Flora of North America.

John Torrey was not the first to record the phenology of plants. Farmers, priests, philosophers, and scientists from the earliest days of agriculture and writing recorded the occurrences of biological phenomena to track seasons and planting cycles. Nor was Torrey the first American to keep such records. As in many areas of the arts and sciences in America, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) blazed the trail for record keeping, experimentation and advocacy for plant science. Jefferson's Garden book (what he called a "Kalendar"), spans the years 1766 to 1824 and records not only planting dates and harvest times of garden vegetables, but includes the bloom cycles of woodland wildflowers of the Virginia Piedmont.

Plant records such as those kept by Thomas Jefferson, John Torrey, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and many others since then, bridge a critical gap in phenological research, much as dendrochronolgists use tree rings from new archeological finds to complete a portrait of past climactic events. In addition to providing a window on the past, Torrey's Calendarium is also a window on the future. Those studying climate change and its biological signals will find a wealth of new information. Torrey's data are the ‘holy grail’ of phenological recording due to his stature as the unrivaled taxonomic expert of his day. In addition, Torrey’s observations are confirmed by herbarium specimens, preserved to this day in the collections of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. Completed at the dawn of the 19th Century, Torrey's Calendarium is a scientifically rigorous phenological record for New York City. The Calendarium can be thought of as an early draft of his first major professional achievement, his Flora of New York City, Catalogue of Plants Growing Spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York, published in 1819.


  • Eustis, Elizabeth S., and David Andrews. "Creating a North American Flora." Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden. Edited by Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers. New York: The New York Botanical Garden and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 
  • Robbins, Christine Chapman. “John Torrey (1796-1873). His Life and Times.” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, vol. 95, no. 6, 1968. 515-645. Accessed 07 March 2017.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Keeping Up With NDSR!

Hello all, BHL NDSR Cohort speaking!

For the past couple of weeks we have been busy settling into our residencies, attending some conferences and preparing for future presentations. We created the NDSR at BHL blog to provide weekly updates about our projects. We have already engaged with the biodiversity community and applied feedback from readers to focus our research. Our blog draws from BHL’s open communication philosophy by encouraging feedback and dialogue on our posts.To catch you up to speed, we have prepared a quick overview of our recent blog posts.
  • Katie gave us an overview of transcription tools including: Ben Brumfield’s FromThePage, the Australian Museum’s DigiVol, the Smithsonian Institution’s Transcription Center, and The Zooniverse’s Project Builder and their Scribe development framework. As she works to integrate transcription services for handwritten materials (such as field notes and correspondence) into BHL, Katie explores these tools and their applicability to handwritten scientific materials. 
  • In order to perform a content analysis of the BHL corpus, Alicia began to map out what is included in the scope of biodiversity literature to begin to understand where BHL fits and where it still lacks coverage.
  • We also reflected on several professional events. All of the residents attended the “BHL Bootcamp” hosted by Smithsonian Libraries in February where we were introduced to the BHL staff and administration, learned BHL history, how to use BHL technology and the BHL mission and culture. A few weeks after Bootcamp, Marissa attended a training session on the Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature (EABL) project presented by Mariah Lewis of the New York Botanical Garden held at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. In early March, Marissa and Katie both attended the Code4Lib Conference in LA which brings together professionals who work for library, museums, and archives and deal with technology. Marissa and Katie each wrote reflections on workshops they attended and the lessons learned.     
We'll be providing a compendium of our blog posts like this every 6 weeks here on the BHL Blog. Be sure to subscribe to NDSR at BHL if you would like to read each new post as it is published. Next up, Ariadne will introduce history, important considerations, and ideas surrounding her project, and Pam will provide an update on her project about getting to know the BHL users and how they interact with BHL.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Expanding Access goes to Hollywood!

This is Mariah Lewis, Metadata Specialist for the Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature Grant Project, reporting in! Well, we didn't get that biodiversity literature television show we had been hoping for, but the Expanding Access grant team was on the move again in February conducting training sessions. This time it was a cross-country adventure to California. Happy to escape the New York winter, I began my adventure in San Diego.

Balboa Park is the home to the renowned San Diego Zoo, child of San Diego Zoo Global. However, northeast of the more traditional zoo, nestled among bright green mountains in the San Pasqual Valley is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The expansive wildlife sanctuary covers 1,800 acres and is occupied by over 3,000 animal residents. Over the weekend I was able to visit this oasis, go on a safari on the Africa tram, and even catch a cheetah cub feeding.


