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Abstracts for Cabinet of Natural History

This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.

Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. You are welcome to bring your lunch with you.

Organised by Edwin Rose (edr24).

Easter Term 2017

Show overview

1 May Jennifer M. Rampling (Princeton University)
When a stone is not a stone: doing alchemy with plants and animals
The pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets was a popular source of alchemical knowledge in medieval Europe, with its mysterious reference to 'a stone that is not a stone' – a substance which was simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral. Over the centuries, alchemists picked over this trope as they sought to explain how substances from the different kingdoms of nature were able to interact. For instance, ingredients that were apparently incompatible on philosophical grounds – such as gold, eggshells and spirit of wine – might in practice combine to create interesting effects, and to raise alchemical hopes. This talk will trace some attempts to solve theoretical and practical problems in multi-species alchemy, such as how to induce minerals to 'grow' like plants, or how to dissolve gold in vegetable solvents. Above all, how could alchemists persuade patrons to invest in such techniques?
8 May Mark Wormald (Pembroke College, Cambridge)
Poetic electrons: Ted Hughes and the mayfly
In 1981, the artist Leonard Baskin wrote to the poet Ted Hughes with a list of fifteen projected poems about insects that would feature in their next collaboration. It began with 'The Mayfly'. A poem with that title appeared in London Magazine in 1983, but was never collected. The central poem in Flowers and Insects (1986) which Baskin illustrated, 'Saint's Island', incorporates several phrases and insights first used in 'The Mayfly'. And in 1993 Hughes published 'The Mayfly is Frail', in a revised text of his collection River (first published in 1983).

This paper describes Hughes's education in the mayfly. Like its subject, it had a long and hidden larval stage, but took memorable flight in a fishing trip to Ireland in May 1982, which ended at Saint's Island on Lough Ree. Two remarkable prose accounts of this trip are among Hughes' papers in the British Library. Between them they shape a visionary narrative, beginning with an Oxford tutorial in entomology from his son Nicholas, and detailing Hughes's attempts, in the company of a group of fanatical Irish fishermen, to catch lough trout on imitations of its dun, or Green Drake, and spinner, or Spent. The poetry that emerged from this experience is faithful to these circumstances but also transcends them, offering a powerful vision of ecological interconnection not just to lovers of poetry but to all those concerned for the health of our rivers and lakes.
15 May Christina Skott (History, Cambridge)
Clas Fredrik Hornstedt, the 'last Linnaean' in the East Indies, 1783–4
In the early 1780s members of the circle of amateur naturalists in Batavia sometimes referred to as the 'East-Indies Enlightenment' sought to appoint a curator for the collections of the newly founded Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. It was not far-fetched to turn to Sweden, as the society looked for a naturalist trained in Linnaean method and nomenclature. The man eventually sent out to Java was Clas Fredrik Hornstedt, a student of Carl Peter Thunberg, himself one of the most prominent students of Linnaeus. Hornstedt would spend little over a year in Java. Returning to Sweden in 1786 he brought with him vast collections, not only of animals, plants and minerals, but also materia medica, ethnographica and manuscripts, as well as extensive journals and annotations.

This paper uses Hornstedt's collecting endeavour in the East-Indies to make observations on the status of science in Sweden in the generation after the death of Linnaeus. It is argued that the Linnaean ambition to record and list everything with boundless scientific detail here was extended to geography, history, literature, thus contributing to the empirical knowledge of eighteenth-century Java and its inhabitants. But Hornstedt has also been seen as the last travelling Linnaean, and the fate of his collections shows that this particular form of knowledge gathering and collecting was increasingly becoming unfashionable in Sweden.
22 May Ken McNamara (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge)
Exploring John Woodward's scientific writing in his catalogues of fossils (1728, 1729)
The 9,600 specimens that form the geological collection of Dr John Woodward (1667–1728) were, in part, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge. Of the four cabinets that housed his collection, the two not bequeathed were purchased by the University from Woodward's executors, thus keeping the collection intact. Woodward was meticulous in detailing the provenance of his specimens, whether collected by himself or donated by others. This he did in a number of hand-written catalogues which are housed today in the Sedgwick Museum's archives. These catalogues, subsequently published in two volumes after Woodward's death, are not merely lists of specimens. They contain many of Woodward's ideas on geology, mineralogy and palaeontology. Although he is best remembered for his contentious An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth:... published in 1695, the catalogues contain a wealth of observations and interpretations of the geological world by Woodward that were, in many cases, hundreds of years ahead of their time. Along with a discussion of his classification of rocks and minerals, and hierarchical classification of fossilised organic remains, I will examine a number of his insightful interpretations based on his collection, especially in palaeoecology and taphonomy, showing that Woodward deserves to be credited with being one of the first scientific geologists.
Tuesday 30 May Cabinet Trip to the Natural History Museum, London
We will be visiting a selection of historical collections in the Botany Department, Earth Sciences Department, Entomology Department and the Library and Archives. Due to the size of the rooms in the Museum, only a maximum of 20 participants can be accommodated. More details will follow shortly.
5 June James Delbourgo (Rutgers University)
Ten things you always wanted to know about Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum... but were afraid to ask
In 1759 the British Museum opened its doors for the first time – the first free national public museum in the world. But how did it come into being? This talk is based on a new biography of its founder, Hans Sloane, which recounts the story behind the museum's creation. Born in Northern Ireland in 1660, Sloane amassed a fortune as a London society physician, becoming a member of the Whig establishment and president of the Royal Society and Royal College of Physicians. His wealth and contacts enabled him to assemble an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects – the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time. For Sloane, collecting a world of objects meant collecting a world of people. His marriage to a Jamaican sugar heiress gave him access to both planters and African slaves, from whom he collected a variety of objects. He then established a network of agents to supply artifacts from China, India, North America, the Caribbean and beyond: plants and animals, books and manuscripts, a 'shoe made of human skin', the head of an Arctic walrus, slaves' banjos, magical amulets, Buddhist shrines, copies of the Qur'ān and more – nothing was off limits to Sloane's curiosity and fortune. The overlooked story of one of the Enlightenment's most controversial luminaries offers a fresh perspective on the entanglement of scientific discovery and imperialism in the eighteenth century and the heritage of today's global museums.
Friday 16 June Cabinet Garden Party, Finella, Queen's Road
Sujit Sivasundaram (History, Cambridge)
The oils of Empire and the banks of the Irrawaddy