By Harry Bartholomew – Queens’ Library Graduate Trainee (2020-21)
From the mere observation of different species to ground-breaking theories on their origins, the study of our fellow members of the animal kingdom has evolved into a discipline of many branches. The latest display in the War Memorial Library illustrates the contributions of those associated with Queens’ College or the larger university to the development of zoology.
The Historia animalium, published 1551-1558 and held in the Queens’ Old Library, is a monumental attempt to compile an inventory of Renaissance zoological knowledge in five volumes. Complete with woodcut illustrations, Historia animalium brings together both ancient and modern sources written about animal habitats, physical features, behaviours, culinary and medicinal uses, as well as the name of the animal in various languages. These illustrations contributed to the foundation of a scientific zoology based, at least to a certain extent, on empirical observation, and gave rise to a new era of zoology relying more on visualisation. The rhinoceros image above was copied from a woodcut print by the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, which in turn was based on a written description and sketch of a rhinoceros sent from Gujarat to the King of Portugal in 1515. The author, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), a physician and naturalist from Zürich, has drawn criticism for his inclusion of mythical creatures, yet Gessner’s stated aim was to collect all written knowledge on all animals regardless of confirmed truth: the basis of inclusion in this compendium was the existence of testimonies in writing.
No branch of Zoology is so much involved as that which is entitled Cetology,” says Captain Scoresby, A.D. 1820.“Ishmael” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
The fictional sailor Ishmael references the observations of Arctic marine life made by William Scoresby, an Arctic navigator and eventual Queens’ member, in his accounts of northern voyages. A prolific writer on polar geography, oceanography and natural history, Scoresby made great contributions to the science of the Polar Regions, and his chart of the east coast of Greenland as well his work establishing Arctic currents has facilitated further polar exploration. He travelled to Greenland in all but one summer between 1803 and 1823, where he participated in and recorded the practices of whale fishing, and following this he entered Queens’ College as a ‘ten year man’, meaning he achieved a degree after ten years without being resident in Cambridge.
Charles Darwin was once a student at Christ’s College, and though his father intended his studies to be preparation for a life in the clergy, Darwin became interested in entomology and developed friendships with other naturalists.
When Darwin introduced his theory of evolution in his 1859 Origin of Species, he initially avoided explicitly detailing his thoughts on human ancestry. Twelve years passed before The Descent of Man brazenly declared man’s subjection to the same process of natural selection as animals. The Descent also presents Darwin’s theory of sexual selection alongside natural selection, demonstrated by these illustrations of pairs of tufted coquettes and hummingbirds. This is the theory that those with more attractive traits to the opposite sex have greater reproductive success. Darwin applies this theory to humans as well as animals, creating continuity between zoology and anthropology.
The voyage of RRS Discovery was an expedition to Antarctica led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott which first set sail in 1901. Returning in 1904, the Discovery expedition was tasked with an extensive programme of scientific research, including further exploration of Antarctica’s interior. The crew collected and examined a number of new zoological specimens: whales, seal embryos, jellyfish, and Antarctic crustaceans were among them. The Scott Polar Research Institute was founded in 1920 in Cambridge as a memorial to Scott, who died along with four companions returning from the South Pole in a subsequent expedition in 1912. Edward Adrian Wilson, an alumnus of Gonville and Caius College who read natural sciences, acted as zoologist and artist on the Discovery expedition. The largest collection of Wilson’s art, including 150 paintings made in Antarctica, is held at the Scott Polar Research Institute.
The English-Australian entomologist Robin Tillyard was educated in mathematics at Queens’ College after winning a scholarship. After graduating in 1903, Tillyard went to Australia, first as a maths and science teacher at Sydney Grammar School, before undertaking a research degree in biology. As a fellow and lecturer in zoology at the University of Sydney, Tillyard published on dragonflies, lacewings and scorpionflies, and he was invited by the New Zealand government to investigate the diminishing trout population in light of his knowledge of aquatic insects, and also to advocate for the use of insects to biologically control pests. His 1926 work on The insects of Australia and New Zealand added great momentum to the field of entomology and the advantages of biological control. He became an honorary fellow of Queens’ College in 1928.
375 years separate Gessner’s and Tillyard’s publications, during which zoological observation progressed from woodcut likenesses based on written descriptions to accurate colour depictions, and the practical applications of the study has evolved from purported medicinal uses to influencing an island’s ecosystem. The wide time span of books collected in the Old Library proves useful in documenting the history of scientific advancement.
British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition 1901-04, National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904: Natural History. Vol. II: Zoology (Vertebrata : Mollusca : Crustacea) (London: British Museum, 1907)
Falk, Dan, ‘How Darwin’s “Descent of Man” Holds Up 150 Years After Publication’, Smithsonian Magazine, 2021 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-darwins-descent-man-holds-150-years-after-publication-180977091 [accessed 24 August 2021]
Kusukawa, S., ‘The Sources of Gessner’s Pictures for the Historia Animalium’, Annals of Science, 67.3 (2010), 303–28 https://doi.org/10.1080/00033790.2010.488899
Levick, George Murray, English: Adélie Penguins on the Ice-Foot at Cape Adare in the Antarctic. Published in Scott’s Last Expedition (1913). Dodd, Mead, and Company. New York. Volume II. Page 87. Also Published in Levick, G. Murray (1914). Antarctic Penguins: A Study of Their Social Habits. New York: McBride Nast and Company, 1911 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Levick-Ad%C3%A9lie-Penguins.jpg [accessed 24 August 2021]
Norris, K. R., and D. F. Waterhouse, ‘Tillyard, Robin John (1881–1937)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, 18 vols (Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tillyard-robin-john-8817 [accessed 24 August 2021]
Pomata, Gianna, and Nancy G. Siraisi, Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (MIT Press, 2005)
‘Scoresby, William, Junior (1789–1857), Arctic Scientist and Church of England Clergyman’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24854
‘Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, History of the Institute’ https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/about/history [accessed 24 August 2021]
‘Scott, Robert Falcon [Known as Scott of the Antarctic] (1868–1912), Naval Officer and Antarctic Explorer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35994