As the weekend ended it was time to get to work! Also found at the Safari Park is the Institute for Conservation Research, the Harter Veterinary Medical Center, and the San Diego Zoo Global Library. The Library is committed to providing materials, research, and project assistance to the San Diego Zoo Global crew and houses most of the zoo's collection of over 12,000 books and journals.

The Expanding Access training was hosted and attended by the Library staff. The two-day training cast a broad net including an overview of BHL, instruction on BHL systems and workflows, and hands on training of those BHL systems. We look forward to working with the team at the San Diego Zoo Global Library to include Bulletins of the Zoological Society of San Diego and other titles in the Biodiversity Heritage Library!

Photograph by: Jeanne Nelson
Pictured: Beth Autin, Mariah Lewis, and Kathy Elliott at the San Diego Zoo
The next stop on my California adventure was Lost Angeles after getting a (non-literal) crash course in California rush hour. The second training session was hosted at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and included staff from the LA Arboretum Library and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, both now Affiliates of BHL.

The history of the Los Angeles County Arboretum is rich and well documented on the Arboretum's website. A year after its founding in 1947, Dr. Frans Verdoorn- the first director- obtained the Library's first 1,000 books. With such a storied history it is no surprise that the Arboretum goes beyond being a botanical garden and also represents a historical site. The Library is a great example of how the LA Arboretum respects and exceed its mission to, "cultivate our natural, horticultural and historic resources for learning, enjoyment and inspiration." The current structure that houses the Library was originally built in 1959 with the addition of an annex built in 1986. The library is open to the public and its materials can be used on site. The Library holds a truly extensive collection of seed catalogs from companies across California- from Los Angeles to San Francisco. These seed catalogs will be added to BHL as part of the Expanding Access project.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is one of three in a family of natural history museums. The other two are the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and the William S. Hart Park and Museum. Located southwest of downtown Lost Angeles, the Museum has a collection of over 35 million objects placing it among the top collectors of natural and cultural history collections in terms of both the vastness and value of the items. It holds the title of being the largest of its kind within its collection since its inception in 1913. The Library has over 200,000 items and over 30 Special Collections in a number of fields related to natural history. The Library is accessible to Natural History Museum staff and researchers who make appointments. They have a strong focus on Southern California with content dating back to the 16th century. As one of their first additions to the Expanding Access project, they will be contributing a very rare and significant book about the birds of Ceylon.

This training was more focused on the hands-on aspects of BHL- getting images and information into BHL and making sure it is in the best possible condition for our users. The day was beautiful and we were able to enjoy lunch with the Arboretum's many peacock residents. The namesake for their face, there is also an event in March celebrating the friendly fowl whose lineage dates back to the late 1800s. The interactions between these two institutions and their staff was a wonderful reminder of the collaborative nature of the Biodiversity Heritage Library and its ability to help institutions transcend silos.

Photograph by: Bill Vogt
Pictured: Marissa Kings, Susan Eubank, Mariah Lewis, Patty Johnson, Lauren Noonan, Richard Hulser
While the weather for the trainings was perfect- in true California fashion- I was also able to experience the rain storm that made headlines. Hailed as a "once-in-a-decade" storm, I was truly able to get a well-rounded and amazing experience in Southern California. A special thanks goes out to my fabulous hosts in San Diego and Los Angeles for being part of the Expanding Access project and taking time out of their week to learn more about BHL!

Donahue, Katharine E.S. “Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Research Library.” Science & Technology Libraries 6, no. 1–2 (October 4, 1985): 83–89. doi:10.1300/J122v06n01_09.
“Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County - Los Angeles County.” Accessed March 2, 2017.
“Libraries & Museums - Los Angeles County.” Accessed March 9, 2017.
“Our History | The Arboretum.” Accessed March 2, 2017.
“Research Library.” Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, May 24, 2010.
“SDZG Library.” Accessed March 13, 2017.
“About San Diego Zoo Global.” San Diego Zoo Safari Park, December 16, 2014.

Photographs: All photographs, unless otherwise noted, were taken by Mariah Lewis.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Facebook Live Event 24 March: Celebrating Gesner

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) was a Swiss naturalist whose Historia Animalium is considered the starting point of modern zoology. 26 March is the anniversary of his birth, and institutions around the world will celebrate #GesnerDay by highlighting his publications and contributions on social media.

