Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Great Naturalists, a review

The Great Naturalists (2007, Robert Huxley, editor) is a collection of short biographies of naturalists, from Aristotle to American botanist Asa Gray (1810-88). The biographies range from 3 to 8 pages of text, and are good. The appeal of the book, though, can be seen on the left. That land crab is by American traveler and artist Mark Catesby (1683-1749). There's an illustrarion of comparable quality on almost every page. It's a beautiful book.

This book is a production of the British Natural History Museum, and most of the reproductions and photos come from their collection. I don't detect any British bias. A quarter of the entries are on ancient and Renaissance figures, half are 18th century, and the remainder are 19th century. There are probaby more botanists than geologists (Steno, Hutton, Lyell) or zoologists (Hooke, Lamarck) although this is the age of the gentleman amateur, so few of these scientists did just one thing. How do you classify Alexander von Humboldt, or Erasmus Darwin? The coverage is diverse. The painting on the right is by the early German entomolgist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

I don't know how a specialist would feel about The Great Naturalists, aside from enjoying the thick paper and lavish illustrations. The little biographies are written by two dozen different people, and they're not all of equal quality or interest. But Mary Anning (1799-1847), self-taught fossil hunter, first person to assemble an ichthyosaur, who almost never left her little corner of southern England - she's pretty interesting. Or how about George Steller (1709-46), a German naturalist who explored Siberia and Alaska with the Bering expedition. There he is on the left, measuring Steller's sea cow (now extinct), all two tons of it.

Anyway, a lovely book. Recommended to anyone.


  1. This does look lovely. Something to dip into once a day to meet an interesting person.

  2. That's right. Although I found myself dipping rather more than once a day.

  3. This is a new one to me. I try to keep on top of books having anything to do with naturalists of the Victorian age...especially Darwin and his friends. I'll definitely check it out. Thanks!