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January 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.

January 1

1737: PIER ANTONIO MICHELI dies at Florence, Italy. Born into poverty, Micheli’s interest in and knowledge of plants won him patronage from the Medici family and widespread recognition from the professional botanists of his day. He collected widely throughout Italy and central Europe, and in his Nova Plantarum Genera (Florence, 1729) he described more than 1400 new species of plants, many of them mosses, liverworts, and lichens, in which he had a special interest. Micheli’s extensive travel allowed him to contribute to historical geology as well as botany, and the geological similarities he observed between many of the quiet hills of his native Italy and the active Vesuvius led him to infer correctly that the Italian landscape was in fact dotted with ancient volcanos.

1778: CHARLES-ALEXANDRE LESUEUR is born at Le Havre, France. As a young man Lesueur will sail aboard the Géographe and the Naturaliste to Australia, where, in the company of François Perón, he will collect tens of thousands of zoological specimens. Lesueur’s considerable skill as an artist will enable him to illustrate many of the expedition’s finer specimens, but the early death of Perón will delay the completion of the expedition’s report, and most of Lesueur’s illustrations will never be published. In 1815 Leuseur will sail for North America, and will spend the next twenty-two years travelling in the interior of the United States collecting and illustrating mollusks, insects, fishes, and fossils. Upon his return to France in 1837 he will be appointed curator of the new Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle du Havre, and he will die there in December of 1846.

January 3

1822: WILLIAM NYLANDER is born at Uleåborg, Russia (now Oulu, Finland). Following medical study at the University of Helsinki, from which he will graduate in 1847, Nylander will travel extensively throughout Finland and will devote himself exclusively to botany and entomology. In 1848 he will go to Paris to study lichens at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, and will soon become one of the world’s leading lichenologists. He will be appointed to the first professorship of botany at the University of Helsinki in 1857, but dissatisfaction with his position there will lead him to emigrate to France, where he will remain until his death in 1899.

January 6

1736: FRIEDRICH CASIMIR MEDICUS is born at Grumbach, Rhineland, Germany. Following study in Tübingen, Strasbourg, and Heidelberg, Medicus will work as a physician at Mannheim and oversee the creation of a botanical garden there in 1766. Turning from medicine to botany, he will become a bitter enemy of Linnaeus, and will attack the work of the Swedish botanist at every turn, supporting instead the botanical systems of Tournefort, Linnaeus’s principal opponent. Medicus’s botanical garden will be heavily damaged during the bombardments of Mannheim in 1795 and 1799, and it will be dissolved shortly after his death in 1808.

1912: ALFRED WEGENER (1880–1930) reads his paper “Die Herausbildung der Grossformen der Erdrinde (Kontinente und Ozeane) auf geophysikalischer Grundlage” (“The geophysical basis of the evolution of large-scale features of the earth’s crust”) before the Geological Association of Frankfurt am Main. It will appear in expanded form in 1915 as Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane, the first modern exposition of the theory of continental drift.

January 8

1823: ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE is born at Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales. Following an apprenticeship to his brother as an assistant surveyor and an interval of school teaching, Wallace will propose to his friend Henry Walter Bates that they take advantage of their common interest in natural history and become commercial collectors. Although their first expedition to South America will be successful, their ship and nearly all their collections will be destroyed by fire on the return voyage to England. Undeterred, Wallace will depart on a second expedition to the Malay Archipelago in 1854. In March of 1858 on the island of Gilolo, in the midst of a malarial fever, Wallace will conceive of the idea of evolution by natural selection, and will immediately send a manuscript to Charles Darwin that will contain a nearly perfect summary of Darwin’s own views, which were then unpublished and which Wallace had never seen. On the advice of Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker, Darwin will consent to publish, under the pressure of this coincidence, two extracts from his own work in progress, along with the manuscript of Wallace, in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. Wallace’s paper, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type,” will conclude thus: “We believe we have now shown that there is a tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type—a progression to which there appears no reason to assign any definite limits—and that the same principle which produces this result in a state of nature will also explain why domestic varieties have a tendency to revert to the original type. This progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organized beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.”

January 12

1778: WILLIAM HERBERT is born at Highclere, Hampshire, England. A junior member of an aristocratic family, Herbert will study at Eton and Oxford, and then take a seat in the House of Commons. Leaving politics for the ministry in 1814, Herbert will move to the parish of Spofforth in Yorkshire, where he will remain for the rest of his life. An interest in botany will lead Herbert to become a skilled horticulturalist, and his extensive studies of plant hybrids will form the basis of part of Darwin’s discussion of hybridism and sterility in the Origin of Species (1859).