In anticipation of this event, join us for a Facebook Live broadcast as we go behind-the-scenes at the Smithsonian Libraries with Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Natural-History Rare Books, who will tell us more about Gesner and showcase some of his amazing publications from the collections of the Smithsonian's Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Rare Book Library of Natural History.

Many of Gesner's works have also been digitized for BHL. Browse them here.

Celebrating Gesner Facebook Live Event

When? 24 March, 2017 at 1:30pm ET

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ferrante Imperato: Step Into His Cabinet of Wonders!

By Laurel Byrnes
BHL Outreach Volunteer

Cabinets of Wonder: What Are They and Why Were They Created?

The term, “cabinet of wonder”, comes from the term “wunderkammer” (literally meaning “wonder chamber”).  The tradition of creating cabinets of wonder began during the Renaissance, the period of time between the 14th and 17th centuries.

In England and France, these cabinet of wonder collections were called “cabinets” or “curiosity cabinets”.  German speaking countries called the collections a variety of more specific terms: kunstkammer (“art cabinets”), schatzkammer (“treasure cabinets”), rüstkammer (history cabinets), and eventually wunderkammer (“marvel or curiosity cabinets”).  People during the Renaissance referred to these collections generically using the terms “wunderkammer” or “curiosity cabinet” interchangeably.

The first published pictorial representation of a Renaissance cabinet of curiosity in Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale. (Image digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.)

The Renaissance idea of creating a collection of (formerly) animate, inanimate, and botanical objects, and even odd specimens, came from a human desire to place mankind somewhere within the larger scheme of things.  Formerly, European princes built their own private studiolo or cabinets, which contained rare natural objects and books, and acted as status symbols to impress others.  Then the cabinets came to be used for scientific observation and contained more humble--but important--natural objects and specimens.  During the Renaissance, theorists from all fields of academia were making new scientific and philosophical discoveries, and realized that all of this new knowledge sometimes challenged previous beliefs about existence and mankind’s place within it.

Salamander, from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Different from modern museums, wunderkammer were generally created by a single scholar: in our example, Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625), an apothecary and scholar living in Naples.  In addition, the objects were believed to be interconnected by some singular purpose that could shed light on man’s place within existence. 

Humanism was one of the most predominant movements in Italy during the Renaissance, and some humanists believed, among other things, in a notion of universalism--the idea that all things and all people were connected by some shared visible and/or invisible similarities, and all created by the divine. 

The Renaissance humanists endeavored to use reasoning to explain unknown aspects of nature, which developed into the study of natural history: empirical observations and experimentation were used to make conclusions about the physical world.  Thus the Renaissance, and the creators of cabinets of wonder, were important in setting the stage for extraordinary advances in scientific knowledge in the decades following.

Remora fish, from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

What Were the Beliefs of Some Creators of Cabinets of Wonder, and Why Was Ferrante Imperato So Important?

Some creators of cabinets of wonder used for scientific observation and experimentation were pietistic, and stressed living a good and helpful life.  For this reason, the cabinets’ creators often wrote of their collections and made them open to the public to make people aware of the beauty of nature and the usefulness of natural objects.  The creators would also observe and experiment on items in their collections in an endeavor to increase knowledge of all aspects of the world.  Additionally, creators of cabinets of wonder often corresponded with, and visited, one another and discussed their collections and findings to increase the collective knowledge about the natural world and existence. 

In this vein of sharing knowledge, Ferrante Imperato was convinced by his son, Francesco, and by his own friends, to produce a written account of his cabinet of wonder, in the form of the 28 books which comprise his work Dell’historia Naturale.  The majority of the work’s books are concerned with stones, minerals, gems and earth (i.e., minerology and related fields).  The last two books deal with living organisms: plants and animals.  Imperato especially featured and worked with herbs used to create medicines as an apothecary. 

The first version of Dell’historia Naturale, printed in 1599, totaled 791 pages between the 28 books that comprised it, with 119 woodcut illustrations interspersed throughout the text.  One of the first European natural history research collections, Imperato's cabinet may have contained as many as 35,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens.  Imperato quoted other authors at the beginning of his subject sections and discussed what he thought of the authors’ ideas, and then launched into his own beliefs about the subjects based on his experimentation on, and observation of, specimens in his cabinet of wonder.

