Thursday, May 28, 2015

Happy Birthday, Louis Agassiz!

Naturalist, educator, and founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born on May 28, 1807, in Môtier, Switzerland, the oldest son of prominent pastor Rodolphe Agassiz and Rose Mayor Agassiz. Growing up near Lake Morat, Louis was fascinated by fish, catching them barehanded along with his brother Auguste. Louis was determined to study science, although his family encouraged him to pursue medicine. He studied at the Universities of Munich, Heidelberg, and Erlangen, earning a Ph.D. in 1829 and an M.D. in 1830. His 1829 publication on the fishes of Brazil (Selecta genera et species piscium) attracted the attention of Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and Agassiz spent the next two years in Paris with Cuvier.

Louis Agassiz at 19, from a pastel drawing by Cecile Braun in Louis Agassiz: his Life and Correspondence.

In 1832, Agassiz became a professor of natural history at the College of Neuchâtel and married Cecile Braun, an artist and the sister of botanist Alexander Braun (1805-1877). At Neuchâtel,  Louis published on diverse subjects, including a five volume work on fossil fish, Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles. Louis and Cecile had three children while at Neuchâtel: Alexander (1835-1910), Ida (1837-1935) and Pauline (1841-1917).

Agassiz, Louis. Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (1833-43). Vol. 2, plate 69c.

Between 1835-1845, while continuing to study and write about zoological topics, Agassiz also began studying geology, especially the European glaciers. His Etudes sur les Glaciers (1840) and Systeme Glaciaire (1847) were leading works in glacial theory and establishing the existence of an Ice Age.

In 1845, King Frederick William IV of Prussia awarded Agassiz a grant to travel to the United States to study "the natural history of the New World." Agassiz sailed for Boston in September 1846. He intended to travel for two years, not knowing that he would eventually make Massachusetts his home. At the invitation of prominent businessman John Amory Lowell (1798-1881), Agassiz spoke at the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1846-47, followed by lectures in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere on the east coast of the United States. American scientists and ordinary citizens turned out in great numbers to hear him. The published edition of his later (1849) Lowell Lecture series on embryology is available through the BHL. Beyond the lecture hall, Agassiz explored the United States from Lake Superior to the coral reefs of Florida.

Agassiz was enthusiastically welcomed into the academic and cultural life of the Boston area, and was appointed to a three-year post as Professor of Zoology and Geology at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School in 1847. Agassiz' young family had stayed in Europe, where Cecile died of tuberculosis in 1848. After her death, Agassiz decided to relocate in the United States permanently, and his children joined him in Massachusetts. In 1850 Louis married Elizabeth Cabot Cary (1822-1907), who would be a partner in all aspects of his life and a founder of Radcliffe College. 

A life-long collector, Agassiz immediately started assembling a zoological teaching collection at Harvard. He put out a call to the public around the U.S. in his Directions for Collecting Fishes and other Objects of Natural History. Agassiz' texts Principles of Zoology...for the Use of Schools and Colleges and Outlines of Comparative Physiology...for the use of Schools and Colleges were reprinted in multiple editions.

By the late 1850s, Harvard's facilities (and Agassiz' home) were bursting with his collections. The need for space and Agassiz' ambition to create a premier natural history museum in his adopted country led to the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1859. While Louis was teaching and administering the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, Elizabeth operated a school for young women at the Agassiz' home from 1855-1863. More details of their life, together with the three Agassiz children, can be found in the BHL in Louis Agassiz; his life and correspondence by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz : a Biography by Lucy Allen Paton.

The Thayer Expedition to Brazil in 1865-1866 was an enormous success for Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz, collecting over 34,000 specimens for the MCZ. Louis, who started his career writing about fishes of Brazil collected by J.B. von Spix and C.F.P. von Martius, finally encountered them in their native habitat.

Astronotus ocellatus (Monte Alegre, Brazil) painted by J. Burkhardt during the Thayer Expedition. Special Collections of the Ernst Mayr Library of the MCZ.

Other notables on the expedition were a young William James (1842-1910) and Jacques Burkhardt (ca.1808-1867), Agassiz' assistant and illustrator. Burkhardt had been Agassiz' illustrator in Switzerland and joined him in the U.S. An exhibit of Burkhardt's work from the Thayer expedition is online. In addition to the scientific results published, Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz wrote the popular account A Journey in Brazil.

