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May 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.

May 2

1551: WILLIAM CAMDEN is born in London, England. Camden will study at St. Paul’s School and Oxford University, where his interest in antiquities will begin to develop. Following the example of an earlier generation of continental European antiquarians, Camden will travel widely throughout the British Isles, collecting and describing Roman remains, transcribing inscriptions, and searching through ecclesiastical and public archives. The product of his labors, Britannia (London, 1586), will be the first comprehensive historical and topographical survey of British antiquities, and it will establish a new standard of scholarship for an entire generation of British historians.

May 3

1809: LAURENT-GUILLAUME DE KONINCK is born at Louvain, Belgium. Following study in medicine and science at the University of Louvain, De Koninck will accept positions teaching chemistry, first at the University of Ghent, and later at the University of Liège where he will remain until his death in 1887. Although his formal instructional responsibilities will nearly always be in chemistry, De Koninck will be remembered primarily as a paleontologist. His extensive work on the Carboniferous fossils of Europe will come together in his Description des animaux fossiles qui se trouvent dans le terrain carbonifère de la Belgique (Liège, 1843–1844) and his comprehensive Faune du calcaire carbonifère de la Belgique (1878–1887). Many of De Koninck’s books and early specimens will be purchased by Louis Agassiz in the 1860s, and Agassiz will make them the core of his newly-founded Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

May 4

1556: LUCA GHINI dies at Bologna, Italy. One of the founders of modern botany, Ghini was born in Croara d’Imola around 1490. He studied medicine at the University of Bologna and taught at Bologna for many years, devising a method of preserving plants by pressing, drying, and mounting them on cards to produce the first modern herbarium or “hortus siccus.” Ghini left Bologna in 1544 to take up a professorship at the University of Pisa, and he established there one of the first university botanical gardens. He travelled extensively in the vicinity of Pisa and Bologna collecting specimens for his garden and herbarium, and his scientific correspondents sent him botanical material from as far away as Egypt. Although he published little during his life, Ghini numbered among his students an entire generation of early modern European botanists, including Andrea Cesalpino, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Luigi Anguillara, William Turner, and John Falconer.

1816: THOMAS OLDHAM is born in Dublin, Ireland. Following undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin, Oldham will travel to Edinburgh where he will study geology and mineralogy with Robert Jameson. In 1839 he will return to Ireland where he will work initially for the Ordnance Survey, and later be appointed professor of geology at Trinity. His successful geological work in Ireland will lead to his appointment as geological surveyor to the British East India Company, and eventually to the founding of a Geological Survey of India. His report On the Coal Resources of India will appear in 1864, and he will superintend the creation of many Indian geological journals, including the Survey’s Palaeontologica Indica in 1861.

May 9

1892: WALTER ZIMMERMANN is born at Walldürn, Germany. Following study at the Karlsruhe Technical University and at Berlin and Freiburg, as well as military service in the First World War, Zimmermann will be made a lecturer in botany at the University of Tübingen, and will remain at Tübingen for the rest of his career. Zimmermann will publish many works on plant physiology and algology, but he will be best remembered for his work in phylogeny and phylogenetic theory. His comprehensive Die Phylogenie der Pflanzen will appear in 1930, and his lengthy theoretical paper “Arbeitsweise der botanischen Phylogenetik” (1931) will influence the later writings of Willi Hennig, and through Hennig, much of modern systematics: “The task of historical phylogenetics is to find out ‘how it was.’ This task would be completely solved if we could … erect a gigantic phylogenetic tree of genealogical affinities for all organisms which ever existed and enter all transformations by which descendants are distinguished from their ancestors.”

May 15

1847: EDWIN RAY LANKESTER is born at London, England. The son of a medical doctor, Lankester will study zoology and geology at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and will be appointed professor of zoology at University College, London, in 1872. A wide-ranging practitioner and theorist of the new evolutionary anatomy, he will coin a number of words, such as homoplasy and blastopore, that will become standard terms in the field. In 1891 Lankester will be appointed Linacre Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Oxford, and then in 1898 director of the British Museum (Natural History). In his retirement he will write a number of popular books on natural history, including Extinct Animals (1909), Diversions of a Naturalist (1915), and Great and Small Things (1923).

1862: “On May 15th, 1862,” CHARLES DARWIN will write in his autobiography, “my little book on the Fertilisation of Orchids, which cost me ten months’ work, was published: most of the facts had been slowly accumulated during several previous years.”

