Stories from the Rare Book Collection

Clusius, tulips, and the first bubble September 2014 Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) visited the Iberian peninsula in the 1560s, as I noted in this column last month. He was looking for exotic plants that might have some value economically and practically... Read more
Clusius, Fugger, Holy Roman Emperors, and American tubers in sixteenth-century Europe August 2014 It's difficult to imagine a potato-less world. But a little less than five centuries ago, potatoes were absent from European kitchens. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United... Read more
Urbanization, habitat loss, and extinction in nineteenth-century America July 2014 Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913) might be best remembered today as the father of sociology in America, rather than as a botanist and paleobotanist. Born in Joliet, Illinois, he lived and worked on farms... Read more PHOTO: Lester Frank Ward in his office with Miss Moorehead in 1886.
Palisot de Beauvois: botanist, explorer, entomologist, lawyer, and politician June 2014 Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois (1752–1820), or better known today as Palisot de Beauvois, was—in alphabetical order—a botanist, entomologist, explorer, lawyer, and... Read more
Benjamin Dann Walsh's insects: A Darwinian bulldog in America May 2014 Imagine the audacity of Benjamin Walsh! He challenged Charles Darwin's harshest critics in the United States. He patiently survived the Illinois legislature and governor over his appointment as state... Read more ILLUSTRATION: moth markings by B.D. Walsh
John and Robert Kennicott and science education in nineteenth-century America April 2014 Once upon a time, in Chicago, there existed a society of natural scientists by the name of the Kennicott Club. This organization was an informal society of individuals interested in taxonomy, so its... Read more PHOTO: Robert Kennicott House at The Grove, Glenview, Illinois
Depicting majestic trees: Jacob Strutt’s portrayal of arbor nobility March 2014 Jacob Strutt (1784–1867) had developed a fine reputation as a portrait painter in early nineteenth century England. This business was financially and professionally significant for Strutt, but in the... Read more ILLUSTRATION: a massive tree illustration by Jacob Strutt
Darwin’s orchids, moths, and evolutionary serendipity February 2014 This month's fantastic orchid exhibition at the Chicago Botanic Garden includes spectacular printed works on exhibit in the Lenhardt Library, illustrating orchids along with stunning manuscripts by... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Angraecum sesquipedale illustrated book plate
Bioprospecting in ancient herbals January 2014 Herbals contain tales and stories about the health benefits and hazards of many plants, some of which we might find incredible today. Take the mandrake, or Mandragora, made famous in the Harry Potter... Read more Daffodils from John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629).
Pierre Pomet’s travel guide: Sensational science and medicine for all December 2013 Pierre Pomet (1658–99) wrote one of the most popular medical works at the end of the seventeenth century, surpassing, in his time, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Matthioli, and even Paracelsus. Combining... Read more Title page of "Histoire Generale des Drogues" by Pomet
The fate of gardens and their collections in war November 2013 Cultural institutions suffer greatly during wars; animals die in zoos, art is looted from museums, books and manuscripts are stolen and sold on black markets. Gardens are particularly damaged during... Read more PHOTO: Post-war Berlin
Sammelband, or the Renaissance publisher's lagniappe: The significance of Johannes Soter's bonus volume October 2013 On occasion, the Rare Book Collection in the Lenhardt Library contains works that include several different printed books bound together in a single volume. I often regard these sammelband, as they... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Hermolaus Barbarus
Going native: George Francis Lyon in Arctic Canada September 2013 In the century of exploration, few hardy souls survived treks in both Africa and the Arctic. An even smaller number braved the heat of the Sahara and frozen seas of the Arctic going native, learning... Read more ILLUSTRATION: The tribal emissary on his sealskin craft
Detective work: Using recycled binding as clues to book history August 2013 That old saw, "you can't tell a book by its cover" certainly applies to Cristóbal Acosta's (1515?–94) Aromatum & Medicamentorum in Orientali India Nascentium Liber and its unusual binding.... Read more Cristobal Acosta
Protecting Linnaeus: Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828) as Linnean critic and defender July 2013 More than two centuries ago, Carolus Linnaeus (a.k.a. Carl von Linné, Carolus a Linné, Carl Linnaeus, or simply L. systematically) changed our way of understanding the natural world. We still use... Read more Carolus Linnaeus
Birds and fish fall from trees, sheep grow on bushes: The importance of zoophytes June 2013 Imagine a tree dropping not leaves from its branches, but birds or fish. Think about bushes that yield sheep as their fruit, rather than ordinary berries. These creations existed in the imaginative... Read more PHOTO: title page
Antediluvian botany: Exploring an ancient world nearly two centuries ago May 2013 Botany is a relatively recent science, married to medicine and alchemy for centuries. Only in the nineteenth century did botany become a respectable and independent intellectual pursuit, with its own... Read more PHOTO: title page
Georgius Everhardus Rumphius April 2013 Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, or Georg Everhard Rumpf, is my personal patron saint for persistence, self-reliance, and intellectual and physical toughness. His life and experiences were so demanding... Read more PHOTO: Cover page of Florula Columbiensis
