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December 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.

December 9

1652: AUGUSTUS QUIRINUS BACHMANN, also known as RIVINUS, is born at Leipzig, Germany. After medical study Leipzig and Helmstedt, Rivinus will settle in Leipzig to practice medicine and lecture at the University of Leipzig. He will be best remembered for his work in botanical systematics, and in his Introductio Generalis in Rem Herbariam (1690) he will anticipate many features of the later work of Tournefort and Linnaeus.

1667: WILLIAM WHISTON is born at Norton, England. Whiston will study mathematics at Cambridge University and will work as an assistant to Isaac Newton, eventually succeeding Newton as Lucasian Professor. The two will become estranged over a dispute about Biblical chronology, and Whiston will eventually take up residence in London after being expelled from Cambridge. In his principal work, A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original, to the Consummation of all Things (London, 1696), Whiston will attempt to reconcile astronomy with the Biblical account of creation, and will propose that the Noachian flood was caused by a comet which struck the Earth, driving it from its original circular orbit and releasing great volumes of subterranean water: “not the vast Universe, but the Earth alone, with its dependencies, are the proper subject of the Six Days Creation: And … the Mosaick History is not a Nice, Exact and Philosophick account of the several steps and operations of the whole; but such an Historical Relation of each Mutation of the Chaos, each successive day, as the Journal of a Person on the Face of the Earth all that while would naturally have contained.”

December 10

1911: JOSEPH DALTON HOOKER dies at Sunningdale, England. Hooker was the leading systematic botanist and phytogeographer of his day, and had overseen with Charles Lyell the first publication of the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Wallace. His extensive travel in the southern hemisphere and in Asia led to the publication of Flora Antarctica (1844–1847) and Flora Indica (1855), among many other works. Hooker became a consistent advocate of evolution following the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, and succeeded his father, William Jackson Hooker, as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1865.

December 12

1731: ERASMUS DARWIN born at Elston Hall, near Nottingham, England. Following study at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Darwin will establish a medical practice first at Nottingham and then at Lichfield. His long poem, The Botanic Garden (1789–1791), will meet with limited success, but his more substantial Zoonomia (1794–1796) will become famous for its adumbration of his grandson Charles’s later work in evolution: “Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament … with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements to its posterity, world without end!”

December 14

1873: JEAN LOUIS RODOLPHE AGASSIZ dies at Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a young naturalist in Swizerland, France, and Germany, Agassiz did foundational work in paleontology and historical geology, and in his Études sur les glaciers (Neuchâtel, 1840) he presented the first comprehensive theory of the Ice Age. Following his emigration to the United States he established the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 1859, and later contributed to the founding of the United States National Academy of Sciences. The poet James Russell Lowell will hear of Agassiz’s death while travelling in Italy, and will eulogize him in the Atlantic Monthly:

   … with vague, mechanic eyes,
I scanned the festering news we half despise …
When suddenly,

As happens if the brain, from overweight
 Of blood, infect the eye,
Three tiny words grew lurid as I read,
and reeled commingling: Agassiz is dead!

   … the wise of old
Welcome and own him of their peaceful fold …
And Cuvier clasps once more his long lost son.

We have not lost him all; he is not gone
To the dumb herd of them that wholly die;
The beauty of his better self lives on
In minds he touched with fire, in many an eye
He trained to Truth’s exact severity;
He was a Teacher: why be grieved for him
Whose living word still stimulates the air?
In endless file shall loving scholars come
The glow of his transmitted touch to share.

December 19

1815: BENJAMIN SMITH BARTON dies at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barton was one of the first professional botanists in the United States, and published the first American textbook on the subject, Elements of Botany, in 1803. While serving as professor of natural history, botany, and materia medica at the University of Pennsylvania, Barton amassed the largest natural history library and herbarium of his day. He had hoped to publish a complete flora of North America in collaboration with Thomas Nuttall, but was not able to complete it before his death.