May 16

1799: EBENEZER EMMONS is born at Middlefield, Massachusetts. Emmons will study natural history and medicine at Williams College and at the Berkshire Medical School, and will eventually succeed his teacher, Chester Dewey, as professor of natural history at Williams. One of the pioneers of American geology, Emmons will do more than any other person to establish in the 1830s and 1840s a geologic column for North America, independent of those being developed for England and continental Europe. His extensive field work in New York and western New England will form the basis for his Manual of Mineralogy and Geology (Albany, 1826), and in 1832 he will move from Williams to the new Rensselaer School (later Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy, New York. Emmons’s later career will be marred by a bitter controversy with James Hall and Louis Agassiz over the strata that he will call the Taconic System, and Emmons will depart New York for North Carolina in 1851 to take up a position as state geologist. He will die in North Carolina in 1863, a casualty of the American Civil War.

May 23

1617: ELIAS ASHMOLE is born at Lichfield, England. The child of humble parents, Ashmole will study at the Lichfield Grammar School and then move to London, where he will receive training in the law. As a result of several fortunate political and social connections he will make while in London, Ashmole will receive a royal appointment in the College of Arms, eventually becoming a leading authority on the history of heraldry and orders of knighthood, and a significant collector of antiquities. His expanding interests will lead him to the study of botany, medicine, alchemy, and astrology, and he will be one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1660. Ashmole will offer his extensive personal collections of antiquities and natural history specimens to the University of Oxford in 1675, and the Ashmolean Museum, the first public museum in England, will open at Oxford in 1683.

1707: CARL LINNAEUS is born at Råshult, Småland, Sweden. The son of a country parson, Linnaeus will rise to be one of the most prominent figures in the history of natural history. Following study in medicine and botany at the Universities of Lund and Uppsala, Linnaeus will first spend time travelling in Lapland, and then will move to Holland where he will receive his medical degree. While in Leiden he will publish the first edition of his masterwork, Systema Naturae (1735), which he will revise and expand many times over the course of his life. In 1741 Linnaeus will be appointed professor of medicine at Uppsala, and through his many students and his voluminous writings on systematics and natural history, his influence will spread throughout Europe and the world.

May 24

1794: WILLIAM WHEWELL is born at Lancaster, England. The son of a carpenter, Whewell’s precocious intellect will win him admittance to the Heversham grammar school and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. He will be made a fellow of Trinity in 1817, and will remain there throughout his career, rising to the mastership in 1841, and serving twice as vice-chancellor of the University. An extraordinarily polymathic philosopher, historian, and scientist, Whewell will write extensively on physics, mathematics, theology, ethics, meteorology, political economy, architecture, Classical literature, mineralogy, geology, education, and the theory of science. In 1837 he will coin the term palaetiology for the sciences of historical causation, and he will later recommend the palaetiological sciences as important elements of a liberal education:

I have ventured to give reasons why the chemical sciences (chemistry, mineralogy, electrochemistry) are not at the present time in a condition which makes them important general elements of a liberal education. But there is another class of sciences, the palaetiological sciences, which from the largeness of their views and the exactness of the best portions of their reasonings are well fitted to form part of that philosophical discipline which a liberal education ought to include. Of these sciences, I have mentioned two, one depending mainly upon the study of language and the other upon the sciences which deal with the material world. These two sciences, ethnography, or comparative philology, and geology, are among those progressive sciences which may be most properly taken into a liberal education as instructive instances of the wide and rich field of facts and reasonings with which modern science deals, still retaining, in many of its steps, great rigour of proof; and as an animating display also of the large and grand vistas of time, succession, and causation, which are open to the speculative powers of man.

1851: The English author, artist, and critic JOHN RUSKIN writes to his friend Henry Acland: “You speak of the Flimsiness of your own faith. Mine, which was never strong, is being beaten into mere gold leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the letter of its old forms; but the only letters it can hold by at all are the old Evangelical formulae. If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.”

May 28

1807: JEAN LOUIS RODOLPHE AGASSIZ is born at Motier-en-Vuly, Switzerland. As a young naturalist in Europe, Agassiz will do foundational work in paleontology and historical geology, and in his Études sur les glaciers (Neuchâtel, 1840) he will present the first comprehensive theory of the Ice Age. Following his emigration to the United States in 1846 he will establish the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and later contribute to the founding of the United States National Academy of Sciences.


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