Marine creature and Horned Viper, from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Many creators of these cabinets were drawn to collecting specimens in an endeavor to make life more comfortable for people in acts of piety, either by collecting herbs and natural materials like Imperato did in order to create medicines, or by collecting natural materials believed to be alchemical or metallurgical in order to experiment with new recipes (“segreti”, or “secrets”) to ease human ailments. Sometimes piety, however, was considered heretical by the Catholic Church in Italy at this time due to pietism’s emphasis on individual religious devotion (which leaves room for the idea that the Church may not be needed). 

Imperato’s friend and scientific rival, Giovanni Battista Della Porta, who practiced pietism, created the Academia Secretorum Naturae (“Accademia dei Segreti”), which translates to “The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature”, in order to study and share information about natural science with like-minded scholars.  In 1579, Della Porta’s Accademia was accused of sorcery and disbanded by the Pope.

Insects from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Arachnids and other insects from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Some humanist scholars did, in fact, possess objects in their cabinets of wonder believed to have magical properties based on arcane knowledge, and these items included magical lanterns, speaking tubes, and distorting mirrors.  So the humanist sharing of “secrets of nature” did include, for some, secret of a magical (heretical) sort. 

Imperato saw his cabinet of wonder as a place to derive knowledge directly from the artifacts before him, rather than trying to apply secret knowledge from arcane ancient and contemporary manuscripts to the objects in order to try and produce a result, like other scholars of his time, such as Girolamo Ruscelli (who had his own Accademia Segreta). 

When Imperato’s Dell’historia Naturale was being printed in 1599, and more people knew about the pietism, and beliefs in magical properties of some items in some cabinets of wonder, Imperato’s son, Francesco, feared his father’s text might lead to heresy charges.  Francesco thus quickly printed another shorter version of his father’s text with many references to saints and Christian writers. 

Imperato was not charged by the Church with heresy or sorcery when his full text, in all 28 books, came out, and this text became the first to feature an illustration of a cabinet of wonder, and the first work on natural history completely written in Italian (rather than scholarly Latin). 

An experiment with asbestos, from Ferranto Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (1599). Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Interesting Facts:

Some of the scholars and knowledgeable men with whom Ferrante Imperato corresponded included: Ulisse Aldovrandi, Gaspard Bauhin, Pierandrea Mattioli, and Fabio Colona.

Imperato was amazed by asbestos, which was a relatively new substance at the time, with paradoxical and malleable qualities.  Imperato experimented with asbestos and included an illustration of one of his experiments with it in Dell’historia Naturale (fig. 18)--the only experiment depicted in the work.

In order to argue that a toad’s skull was actually a stone unlike any other natural stones, Imperato captured a pregnant viper and gathered many toads to prove that the viper could not penetrate the toad’s skull, and called the toad’s skull “toadstone” (pietra di rospo).

In 1611, Galileo demonstrated for other scholars the luminescent nature of a stone called the “Bologna stone” (lapis Bononiensis), or the “solar sponge”.  When Imperato heard about this stone, he was fascinated but thought it qualified as natural magic and claimed: “I believe that it is not natural but artificial”.

Cabinets of wonder often included fossils--Imperato had many--and humanist debate in Italy in the early fifteenth century led to subsequent discussions about what the existence of fossils meant; European students visiting Italy spread this debate throughout many regions when they returned to their home towns.

Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’historia Naturale contains medical folklore such as the ideas that wearing amethyst in the navel prevents drunkenness, sapphire cleans the eyes in such a way as to prevent lust, and jasper worn as an amulet can stop bleeding.


Dion, M. (n.d.). History of the wunderkammern (cabinet of curiosities). Mark Dion: Tate Thames Dig. Retrieved from

Duffin, C.J., Moody, R.T.J., & Gardner-Thorpe, C. (Eds.). (2013). A history of geology and medicine. Geological Society: Special Publication, 375, 23-24.

Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing nature: Museums, collecting, and scientific culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press.

Grice, G. (2015). Cabinet of curiosities: Collecting and understanding the wonders of the natural world. New York, N.Y.: Workman Publishing.

Guitard, E. (1937). Ferrante Imperato. Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie, 25(100), 196.