Although revered as a teacher, scientist and adventurer in his own time, Agassiz has become known for his disagreement with Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory. A product of his religious early 19th century upbringing, Agassiz viewed the world as Creation, and taught that plant and animal species were fixed, not evolving. He was characteristically self-confident and could not be swayed, preferring to joust with Darwin and others while evolution was discussed and accepted in the scientific community.

Louis Agassiz passed away on December 14, 1873, following a stroke, a year after returning from another expedition to South America on the U.S. Coast Survey Hassler. The Museum of Comparative Zoology today holds approximately 21 million specimens, and is an international center for graduate study and field research, including evolutionary biology as well as zoology, taxonomy and paleontology.

Mary Sears
Head of Public Services  
Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Instructional Design Internship

Picture of Kendra Hurt
Ever since eighth grade, I've known that I wanted to be a librarian. Originally my dilemma was choosing between being a teacher or a librarian, but as my understanding of the profession has grown and evolved, I've realized that I didn't have to choose! My early interest in education and information, along with my enthusiasm in learning more about technology and visual design, led me to apply for this opportunity to be an Instructional Design intern at the Smithsonian Libraries. 

Throughout this internship I did many things, but most of my time was spent creating and improving instructional documentation for users of the Biodiversity Heritage Library website as well as Smithsonian Libraries staff. I created video tutorials, drafted new written instructions, and helped improve the BHL Help page by reformatting existing and adding new content. My in-person instruction included two sessions on how to use Prezi effectively, and I also helped staff members learn Prezi and Jing (a screen capture video tool) on an informal basis. For BHL, I conducted two webinars for staff on advanced search features and the process for editing author metadata.

Below I have embedded my Prezi basics presentation, if you would like to take a look, or you can view it on Prezi's website.

As I mentioned above, I also created video tutorials, and you can find the video I made (using Jing) for BHL as well as the written instructions, on BHL's download help page. It shows the process of how to download a high quality image from BHL's collection.

Later this month I will complete my Master of Library Science degree at the University of Maryland, and I really appreciated this opportunity to work at the Smithsonian Libraries and BHL while finishing up my program. My supervisors, Bianca Crowley (BHL Collections Coordinator) and Trina Brown (Smithsonian Libraries Instruction/Reference Librarian), gave valuable advice and feedback on my work, and I appreciate their time and willingness to answer all questions great and small.

--Kendra Hurt, Instructional Design Intern, Smithsonian Libraries, Biodiversity Heritage Library 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mars Invaders: The Wonderful World of Microfungi

In 1897, a monumental work appeared in print for the first time. It was a story of invasion. It was a story of war. It was a story of Martians.

The story, of course, was The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, which first appeared in serialized form in the UK's Pearson's Magazine and the US's Cosmopolitan magazine in 1897. It was later first published in book form by William Heinemann of London in 1898. Written between 1895-97, it is one of the earliest stories centered around conflict between humans and extraterrestrials. An extremely influential work, it has never been out of print.

The 1906 Belgian edition of the book included drawings by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa. His original pencil and ink drawings, depicting Martians wreaking havoc on a devastated Earth, are in fact going up for auction today in Beverly Hills, California, and are expected to realize a sum of $500,000.

Martian Gas Cannon, from The War of the Worlds, Belgium edition, 1906. Pencil and Ink drawings by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Image from Heritage Auctions. Image obtained from:

Corrêa's Martians, although largely mechanical, still have a very organic feel to them. Indeed, to the eyes of a trained expert, they bare a striking resemblance to something altogether earthly - microfungi.

Microfungi are fungi such as molds, mildews and rusts that differ from macrofungi by the absence of a large, multicellular fruiting body. Present in all terrestrial and freshwater and marine environments, microfungi grow in plants, soil, water, insects, cattle rumens, hair, and skin. Often benign, some species are also harmful, causing diseases in plants, animals and humans.

Fig. 1. Dr. Dartanhã J. Soares, plant pathologist researcher at the Brazilian Corporation for Agricultural Research (Embrapa), holding his new decoration piece which was downloaded through BHL from Tulane’s Brothers Selecta Fungorum Carpologia. Vol.1

Dr. Dartanhã J. Soares has been studying plant pathology for twelve years. While his post graduate research focused on the taxonomy of plant pathogenic fungi, these days his work is focused on the management of fungal diseases on tropical crops at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). But while his current duties may deviate from an exclusive study of fungi, Dr. Soares' true passion is still mycology.