January 13

1794: PROSPER GARNOT is born at Brest, France. As an assistant surgeon in the French navy, Garnot will sail under Duperrey on the Coquille during its circumnavigation of the globe (1822–1825). In the company of the naturalist René-Primevère Lesson, Garnot will collect extensively along the coasts of South America and in the Pacific, although many of his specimens will be lost in a shipwreck in July of 1824. With Lesson he will author the zoological section of the voyage’s report, Voyage autour du monde exécuté par order du roi sur la corvette La Coquille pendant les années 1822–1825, which will be published in Paris between 1828 and 1832.

January 16

1894: ALEKSANDER FEDOROVICH MIDDENDORF dies at Khellenurme, Estonia. Middendorf received his medical degree from Dorpat University in 1837, and continued his studies of natural history in Germany and Austria. During 1839 he travelled with Karl Ernst von Baer to the Kola Peninsula, and in 1843 and 1844 he explored Siberia under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, a trip that led to the founding of the Russian Geographical Society. In the report on his Siberian expedition, Reise in den aussersten Norden und Osten Sibiriens während der Jahre 1843 und 1844 (St. Petersburg, 1848–1875), Middendorf made a number of important observations on the nature of species and on biogeographical patterns in the polar region.

January 17

1705: JOHN RAY, celebrated English naturalist, antiquarian, and philologist, dies at the Dewlands, Black Notley, England. His memorial (inscribed in Latin) will read:

John Ray, Master of Arts.
Once Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge.
A member of the Royal Society in London:
And to both of those learned bodies
An illustrious Ornament.

Hid in this narrow tomb, this marble span,
Lies all that death could snatch from this great man.
His body moulders in its native clay;
While o’er wide worlds his Works their beams display
As bright and everlasting as the day.
To those just fame ascribes immortal breath,
And in his Writings he outlives his death.
Of every Science every part he knew,
Read in all Arts divine and human too:
Like Solomon (and Solomon alone
We as a greater King of knowledge own)
Our modern Sage dark Nature’s Secrets read
From the tall Cedar to the hyssop’s bed:
From the unwieldiest Beast of land or deep,
To the least Insect that has power to creep.
Nor did his artful labours only shew
Those plants which on the earth’s wide surface grew,
But piercing ev’n her darkest entrails through,
All that was wise, all that was great he knew,
And Nature’s inmost gloom made clear to common view.
From foreign stores his learning bright supplies,
Exposing treasures hid from others’ eyes,
Loading his single mind to make his country wise.
But what’s yet more, he was so Meekly great,
That envy unrepining saw his state;
For, rare accomplishments! his humble mind
Possess’d a jewell, which it could not find.
A great descent lent nothing to his fame;
Virtue, not birth, distinguished his high name,
Titles and wealth he never strove to gain,
Those he would rather merit than obtain,
His private life in humble shades he spent,
Worthy a palace, with a cell content.
Unwearied he would knowledge still pursue,
The only thing in which no mean he knew.
What more did add to these bright gifts, we find
A pure untainted Piety of mind.
England’s blest Church engross’d his zealous care,
A truth his dying accents did declare.
Thus lost he in retirement his great breath;
Thus dy’d he living, who thus lives in death.
Thus heav’n called his age’s glory home,
And the bright wonder of the age to come.

January 19

1761: PIERRE-AUGUSTE-MARIE BROUSSONET is born at Montpellier, France. An ardent naturalist from an early age, Broussonet will study Classics and medicine at Montpellier, and will receive his doctorate in medicine there in 1779 at the age of eighteen. Broussonet’s interests will turn to ichthyology, and he will travel to London in 1780 where Joseph Banks will give him charge of the ichthyological collection from James Cook’s first voyage around the world. Broussonet’s initial reports on the Cook collection, Ichthyologia sistens piscium descriptiones et icones, will begin to appear in 1782, but the work as a whole will never be completed. Caught up in the violence of the French Revolution, Broussonet will escape to Spain and will reside for a time in Morocco where he will study botany. In 1803 he will return to Montpellier to become professor of medicine, and will devote his energies to the revival and expansion the Montpellier botanical garden. The first catalog of the garden’s collections, Elenchus plantarum horti botanici Monspeliensis, will appear shortly before his death in 1807.