Mottana, A. (n.d). The first modern translation of Theophrastus' "On Stones" (pi epsilon rho Anot sign lambda AI omega I1/2; De lapidibus): Ferrante Imperato (1599). Rendiconti Lincei-Scienze Fisiche E Naturali21(1), 1-25.

Philippe, J. (2003). Les curiosités de trois apothicaires. Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie, 91(340), 603-610.

Rosenberg, G.D. (Ed.). (2009). The revolution in geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. GSA Memoir Series, 203, 84.

Vai, G. B., & Cavazza, W. (2006). Ulisse Aldrovandi and the origin of geology and science. The origins of geology in Italy: GSA special papers, 411, 43-63. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

19th Century Butterflies: Reconstructing a Collection’s History with BHL

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a recent BHL Affiliate, is home to one of the largest natural history collections in the world, consisting of over 37 million specimens. Additionally, Naturalis has contributed nearly 200,000 pages to the BHL collection since 2016.

Over 900,000 of the museum's 37+ million specimens are butterflies, some dating back to the 18th century. Approximately 18,000 drawers are required to store this vast Lepidoptera collection.

The Naturalis butterfly collection is not only vast, it is also rich in type specimens, which are indexed through type catalogs combining historical and taxonomical research. Recently, researchers set about compiling such a catalog for the museum's South East Asian Adoliadini (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae) type specimens.

In order to create this catalog, which was published last year (Gassó Miracle, M.E. & T. Yokochi, 2016, Lepidoptera Science 67(2)), the authors needed to access and compare all existing taxonomic descriptions for the specimens, identify synonyms, contrast plates and photographs, and verify geographic distribution.

"For all of this, specialized literature is essential," asserts Eulàlia Gassó Miracle, Curator of Butterflies at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and co-author of the Adoliadini type catalog.

In order to sort out confusion regarding the origin, labeling, and taxonomy for the specimens, Eulàlia and her co-authors consulted more than 80 journals and books. More than half of them were available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

"BHL helped us to revise the taxonomy and the history of the specimens," explains Eulàlia.

Eulàlia Gassó at the Naturalis butterfly collection. Photo by Henk Caspers.

BHL has been one of Eulàlia's "most valued research tools" for the past decade.

"Although I have the privilege of access to most of the literature I need, either at the library of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center or the Leiden University Library, the BHL collection allows me to work in a flow from…well, anywhere," explains Eulàlia. "BHL has also made available rare and unique publications from the 18th and 19th century, much needed for my research, that I cannot find in The Netherlands."

Eulàlia first discovered BHL while looking for works by C.J. Temminck, zoologist and first director of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (RMNH, now Naturalis Biodiversity Center). Since then, she has used it to support her work as collections manager in various departments at the museum as well as her research on the history of 19th century natural history.

Title page of Manuel d'ornithologie, ou Tableau systématique des oiseaux qui se trouvent en Europe (Vol. 1, 2nd ed., 1820), by C.J. Temminck. Digitized by University Library, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

"As the curator of a natural history collection that is centuries old, I am also terribly curious about its former curators and curatorial practices," says Eulàlia. "For this, again, BHL is a constant source of information and images. I share some of my findings and musings in my personal blog, the Museum Chronicles. For my historical research on the life and work of Temminck, accessing online his works and those of his peers has uncluttered my desk, helped organize my thoughts, given me access to new works – and with them, new insights - In a word, BHL helps me progress."

Eulàlia uses BHL daily, either reading titles online or taking advantage of the custom PDF generation feature to download content. BHL's high resolution image download feature, which Eulàlia discovered thanks to an @BioDivLibrary tweet, helps her compare illustrations with specimens. To further facilitate her research, Eulàlia is anxious to see full text search added to the BHL website. Happily, this is a feature that is currently in development.

BHL's collections not only serve as a daily resource for Eulàlia's research, but they also help her start each day with a little piece of natural history beauty.

Plate 12 of Snellen van Vollenhoven’s work on Adolias butterflies. The type specimens are deposited at Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

"Recently, one of my favorite items is the article of Snellen van Vollenhoven on Adolias butterflies, one that I have read and examined repeatedly while validating the status of his type specimens," says Eulàlia. "Plate 12 is so beautiful, it is the first thing I see when starting my computer."

Indeed, we're firm believers that every day is better with a little bit of #SciArt. So, whether you need to brighten your day with a little natural history eye candy or reconstruct the history of a type collection, BHL has you covered.