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque March 2013 What's a species? To Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783–1840), almost anything became a separate species, even different forms of lightning. The ultimate splitter, Rafinesque named thousands of... Read more PHOTO: Cover page of Florula Columbiensis
John Quincy Adams and the flora of the District of Columbia February 2013 Florula columbiensis is the first list of plants growing in the District of Columbia, all summarized in a quickly printed pamphlet. Birders have their lists of avian friends spotted in a given locale... Read more PHOTO: Cover page of Florula Columbiensis
Henriette Vincent, star pupil of Redoute January 2013 There is a special rarity in the rare book collection of the Lenhardt Library, a work so unusual that you might have to travel to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris to see another copy, because of... Read more PHOTO: botanical illustration of tulip
Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance December 2012 The oldest book in the Lenhardt Library's rare book collection has a special name, and we even know its birthday. Entitled Historia plantarum, it is the first great botanical work published by the... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Theophrastus
Letters from an American Farmer: Insights into eighteenth-century America November 2012 One of most remarkable books in the Lenhardt Library is also one of the first great fictional works created in America: a series of letters written by a J. Hector St. John. We now know that J. Hector... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Crevecoeur
Ellen Robbins, New England's extraordinary watercolorist and floral artist October 2012 The Lenhardt Library at the Chicago Botanic Garden has a number of special and unique works in its collection, but none more spectacular than Ellen Robbins's collection of 18 watercolors. These... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Ellen Robbins at work on a watercolor
Victor Jacquemont, the botancial romantic September 2012 Victor Jacquemont (1801–32), was the most charismatic, tragic, and energetic natural historian of his generation. His career as a scientist was cut off sadly on his return home from an ambitious... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Victor Jacquemont
Chicago in 1880: A Horticultural Perspective August 2012 Historical descriptions of urban areas are often filled with misinformation, hearsay, myths, and occasional factoids. It was with some surprise that one of my students uncovered an overview of... Read more PHOTO: Chicago 1880
Philip Henry Gosse's orchidophilia July 2012 Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888) was the perfect example of the citizen scientist of the nineteenth century. At various points in his life, he worked as a clerk, teacher, evangelist, and bird collector... Read more PHOTO: Philip Henry Gosse
William Turner and his Tudor Illustrators June 2012 William Turner (d. 1568) is justly famous as the first modern botanist and ornithologist in the United Kingdom. He compiled accurate lists of birds and plants in 1538. He wrote the first great... Read more Turnertitle
Defining the Renaissance: Hagecius, Liberale, Mattioli, and Paracelsus May 2012 Defining the Renaissance: Hagecius, Liberale, Mattioli, and ParacelsusPietro Andrea Mattioli's (1500–77) Herbarz (1562) was one of the most significant editions of Mattioli's commentary on... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Page from the New England Farmer
Mungo Park and the Kindness of Strangers April 2012 Mungo Park (1771–1806), a Scottish physician and explorer, is best remembered for his plain-spoken and non-judgmental descriptions of Africa at the end of the eighteenth century.His tales, collected... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Mungo Park
Training library patrons to return what they've borrowed March 2012 Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, Chairman of the Library Committee at the Massachusetts Historical Society, writing in the New England Farmer, bewailed a vexing problem. Library patrons had not... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Page from the New England Farmer
Sebastien Vaillant, precursor to Linnaeus, and the flora of Paris February 2012 Sebastien Vaillant (1669–1722) was one of the most important scientists of his time in the early eighteenth century, organizing the King's garden in Paris, systematically describing the flora of... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Sebastien Vaillant
The importance of reproductions: Dioscorides's Codex Vindobonenis January 2012 The most ponderous work in the rare book collection?Without a doubt, it is Dioscorides's Codex Vindobonenis, released in 1906 by the Leiden publisher Albertus Willem Sijthoff.In two large (the... Read more PHOTO: De Materia Medica (Byzantine version)
Letters from an eighteenth-century traveler and a botanical inventory December 2011 Strangers in eighteenth-century North America: Travels Through that Part of North America Formerly Called Louisiana (1771)Imagine visiting the middle of the North American continent two hundred and... Read more Introductory book plate from "Travels"
Redwoods, photography, and the birth of conservation November 2011 On March 15, 1897, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society acquired for a mere $1.50 a little promotional book from a now-extinct bookstore at 56 Cornhill in Boston. Little did they know how... Read more PHOTO: Logging with Donkey Engine
Hortus Eystettensis, Basilius Besler, gardens, and cabinets October 2011 Once upon a time—long before football, baseball, basketball, and hockey—science was a sport, an intellectual adventure between collectors and their cabinets (imagine a miniature natural history... Read more Besler explaining his cabinet, circa 1622
Dr. Boerhaave "discovered" in Glencoe September 2011 Rare books surprise you, appearing in the most unexpected places. Take the latest acquisition of the Lenhardt Library. It is entitled A Treatise on the Powers of Medicines, by the Late Learned Herman... Read more PHOTO: Herman Boerhaave (statue)