January 23

1785: CARL ADOLPH AGARDH is born at Bastad, Sweden. As professor of botany at the University of Lund, Agardh will become the leading algologist of his day. His initial Synopsis algarum Scandinaviae (1817) will be expanded into the Species algarum (1821–1828) and the Systema algarum (1824), and his broader views on the natural system in botany will appear in the series Aphorismi botanici (1817–1826) and in Classes plantarum (1825). Agardh’s systematic views will be strongly influenced by German Naturphilosophie, and in 1827 he will meet the philosopher Friedrich Schelling at Karlsbad, where together they will examine the algae growing in Karlsbad’s mineral springs. In 1835 Agardh will be appointed to the bishopric of Karlstad, and will abandon his botanical work. He will die at Karlstad in 1859.

January 27

1873: ADAM SEDGWICK dies at Cambridge, England. A mathematics graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, Sedgwick became a fellow of Trinity in 1810 and Woodwardian Professor of Geology in 1818. Enormously influential on an entire generation of British geologists through his field work and his teaching, Sedgwick counted among his students the young Charles Darwin who accompanied him on a geological expedition to north Wales in 1831. Interested especially in the oldest fossiliferous strata, Sedgwick devoted much of his energy to the elucidation of the rock system he named “Cambrian,” summarizing his views in A Synopsis of the Classification of the British Palaeozoic Rocks With a Systematic Description of the British Palaeozoic Fossils in the Geological Museum of the University of Cambridge (1851–1855). He eventually became engaged in a fierce dispute with Roderick Murchison who was investigating the slightly younger rocks of the Silurian system. An ordained Anglican minister of liberal inclination, Sedgwick opposed Darwin’s evolutionary views when they were published in 1859 just as vigorously as he had opposed the views of the naive scriptural geologists of the 1820s and 1830s. After his death the geological museum at Cambridge will be named the Sedgwick Museum in his honor.

January 28

1694: PETER COLLINSON is born at London, England. The son of a Quaker merchant in London, Collinson will himself become a successful London merchant and a skillful gardener, and will develop a special interest in the cultivation of exotic plants. He will become a leading supplier of garden plants to the English aristocracy, and will support several travelling collectors including Mark Catesby and John Bartram, who will send to Collinson many living specimens from their explorations in North America. As a result of his support for Catesby, Collinson will join the circle of naturalists and collectors around Sir Hans Sloane, and Sloane will sponsor his election to the Royal Society in 1728. Elected later to the Society of Antiquaries and to the scientific academies of Uppsala and Berlin, Collinson will die in 1768 and be buried in the Quaker cemetery in Bermondsey.

January 29

1688: EMANUEL SWEDENBORG is born at Stockholm, Sweden. Swedenborg will grow up in Uppsala and will study humanities at Uppsala University. His interests will soon turn to the sciences, and he will travel to London where he will study mathematics, astronomy, and geology in association with Edmund Halley and John Woodward. In 1716 Swedenborg will be appointed an assessor for the Swedish Board of Mines, and will establish a short-lived scientific journal, Daedalus hyperboreus, the first journal of its kind in Sweden. Swedenborg’s researches in cosmogony will lead him to argue in Om jordenes och planeternas gång och stånd (On the Course and Position of the Earth and the Planets, 1718) that the earth had orbited the sun at a faster rate in earlier times. Entering the debate about the geological history of Scandinavia in 1719, Swedenborg will marshal evidence from geology and biogeography to argue in Om watnens högd och förra werldens starcka ebb och flod (On the Level of the Seas and the Great Tides in Former Times) that Sweden had previously been covered entirely by water and had risen up out of the sea. Always a grand and wide-ranging thinker who maintined an active interest in theological as well as scientific problems, Swedenborg will increasingly come to suffer from hallucinations and delusions, almost certainly brought about by severe manic-depression. The religious interpretations he will give to these experiences will lead him to abandon his scientific work and devote himself entirely to theology and prophecy. He will die in March of 1772 and be buried in the Uppsala Cathedral, a few steps from the site where his countryman Linnaeus will be buried six years later. The religious followers Swedenborg will win during his later years will establish The Church of the New Jerusalem in 1787 to keep his spiritual doctrines alive.

January 30

1707: GEORG DIONYSIUS EHRET is born at Heidelberg, Germany. Apprenticed to his uncle as a gardener, the young Ehret will travel widely in Germany and will come to know many of the country’s leading horticulturalists. His skill as an artist will bring him to the attention of the botanist Christoph Jacob Trew, under whose patronage Ehret will travel around Europe collecting and illustrating plants and increasing his circle of supporters. Ehret will be employed by Linnaeus in 1737 to illustrate the Hortus Cliffortianus, and will work for a time in the botanical garden at Oxford University after his emigration to England in 1740. He will be elected to the Royal Society of London in 1757, and Linnaeus will name the genus Ehretia in his honor.

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