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March 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.

March 7

1799: FRANTIŠEK LADISLAV ČELAKOVSKÝ is born in Strakonice, Bohemia. He will become Professor of Slavic Philology at Charles University in Prague, and a probable colleague of August Schleicher. He will draw one of the earliest trees of language history, which will be published in 1853 from his lecture notes, a year after his death.

March 8

1841: OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR., born at Boston, Massachusetts. In his college years at Harvard he will join the circle of Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James, and under the influence of Darwinian thought this “Metaphysical Club” will give birth to the school of philosophy that will come to be known as Pragmatism. Later, Holmes will become an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and will author many influential texts on jurisprudence that reflect his historical perspective, including The Common Law (1881): “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. In order to know what it is, we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become. We must alternately consult history and existing theories of legislation.… In Massachusetts to-day, while, on the one hand, there are a great many rules which are quite sufficiently accounted for by their manifest good sense, on the other, there are some which can only be understood by reference to the infancy of procedure among German tribes, or to the social condition of Rome under the Decemvirs.”

March 10

1748: JOHN PLAYFAIR, mathematician and geologist, is born at Benvie, Scotland. Playfair will serve for several years in the ministry as a young man, and will later become professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. For many years he will edit the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where his friend James Hutton will first publish his cyclical theory of the earth in 1785. After Hutton’s death in 1797, Playfair will devote himself to the extension and clarification of Hutton’s work, and his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1802) will deeply influence the later work of Charles Lyell. Like Hutton, Playfair will give great weight to the existence of stratigraphic unconformities as indicators of the great age of the earth, and in his biographical sketch of Hutton he will describe an expedition the two of them made with Sir James Hall to Siccar Point on the coast of Scotland, where deformed and uplifted Silurian slates are overlain by nearly horizontal beds of Devonian Old Red Sandstone. Playfair’s account of the trip will go down as one of the most famous field reports in the history of geology:

On us who saw these phenomena for the first time, the impression made will not easily be forgotten. The palpable evidence presented to us, of one of the most extraordinary and important facts in the natural history of the earth, gave a reality and substance to those theoretical speculations which, however probable, had never till now been directly authenticated by the testimony of the senses. We often said to ourselves, what clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, had we actually seen them emerging from the bosom of the deep? We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited (in the shape of sand or mud) from the waters of a superincumbent ocean. An epocha still more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which has burst asunder the solid pavement of the globe. Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective. The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time; and while we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much farther reason may sometimes go than imagination can venture to follow.

March 12

1626: JOHN AUBREY is born at Easton Pierse, Wiltshire, England. Following study at Trinity College, Oxford, where his interest in antiquities will be kindled, Aubrey will inherit a considerable fortune from his father, but he will manage his affairs poorly and live extravagantly, and will be reduced to poverty within a few years. His cheerful disposition will win him many patrons, however, and his continuing and ever expanding interest in British antiquities will earn him a patent from the Crown giving him the right to make antiquarian surveys anywhere in Britain. His careful studies of the ancient monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury will serve as exemplars for future antiquarian investigators, and although he will formally publish almost nothing during his lifetime, he will leave behind a great quantity of influential manuscript material, including Monumenta Britannica, Remains of Gentilism and Judaism, and also the Essay Towards the Description of the North Division of Wiltshire (1659):

Let us imagine then what kind of countrie this was in the time of the ancient Britons. By the nature of the soil, which is a sour woodsere land, very natural for the production of oakes especially, one may conclude that this North Division was a shady dismal wood: and the inhabitants almost as savage as the beasts whose skins were their only rayment. The language British, which for the honour of it was in those dayes spoken from the Orcades to Italie and Spain. The boats on the Avon (which signifies River) were basketts of twigges covered with an oxe skin: which the poore people in Wales use to this day. They call them curricles. Within this shire I believe that there were several Reguli which often made war upon another: and the great ditches which run on in the plaines and elsewhere so many miles (not unlikely) their boundaries: and withall served for defence against the incursions of their enemies, as the Pict’s wall, Offa’s ditch: and that in China, to compare things small to great. Their religion is at large described by Caesar. Their priests were druids. Some of their temples I pretend to have restored, as Avebury, Stonehenge, &c., as also British sepulchres. Their waie of fighting is lively sett down by Caesar. Their camps with their way of meeting their antagonists I have sett down in another place. They knew the use of iron. They were two or three degrees, I suppose, less savage than the Americans.