1861: NIKOLAI IVANOVICH ANDRUSOV is born at Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine). Andrusov will study geology and zoology as a student at Novorossiysk University, and will travel extensively in Russia and central Europe collecting fossils. He will marry Nadezhda Genrikhovna Schliemann, daughter of the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, in 1899, and six years later will become professor of geology and paleontology at the University of Kiev. Andrusov will be best remembered for his many geological and zoological investigations of the Black Sea region.

December 21

1773: ROBERT BROWN is born at Montrose, Scotland. Following medical study at Edinburgh and military service as a surgeon’s mate, Brown will be appointed naturalist on board the Investigator which will leave England to survey the coasts of Australia in 1801. Brown will return in 1805 with thousands of botanical and zoological specimens and drawings, and will spend the next five years describing nearly 2000 new species of plants from these collections. He will become librarian to the Linnean Society in 1806 and curator of Joseph Banks’s private library and herbarium in 1810, and Alexander von Humboldt will call him “botanicorum facile princeps.” Following Banks’s death in 1820, Brown will transfer Banks’s collection to the British Museum and will become the Museum’s first Keeper of Botany.

December 23

1749: MARK CATESBY dies at London, England, aged 66. Catesby was born in Essex, England, and from 1712 to 1719 lived with his sister in the Virginia colony. The plants Catesby collected during his stay in America brought him to the attention of a number of prominent naturalists, including Sir Hans Sloane, and Catesby was commissioned to return to America specifically for the purpose of natural history exploration and collecting. From 1722 to 1726 he traveled through South Carolina, Florida, and the West Indies, and upon his return he published the acclaimed Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743). This work will be used later by Linnaeus as the source for his descriptions of the North American bird fauna.

1790: JEAN-FRANÇOIS CHAMPOLLION is born at Figeac, France. While still a boy at the Imperial Lycée in Grenoble, Champollion will become fascinated by Egyptian hieroglyphs and will devote himself to their decipherment. He will study Arabic, Chinese, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, and Syriac, and will come to believe that Coptic is the modern descendant of the language of the ancient Egyptians. His breakthrough in decipherment will come in the 1820s with study of the Rosetta Stone, a trilingual Greek, Coptic, and hieroglyphic inscription discovered by Napoleon’s expeditionary forces in 1799. Champollion will correctly realize that some of the hieroglyphic signs are phonetic, some syllabic, and some ideographic, and his first decipherment will appear in 1822 in the monographic “Lettre à M. Dacier à l’alphabet de hiéroglyphes phonétiques.” His Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens will follow two years later. Champollion will die in Paris at the age of 41, reportedly from exhaustion after returning from an expedition to Egypt.

1810: EDWARD BLYTH is born at London, England. Although his mother will encourage him to enter the ministry, natural history will be Blyth’s favorite study from a young age. While in his twenties, Blyth will publish a series of important papers on organismal variation that Darwin will later study with care, among them “An attempt to classify the ‘varieties’ of animals, with observations on the marked seasonal and other changes which naturally take place in various British species which do not constitute varieties” (Magazine of Natural History, 8: 40–53, 1835). In 1841 Blyth will be appointed curator to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and will move from England to India, where will be remembered as one of the founders of Indian zoology.

December 24

1856: HUGH MILLER dies at Portobello, Scotland, a suicide. One of the great geological writers of the early nineteenth century, Miller’s graceful prose earned fame for his many books, including Scenes and Legends from the North of Scotland (1835), The Old Red Sandstone (1841), and also Foot-Prints of the Creator; Or, the Asterolepis of Stromness (1847): “We learn from human history that nations are as certainly mortal as men. They enjoy a greatly longer term of existence, but they die at last; Rollin’s History of Ancient Nations is a history of the dead. And we are taught by geological history, in like manner, that species are as mortal as individuals and nations, and that even genera and families become extinct. There is no man upon the earth at the present moment whose age greatly exceeds an hundred years;—there is no nation now upon earth (if we perhaps except the long-lived Chinese) that also flourished three thousand years ago;—there is no species now living upon earth that dates beyond the times of the Tertiary deposits. All bear the stamp of death,—individuals,—nations,—species; and we may scarce less safely predicate, looking upon the past, that it is appointed for nations and species to die, than that it is ‘appointed for man once to die.’”

