Stories from the Rare Book Collection

Kaempfer and the Ginkgo Tree December 2015 This leaf from a tree in the East,
Has been given to my garden.
It reveals a certain secret,
Which pleases me and thoughtful people.Is it one living being,
Which has divided... Read more
PHOTO: Fossilized ginkgo leaves from Sentinel Butte in North Dakota.
Alpini’s Coffee: From Strange Brew to Daily Staple November 2015 Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring... Read more
PHOTO: Espresso with milk-foam heart.
Opuntia, Tournefort, and the rewards of persistence October 2015 Published in 1925, T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is perhaps most famous for its ending, the most repeated stanza from a twentieth-century poem: This is the way the world ends
This is the way the... Read more
Opuntia illustrated in Institutiones rei herbariae
My mossy friends: On the importance of bryophytes September 2015 "When I detect a beauty in any of the recesses of nature, I am reminded, by the serene and retired spirit in which it requires to be contemplated, of the inexpressible privacy of a life — how silent... Read more
Zin's origins: Charles Hovey, William Prince, and California grapes August 2015 In 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California grape crush equaled 4,142,934 tons or 8,285,868,000 pounds. Of that total, 8.6 percent (or 356,292 tons or 712,584,648 pounds... Read more PHOTO: Zinfandel wine grapes.
John Adlum and America’s First Wines July 2015 The United States is one of the world's leading wine producers, creating more than 836 million gallons a year. Where were some of America's earliest wineries located? Were they in California, which... Read more PHOTO: John Adlum
Green—as in chlorophyll—factories June 2015 "They would take a plant or a tree and strip it of its blossoms and its flowers, its fruit and its nuts, its leaves and its bark, its thorns if it had any, its stem, its root, and the bark of its... Read more Willow tree.
Flowers on the mountain: Franz Unger, Anton Kerner von Marilaun, and floral detectives May 2015 "While with all Flora's perfumes fraught,
  And rich in Nature's matchless glow,
  The poor man's jewels, gems unbought,
  Bright in the varied border blow. "
— Maria... Read more
ILLUSTRATION: Diagram of floral change with height.
Mrs. Hussey's Mushrooms April 2015 "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its fragrance on the desert air."
— Jane Austen,  Emma. Ah, dear Emma, Jane Austen's most aristocratic character—a symbol of... Read more
PHOTO: Bookplate from Illustrations of British mycology
Fact Begetting Fiction: Hipólito Ruiz and Botanical Imagination March 2015 Botanical stories appear in the most unexpected places—even novels!I've been long a fan of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's historical novels because of their bibliographic tendencies (such as The Club Dumas)... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Hipólito Ruiz.
William Barton: Reputation and botany in early America February 2015 Heir apparent to his uncle's considerable reputation as a physician and botanist, William P.C. Barton (1786–1856) created one of his most significant works, Vegetable materia medica of the United... Read more PHOTO: William Barton
Benjamin Smith Barton and the flowering of early American natural history January 2015  "The trees are coming into leaf
 Like something almost being said;
 The recent buds relax and spread,
 Their greenness is a kind of grief."
— Philip Larkin (1922-1985)In... Read more
ILLUSTRATION: Benjamin Smith Barton
The Magic of Phytognomonica December 2014 Giambattista della Porta (c.1535–1615), a remarkable sixteenth-century genius in a century of polymaths, was a scientist, engineer, cryptographer, playwright, and founder of the world's first... Read more ILLUSTRATION: Giambattista della Porta
Isabella in Hawaii: The adventures of an amateur botanist in the 1860s November 2014 How does a young woman create the most important record of Hawaiian flowers in the nineteenth century? Who helps her identify plants and find a London publisher? Why does she leave New Zealand for... Read more PHOTO: Book cover of Indigenous Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands.
What's in a Name? October 2014 Some people read novels. I read taxonomic descriptions. I am especially interested in the etymology of scientific names, especially generic and species names. It all started in 1966 at the Field... Read more
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)