1784: WILLIAM BUCKLAND is born at Axminster in Devonshire, England. A distinguished geologist and cleric, he will study at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and eventually become dean of Westminster and twice president of the Geological Society of London. Among his many publications will be Reliquiae diluvianae; or, observations on the organic remains contined in caves, fissures, and diluvial gravel, and on other geological phenomena, attesting to the action of an universal deluge (London, 1823).

March 14

1793: KARL (KONRAD FRIEDRICH WILHELM) LACHMANN is born at Braunschweig, Germany. Lachmann will serve for most of his career as professor of philology at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he will codify the principles of modern textual criticism. From study of the many extant manuscripts of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, Lachmann will publish in 1850 a reconstruction of the state of the ancestral manuscript from which they all had been copied, calculating even the number of pages in the lost ancestor and how many lines it had on each page. His work will establish a school of historical text criticism that will profoundly influence Classical scholarship for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

March 16

1794: AMI BOUÉ is born at Hamburg, Germany. The son of a shipbuilder, Boué will be orphaned at the age of eleven and will be raised by relatives in France and Switzerland. After receiving an inheritance at the age of twenty, he will emigrate to Scotland where he will study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Under the influence of Robert Jamieson, Boué’s interests will turn to botany and especially geology, and after returning to the Continent he will travel extensively making geological observations. His Essai géologique sur l’Écosse will appear in 1820, and his Geognotisches Gemälde von Deutschland will follow several years later. In 1830 he will join with a group of French geologists to found the Société Géologique de France, and Boué will serve as president of that society in 1835. His comprehensive Essai de carte géologique du globe terrestre will appear in 1845, and he will retire to Austria, where he will die, at Vöslau, in 1881.

March 20

1794: RENÉ-PRIMEVÈRE LESSON is born at Cabane-Carée, Rochefort, France. Lesson will receive little formal education as a child, but he will develop a passion for natural history that will continue throughout his life. At the age of seventeen he will join the French navy as a medical assistant, and he will rise through the medical ranks, eventually becoming the chief naval pharmacist for his district. In 1822 he will join the Coquille under the command of Duperrey and Dumont d’Urville, and will begin a three-year collecting expedition around the world that will transform him into one of the leading naturalist-explorers of his day. The Coquille will visit South America, Tahiti, the Moluccas, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Java, Mauritius, Réunion, and St. Helena, and on its return Lesson’s collections will be deposited in the natural history museum in Paris. Lesson will publish many reports on the expedition, including the Zoologie du voyage autour du monde, exécuté sur la corvette du Roi la Coquille (Paris, 1829). A special interest in birds will lead to a series of additional publications including the Manuel d’ornithologie, ou description des genres et des principales espèces d’oiseaux (Paris, 1828), and Les trochilidées, ou colibris et les oiseaux-mouches (Paris, 1830–1831). He will die in his native Rochefort in April of 1849.

March 25

1712: NEHEMIAH GREW dies, probably in London, England. A graduate of Cambridge University and a physician, Grew was an active member of the Royal Society and published the first comprehensive account of the Society’s collections, Musaeum Regalis Societatis or a Catalogue and Description of the Natural and Artificial Rarities Belonging to the Royal Society and Preserved in Gresham College (London, 1681). An early collaborator with Robert Hooke in the use of the microscope, Grew specialized in the comparative examination of plant structure, and coined the phrase comparative anatomy to describe his mode of study, which he expounded in The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun (London, 1672) and The Comparative Anatomy of Trunks, Together With an Account of Their Vegetation Grounded Thereupon (London, 1675).

1844: HEINRICH GUSTAV ADOLF ENGLER is born at Sagan, Germany (now Zagan, Poland). As a student in botany at the University of Breslau, Engler will study the large and complex genus Saxifraga under the tutelage of Heinrich Goeppert, and will soon come to accept evolution as the necessary foundation of systematics. He will take up an appointment in systematic botany at the University of Kiel in 1878, and two years later will establish the Botanische Jahrbücher für Systematik, Pflanzengeschichte und Pflanzengeographie which will become the leading journal of its time in botanical systematics and which Engler himself will edit for fifty years. His interest in historical biogeography will lead to the publication of Versuch einer Entwicklungsgeschichte der Pflanzenwelt between 1878 and 1882, a work that will present the first comprehensive account of plant evolution in the Northern Hemisphere. Engler will move to the University of Breslau in 1884, and in collaboration with Karl A.E. Prantl he will begin his most influential work, Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien, which will be published in 248 installments over a period of 28 years. In 1889 Engler will be appointed professor of botany and director of the botanical garden in Berlin, and he will remain there for the rest of his career, publishing widely on systematics and phytogeography and influencing an entire generation of botanical systematists.


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