"I really love looking through the microscope and literally 'discovering' an amazing hidden world," enthuses Soares. "But before that, I need to collect samples to be examined, and this is almost as exciting as looking through the microscope. I really like to go into the field and collect plant samples exhibiting the most variable range of fungal infection symptoms like those caused by rust and smut fungi. We can see some examples of symptoms and spore types in these drawings from the late nineteen century" (Figs. 2 and 3).

Fig. 2. Symptoms and spore diversity of rust fungi from Rust, smut, mildew and mould: an introduction to the study of microscopic fungi. By M.C. Cooke and illustrated by J.E. Sowerby. London, 1898.

Soares' research on fungi, and discovery of amazing illustrations like those from Rust, smut, mildew and mould (Fig. 2 and 3), are what led him to the Biodiversity Heritage Library about seven years ago.

"I was trying to solve a puzzle about a superficial black fungus I found colonizing the leaves of Typha dominguensis," recalls Soares. "At that time, I had just finished my Ph.D. thesis and had enough time to dig into the Internet looking for 'obscure' things. I eventually came across G. Arnaud’s thesis Les Astérinées, available in BHL. The book itself did not help me as much as I needed, not only because it was in French, but also because the information I was looking for was only partially mentioned. However, it revealed another hidden world which was the amazing possibility to access landmark works about fungi, of course, that I would never be able to access by any other way. However, it is important to note that I did not discover the full potential of BHL at that time. That happened later, when I 'found' Reginald Buller’s Researches on Fungi. At that time, [I realized], 'Hey, I’ve already visited this website before. Maybe I can find other landmark works on it.' And then I started to dig a little deeper into BHL."

Fig. 3. Symptoms and spore diversity of smut fungi from Rust, smut, mildew and mould: an introduction to the study of microscopic fungi. By M.C. Cooke and illustrated by J.E. Sowerby. London, 1898.

Accessing BHL on average about once a month, Soares sees the true value of BHL through the ability to satisfy his curiosity about the natural world.

"BHL is a powerful tool and makes our lives easier," explains Soares. "BHL is doing amazing work making such rare and wonderful 'masterpieces' available to everyone around the globe. Specific to my research field, BHL has a minor direct impact; sometimes it is necessary to check some old fungal description and in those cases I check BHL to see if the original work is available. However, indirectly BHL had a much bigger impact. BHL is providing me with a unique opportunity to improve my knowledge and mainly my curiosity about some classical works I had already heard about but never had the opportunity to read myself."

While Soares most often uses BHL to download whole PDFs of books, one of his favorite features on the website is the multiple means through which he can access and download content and the breadth of materials available.

"BHL is very versatile in the ways it provides access to what I need," lauds Soares. "Sometimes I read titles or parts of titles online, but more frequently I download the whole PDF to include the title in my personal digital library. More recently, I have also requested to download high resolution images because I was interested in having the picture framed. Additionally, at first I used BHL only for work or related topics, but now I see that there are a lot of interesting titles [outside of my direct field of study]. For example, some time ago I read the book The river of doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, and recently I saw that the book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, written by Theodore Roosevelt, is available at BHL. I have downloaded and started reading it."

But while he loves the ability to download high resolution images from BHL, this feature also triggers a response from Soares on what he would like to see changed in BHL.

"The only thing I would change is the downloading process of high resolution images. It is a little tricky. It would be wonderful if we had the option to download high resolution images with one click, like: 'click here to obtain this page in high resolution.'"

While we have recently released a tutorial better explaining how to download high resolution images from BHL, an easier way to provide access to these images is an item that we have added to our development wish list.

But what does all of this have to do with Martians and H.G. Wells? To understand, you have to consider Wells through the eyes of a fungi expert.

Fig. 4. Phylactinia guttata from Selecta Fungorum Carpologia. Vol.1, Tab.I, Tulasne, E.L.-R and C. 1861.

