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April in the Historical Sciences

A calendar of anniversaries in the palaetiological sciences of evolutionary biology, systematics, historical linguistics, text transmission, historical geology, paleontology, genealogy, archeology, anthropology, cosmology, historical geography, and related fields, from the Darwin-L Archives on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

April 2

1747: JOHANN JACOB DILLENIUS dies at Oxford, England, after an attack of apoplexy. Born in Germany in 1687, Dillenius studied medicine at Giessen and was eventually appointed doctor to the town. His interest in botany won him election to the Caesare Leopoldina-Carolina Academia Naturae Curiosum, and he soon published a flora of the region around Giessen, Catalogus plantarum circa Gissam sponte nascentium (Frankfurt am Main, 1718). Because Dillenius was critical of Bachmann, whose botanical system was then popular, he did not find favor in German systematic circles, and he emigrated to England in 1721 at the invitation of William Sherard, who hired Dillenius to work on his botanical encyclopedia. In England Dillenius was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1724 he oversaw the publication of the final edition of John Ray’s Synopsis plantarum (London, 1724). He played host to Linnaeus in 1736 when the Swedish botanist visited Oxford, and published Historia muscorum, an influential study of the cryptogams, in 1741. His herbarium will be preserved in the collections of Oxford University.

April 3

1683: MARK CATESBY is born at Castle Hedingham, Essex, England. The son of a lawyer and public official, the young Catesby will develop an early interest in botany and will become a friend of the prominent English naturalist John Ray. From 1712 to 1719 Catesby will live with his sister in the Virginia colony, and the plants he will collect during his stay in America will bring him to the attention of a number of other prominent naturalists, including Sir Hans Sloane. Catesby will be commissioned to return to America for the purpose of natural history exploration and collecting, and from 1722 to 1726 he will travel through South Carolina, Florida, and the West Indies. Upon his return to England he will publish the acclaimed Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743), a work that will be used by Linnaeus as the source for his descriptions of North American birds.

April 6

1732: JOSÉ CELESTINO BRUNO MUTIS Y BOSSIO is born at Cadiz, Spain. A student of medicine at Seville and Madrid, Mutis will be appointed physician to the viceroy of the Spanish colony of Nueva Granada, and he will sail to America in 1760. He will travel extensively, collecting plants throughout Nueva Granada, and will correspond with many botanists in Europe including Linnaeus. He will die in Santa Fe de Bogotá (later Bogotá, Colombia) in 1808, but the principal report of his explorations, La Flora de la real expedición botánica del Nuevo Reino de Granada, will remain unpublished until 1954.

April 7

1727: MICHEL ADANSON is born at Aix-en-Provence, France. Following study at the Plessis Sorbon, the Collège Royal, and the Jardin du Roi, Adanson will travel to Senegal where he will spend four years collecting natural history specimens. The report of this expedition will appear in 1757 as Histoire naturelle du Sénégal, and it will contain a novel systematic arrangement of mollusks that will win Adanson some notoriety in zoological circles. He will be best remembered, however, for his comprehensive Familles des plantes (Paris, 1763–1764), in which he will reject systems (such as those of Linnaeus) that are based on only a few selected characters, in favor of an arrangement that takes all features of the plant into account. As an associate of Buffon, Adanson will be a significant contributor to the Historie naturelle, and his own herbarium, numbering about 30,000 specimens, will come to rest in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

April 9

1739: WILLIAM BARTRAM, son of Ann Mendenhall and the botanist John Bartram, is born at Kingsessing, Pennsylvania. As a young man Bartram will accompany his father on his botanical travels through the Catskill Mountains and Connecticut in the early 1750s, and he will become a skillful natural history illustrator. His drawings will be sent to Peter Collinson in London, the elder Bartram’s scientific patron, and Collinson and the British naturalist George Edwards will commission Bartram to produce some of the illustrations for Edwards’s Gleanings of Natural History. After a series of unsuccessful business ventures, the elder and younger Bartrams will travel to Florida in 1765, and William will remain there to try his hand, unsuccessfully again, at farming. A new London patron, the physician John Fothergill, will offer to support Bartram on a collecting expedition across southeastern America, and the report of this trip, Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogluges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (Philadelphia, 1791), will be soon reprinted in London and translated into French, German, and Dutch, and will win Bartram fame throughout Europe. Bartram’s vivid and graceful descriptions of American natural history in the Travels, as well as his accounts of the native peoples of the region, will influence the European Romantic writers of the early 1800s, and he will act as a teacher to a whole generation of American naturalists including Thomas Nuttall, Thomas Say, and Alexander Wilson.