1868: ETIENNE-JULES-ADOLPHE, DESMIER DE SAINT-SIMON, VICOMTE D’ARCHIAC drowns in the Seine river in Paris, a suicide. Following a short military career for which he received a life-time pension, d’Archiac turned to geology and became one of the leading stratigraphers in Europe. In addition to many research papers on paleontology and stratigraphic correlation, d’Archiac published a nine-volume Histoire des Progrès de la Géologie from 1847 to 1860, and served several times as president of the Société Géologique de France.

December 25

1642: ISAAC NEWTON is born at Woolsthorpe, England. Following study at Cambridge University, from which he will graduate in 1665, Newton will make revolutionary breakthroughs in astronomy and mathematics, and after his death in 1727 he will be remembered as the principal founder of modern physical science. Newton’s work in physics, however, will constitute only a fraction of his output, and he will devote almost as much time to studies of Biblical chronology as to mathematics. Believing that the ancient Temple of Solomon was a divinely-inspired model of the cosmos as a whole, Newton will teach himself Hebrew and attempt to calculate the exact length of the ancient cubit so that he can reconstruct the Temple’s plan from Ezekiel’s description of it in the Bible. Among Newton’s many historical writings will be The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended: To Which is Prefix’d, A Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great (London, 1728), and also The Original of Monarchies: “Now all nations before they began to keep exact accompts of time have been prone to raise their antiquities & make the lives of their first fathers longer than they really were. And this humour has been promoted by the ancient contention between several nations about their antiquity. For this made the Egyptians & Chaldeans raise their antiquities higher than the truth by many thousands of years. And the seventy have added to the ages of the Patriarchs. And Ctesias has made the Assyrian Monarchy above 1400 years older than the truth. The Greeks & Latins are more modest in their own originals but yet have exceeded the truth.”

December 27

1831: His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, Robert Fitzroy commanding, sets sail from Plymouth, England, for South America, after having been beaten back for several days by unfavorable winds. Charles Darwin will write in his diary: “A beautiful day, accompanied by the long wished for E wind.—Weighed anchor at 11 oclock & with difficulty tacked out.—The Commissioner Capt Ross sailed with us in his Yatch.—The Capt, Sullivan & myself took a farewell luncheon on mutton chops & champagne, which may I hope excuse the total absence of sentiment which I experienced on leaving England.—We joined the Beagle about 2 oclock outside the Breakwater,—& immediately with every sail filled by a light breeze we scudded away at the rate of 7 or 8 knots an hour.—I was not sick that evening but went to bed early.” The Beagle will return five years later having circumnavigated the globe.

1839: “My first child was born on December 27th, 1839,” Charles Darwin will write in his Autobiography, “and I at once commenced to make notes on the first dawn of the various expressions which he exhibited, for I felt convinced, even at this early period, that the most complex and fine shades of expression must all have had a gradual and natural origin.”

December 30

1705: GEORG WOLFGANG KNORR is born at Nuremberg, Germany. At the age of eighteen Knorr will become an apprentice engraver, and will spend much of his life writing and publishing finely-illustrated natural history works. His most important volume will be the encyclopedic folio Sammlung von Merckwürdigkeiten der Natur und Alterthümern des Erdbodens (Collection of Natural Wonders and Antiquities of the Earth’s Crust) (1755).

1723: AUGUSTUS QUIRINUS RIVINUS dies at Leipzig, Germany. Trained in medicine at the universities of Leipzig and Helmstedt, Rivinus became a lecturer in medicine at Leipzig in 1677. He devoted most of his energies to the study of materia medica and botany, and the precise characterizations he gave of many plant groups in his Introductio Generalis in Rem Herbariam (1690) and his series Ordo Plantarum (1690–1699) anticipated the later floral studies of Linnaeus and Tournefort.


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