Magnificent Crustacea: Leach and Sowerby’s Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae

Without a doubt, Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae (1815-1875) is one of the most beautiful publications dedicated to Crustacea. This work, a very special proofprint copy of which has recently been digitized and made available on BHL by the Naturalis Library, was the work of two well-known names in British natural history: the young zoologist William Elford Leach (1791-1836) and the experienced naturalist and engraver James Sowerby (1757-1822). The background and personal history of both gentlemen had a great influence on the coming about of the publication.


William Elford Leach

William Elford Leach was one of the great British zoologists of the beginning of the nineteenth century. He started his career as assistant librarian at the British Museum and was responsible for the zoological collections. He was given the task of reorganizing the collections of Hans Sloane, which formed the basis of the museum.

Of the old carcinological collection, not much was left by the nineteenth century. Because of its deplorable condition, Leach’s predecessors were forced to destroy much of the collection materials, and as a result, of the hundreds of crustaceans left by Sloane in the eighteenth century, only one specimen has survived to this day. The core of the current carcinological collections of the British Museum is formed by specimens collected under Leach’s supervision. Not only did material from all over the world come in through his scientific contacts, he also donated his personal collection to the museum.

Leach’s merits go beyond collection building alone. He was a gifted taxonomist with a large scientific network who was therefore aware of the developments in systematics on the European continent. He shared this knowledge with his colleagues in Great Britain, organized the collections on a more scientific basis, and wrote a series of articles about it.

The scientific names that Leach introduced were sometimes unusual and not appreciated by all. He named for instance countless genera after a certain Caroline. Leach used her (latenized) name playfully as an anagram to create genus names like Ricenela and Cirolana. Nevertheless, his work ethic was highly praised and his scientific productivity was second to none.

Sadly, Leach’s career lasted only a decade. In 1821, he suffered a nervous breakdown from which he would never recover. A year later he departed from the museum. As a thank you for the enormous collections he had left behind, he received a pension from the British Museum. He did not fare much better after that. He traveled to France and Italy and died of cholera in 1836.

James Sowerby

Leach was a scientific innovator and brought the zoology in Great Britain to a higher level. Part of his success lay in his collaboration with a gifted artist. For the illustrations in Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae, he relied on the detailed and colorful imagination of James Sowerby.

Sowerby was well known because of his extensive contributions to botanical masterpieces such as A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was an artist who actively engaged in scientific work. He maintained correspondence with naturalists and urged them to send material that he could use for detailed studies. The colors that Sowerby used in his work are vivid and meant to appeal to a large audience. In 1809, he published a theory in which he stated that the basic colors red, yellow and blue offer all possibilities for botanical, zoological and geological imagination because these colors were given by nature.

Gold-plated Crabs and The Special Collection of Bibliotheca Carcinologica

The Bibliotheca Carcinologica, a unique collection in the Naturalis Library of approximately 8,000 publications and a large reprint collection, holds two special copies of Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae. This collection was amassed by a former curator, Lipke Bijdeley Holthuis (1921-2008), who for more than half a century was the leading expert in his field of crustacean taxonomy. He was particularly interested in collecting books that had been handed down by his famous predecessors.

The Bibliotheca Carcinologica’s first copy of Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae was specially bound for the British collector Henry Arthus Johnstone. It features a band of green morocco decorated with gilded crabs and Johnstone’s coat of arms.


Johnstone’s library contained much natural history and was sold in its entirety to a London bookseller in 1921. Subsequently, the books have spread all over the world.

A beautiful binding and a good provenance are of course desirable, but for Holthuis it was of greater importance that a copy was complete, and that in addition all information that provides insight into the publication’s history was preserved. At the back of Johnstone’s copy of Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae are the covers of the original seventeen plus the two later issues, revealing exact publication dates and an alternate original title, as well as providing insight into the intention of William Elford Leach with regards to the publication.

On the cover of the first issue, Leach wrote that he wanted to publish twelve or fourteen episodes. He asked British naturalists to help make the publication as complete as possible and encouraged them to accurately analyze all the ‘rubbish’ that dredgers collected from the seabed. Apparently, his call was successful, because on the cover of the thirteenth issue, Leach indicates that the discovery of new species made it impossible to complete the work in fourteen episodes. The new goal was to complete it within eighteen or nineteen episodes.

After the seventeenth episode that appeared on March 1, 1820, the publication ceased. Leach was unable to continue his work after his breakdown. Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae was finally completed by George Brettinham Sowerby (1812-1884) over half a century later after the publisher Bernard Quaritch had bought up the stock remnants. Quaritch was sensitive to the wish of James Sowerby’s descendant to finish the publication according to the original plan. In one additional episode published in 1875 as nos. XVIII and XIX, six more plates plus a beautiful plate of a European lobster (Homarus gammarus), which had previously been unfinished, were published.

Printing Proofs

More than thirty years after Holthuis had acquired the fine copy from the library of Henry Arthur Johnstone, he bought a very expensive complete set of nineteen separate episodes of Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae. On the surface, it is not immediately clear why he would do this: after all, the copy he already had in his possession was complete, with all of the plates and the original covers of the episodes. Further analysis shows that this second copy purchased by Holthuis represents the proofs that William Elford Leach used to provide direction for the publication. On plate XXXIX, for example, he writes: ‘Can the rostrum be the added to this plate?’

The rostrum is a pointed, forward-looking deformity of the armor of a crustacean, which sometimes provides usable distinctive indication for taxonomic classification. No wonder Leach asked Sowerby if he could show that in detail. On the plate in Johnstone’s copy of the title, the rostrum of Spirontocaris spinus is indeed added.

Other instructions from Leach have also been neatly followed up. The proofs have no direct meaning for the nomenclature; after all, these are unpublished trials with no published names. However, they do provide a good insight into the way Leach and Sowerby worked together and which colors they had in mind.

This unique proofprint copy has recently been digitized for BHL by the Naturalis Library. You can explore it in BHL for free.


Naturalis Library

The library holds a large collections of scientific, taxonomic literature on zoology, geology, botany and palaeontology. It caters to everyone interested in researching biodiversity, geodiversity and evolution. The library is almost 200 years old and contains around 200,000 books, journals, drawings, prints, icones and many other archived materials.

This blog is largely based on the chapter: Alex Alsemgeest, ‘Malacostraca Podophthalmata Brittanniae: de drukproeven van het mooiste kreeftenboek. In: A. Alsemgeest en C. Fransen (eds.), In krabbengang door kreeftenboeken: de Bibliotheca Carcinologica L.B. Holthuis (Leiden: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, 2016), p. 123-127.

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Godard Tweehuysen is an Information Specialist at the Naturalis Library of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center.