April 11

1639: MARTIN LISTER, English zoologist, antiquarian, and physician, christened. In 1683 he will present the first detailed proposal for the publication of geological maps in “An ingenious proposal for a new sort of maps of countreys” (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 14).

April 15

1772: ÉTIENNE GEOFFROY SAINT-HILAIRE is born at Etampes, France. The youngest of fourteen children, Geoffroy’s precocious intellegence will win him many early patrons in the church and at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he will study with Brisson and Antoine de Jussieu. His wide-ranging interests in natural history will lead him to study mineralogy with Haüy, and to receive at the age of twenty-one an appointment in zoology at the Jardin des Plantes (later the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle) as successor to Lacépède. Geoffroy will become a close friend and colleague of Lamarck, and will be an important member of the school of pre-Darwinian French evolutionists, devoting much study to comparative vertebrate anatomy, the influence of the environment on the variation of species, and the causes of teratologies. From 1789 to 1801 he will serve as a naturalist on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and will travel up the Nile collecting natural history specimens, including mummified animals in the pyramids that demonstrated there had been little change in some species for at least three thousand years. A bitter dispute with Georges Cuvier will cloud Geoffroy’s mature reputation, but his many publications both descriptive and theoretical, including Catalogue des mammifères du Muséum (Paris, 1803) and Recherches sur les grandes sauriens trouvés à l’état fossile (Paris, 1831), and the many students he will teach at the Muséum over more than forty years, will influence French natural history for decades after his death.

April 19

1882: CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN, the most celebrated naturalist of his age, dies at Down House, his home, in Kent, England. He will be buried in Westminster Abbey, “a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.” The son of a medical doctor, Darwin contributed to almost every department of natural history in many papers and in more than twenty books. His most influential work, On the Origin of Species (London, 1859), explained the diversity and adaptation of living things through the processes of descent and natural selection, and brought systematics into the fold of the historical sciences:

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive in its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

April 22

1724: IMMANUEL KANT is born at Königsberg, Germany (later Kaliningrad, Russia). Before turning to philosophy, for which he will be best remembered, Kant will devote much study to astronomy and anthropology. His cosmological speculations on the history of the universe, Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, oder Versuch von der Verfassung und dem mechanischen Ursprunge des ganzen Weltgebäudes nach Newtonischen Grundsätzen abgehandelt, will appear in 1755, and his many works on the history of the human races will include “Von der Verschiedenheit der Racen uberhaupt” (1777): “It is evident, that the knowledge of natural objects as they are at present, would still leave the desire for knowledge of them as they have been in former times, and of the series of changes they have undergone in order to attain their present condition in every locale. The history of nature, which we still almost wholly lack, would teach us the changes of the earth’s form, and likewise those which the earth’s creatures (plants and animals) have undergone through natural changes, and their alterations which have thence taken place away from the original form of the stem genus. This presumably would trace back a great many apparently different species to races of one and the same genus, and thus convert the presently greatly extended formal system of the description of nature into a physical system for the understanding.”

April 27

1794: SIR WILLIAM JONES, English jurist and student of Oriental languages, dies at Calcutta, India. The son of a mathematician, Jones’s precocious intellect won him admission to Harrow School and to University College, Oxford, where he developed his remarkable linguistic skills, eventually mastering more than twenty languages including French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, and Sanskrit. The necessity of securing an income led him to the study of law, and in 1783 he took up a position in the British colonial administration in India, which provided him ample opportunity to study the history of Indian law and language. He will be remembered by future scholars as one of the founders of historical linguistics for his comparative studies of the language family that will come to be called Indo-European: “The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”

April 30

1723: MATHURIN-JACQUES BRISSON is born at Fonetenay-le-Comte, Vendée, France. The eldest son of a prominent family, Brisson will study philosophy and theology at the Collège de Fontenay and the Collège de Poitiers, and will enter the seminary of St.-Sulpice in Paris, but in 1747 he will abandon theology for his true calling, natural history. Related by marriage to the naturalist Réaumur, Brisson will be appointed by the Académie des Sciences as curator and demonstrator of Réaumur’s collections, and he will publish his comprehensive Ornithologie ou Méthode contenant la division des oiseaux en ordres in 1760. After Réaumur’s death, Brisson’s collections will pass from the Académie des Sciences to the Cabinet du Roi under the direction of Buffon, and personal animosity between the two naturalists will lead Buffon to deny Brisson any access to the specimens he had been studying for the previous eight years. Deprived of his collections, Brisson will turn from natural history to the study of physics, and will make valuable contributions to that field until his death in 1806.


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