"My favorite title [in BHL] is Selecta fungorum carpologia from the Tulasne brothers," begins Soares. "The line drawings are so amazing, so 'real,' and with such richness of detail that I constantly ask myself how they did that with such rudimental microscopes. If you have any doubt about this, look at Erysiphe guttata, which nowadays is called Phyllactinia guttata, in Selecta Fungorum Carpologia Vol 1, Tab.I (Fig. 4). The sexual stage, the globose bodies, of this fungus are smaller than a pin head, and even so can you see the richness of detail? Additionally, the Tulasne brothers established the pleomorphism - which is the capacity of a single organism to show distinct forms - of fungi and summarized their results in Selecta fungurom carpologia, which became a landmark [title] on fungi research. Well, at this point, you're probably asking yourself, where are the Martians? Don’t you see them? Look more carefully at Fig. 4. Does the general aspect of the sexual bodies of P. guttata remind you of anything? No? Well, maybe you should take a second look at some of the images from The War of the Worlds. Ha-ha, probably now you are wondering if H.G. Wells got inspirations from P. guttata to describe the invading martians, aren’t you?"

Comparing Corrêa's Martians to Tulasnes' fungi. Left: "Martian Gas Cannon." Right: "Death of Curate." Both from The War of the Worlds, Belgium edition, 1906. Pencil and Ink drawings by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Images from Heritage Auctions. Images obtained from: Center image: Phylactinia guttata from Selecta Fungorum Carpologia. Vol.1, Tab.I, Tulasne, E.L.-R and C. 1861.
Thank you, Dr. Soares, for taking the time to explore the wonderful world of fungi and Martians with us! Do you use BHL to support your work? Want to tell us about it? Send us a message at 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The First Comprehensive Description of Reptiles and Amphibians

Fig 1: Furcifer verrucosus (Madagascar warty chameleon); Fig 2: Tongue of Chamaeleo senegalensis (Senegal chameleon); Fig 3: dorsal head view of Furcifer bifidus (Two-horned Madagascar chameleon). Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).
1834 was a landmark year in the field of herpetology - the study of amphibians and reptiles. It was the year that the first volume of André Marie Constant Duméril's monumental work Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles was published. Produced over a twenty year period, between 1834-54, this nine volume set (plus atlas) became the first comprehensive scientific account of the world's known amphibians and reptiles.

Fig 1 and 1a: Xenopus laevis (African-clawed frog); Fig  2: Pipa pipa (Surinam toad). Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).

Duméril began his career as a doctor and professor of anatomy, but, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, George Cuvier selected him as the head of ichthyology and herpetology at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, thus making Duméril the curator of the largest and most diverse herpetological collection in the world at the time. Duméril set out to develop a revised higher-level taxonomic organization for amphibians and reptiles and, together with his assistant Gabriel Bibron, examined and described much of the museum's enormous collection between 1832-48.

Fig 1: Geochelone sulcata (African spur-thighed tortoise); Fig 2: Pyxis arachnoides (Madagascar spider tortoise).  Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).

The revised taxonomy and detailed descriptions of the species in the Paris collection were presented within Erpétologie générale, which ultimately related 1,393 species and included 120 plates, many of which were hand-painted.

Bibron, sadly, died of tuberculosis in 1848, before the completion of the series. Duméril's son, Auguste Henri André Duméril, then assisted his father in the completion of volumes 7, 9, and the atlas.

Ptychozoon kuhli (Flying gecko). Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).

Erpétologie générale was a ground-breaking work, setting the standard for herpetological reference with copies deposited in major scientific libraries of the nineteenth century. The accurate species descriptions and remarkable plates ensures that this work is still of vital research interest to today's scientific community, regardless of the fact that the presented taxonomic revision itself is now considered obsolete (Duméril, for instance, considered amphibians as one of four orders within Reptilia, alongside turtles, snakes and lizards, the latter including crocodiles).

Today, Reptilia and Amphibia are two separate classes, and the living subgroups recognized within Reptilia include Crocodilia (crocodiles, gavials, caimans, and alligators), Sphenodontia (tuatara from New Zealand), Squamata (lizards, snakes, and worm lizards), and Testudines (turtles, terrapins and tortoises). All told, over 10,000 species of reptiles and approximately 7,000 species of amphibians are known today.

Pytho sebae (African rock python). Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).

Duméril's remarkable Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles is freely available within the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and Smithsonian Libraries. Browse the complete work today and enjoy the stunning illustrations in Flickr.

The research for this post was obtained from "The First Comprehensive Description of the Amphibians and Reptiles of the World," by Christopher J. Raxworthy. This essay can be found within Natural Histories (2012), an excellent resource on a selection of rare books found within the American Museum of Natural History Library, many of which are also freely available within BHL.