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From the Stacks 

March 3, 2010

Theophrastus: Systematically Defining our Natural World

Hello world, my name is Julia Specter and I am a second year MLIS student from San Jose State University, and very excited to be completing my internship here at the Academy Library. My background is in art and education, but my very first job was as a library page and I have been hooked ever since. As a collection development intern at the Academy Library, I have stumbled upon interesting images, books, and tidbits of information that I would not otherwise have found. Since much of collection development work so far has been focused on Botany and Entomology, I have taken upon myself to also learn more about both discipline, historical and contemporary scientists alike.

Therefore, I decided to start from the beginning.  In fact the very beginning of botany, to Theophrastus. Student, collaborator, and successor of Aristotle, Theophrastus, (4th century BCE), began the first scientific approach to botany. He is also know to be among some of the first to study medical herbs and weather’s effect on plants. Exploration of the works of Theophrastus also made me discover the wonder of the legume. A plant that most may look over in their pasta salad or soup, but as Theophrastus illustrates in his work, one of great wonder and delightful variation. Enquiry Into Plants translated in English by Arthur Hort (1961), he notes that plants such as Peas or Pisum sativum, have been used for human food and animal feed since before than 300 years BCE. Arthur Hort’s book is available at the Academy Library, and can be located on the stacks at, QK41.T4 1961.

Theophrastus’ work on peas was only a small peek into his accomplishments he completed during his life, including the fact that he was also the first to apply principles of classification to vegetables.

Images of Peas from Theophrastus (1644)

Images of Peas from Theopharasti Eresil De historia plantarum: libri decem, Graece et Latine: in quibus textum Graecum variis lectionibus, emendationibus, hiulcoru (1644).

Another legume, liquorice, derived from two Greek terms, “sweet”, and “root” was also of interest to Theophrastus for its medicinal benefits. The liquorice, turns out to also have a deep root in human history and he found that its medical benefits have been used in different geographical regions and time periods, even before his time. Theophrastus named the plant, “the Scythian root” after the Scythian ethnic group who lived to the north and east of Greece, who had passed down their knowledge on the pharmacological uses of liquorice to the Greeks (Hort, 1961). Liquorice happens to be what I bring camping as a natural alternative to help with common aliments, but I had no idea how truly beneficial (and unoriginal) my remedy is.

Lastly after reviewing Theophrastus’ translated works, it seems clear that he truly understood the interactions between living organisms and their habitats; and could he can also perhaps, be considered the first ecologist. Much like the academy’s mission statement, Theophrastus work was on the bases to, “explain and explore the natural world” in order to preserve it’s important history and make use of the benefits this knowledge can offer us in our daily lives.

Filed under: Rare Books — Intern @ 6:16 pm

August 28, 2009

Have you met my friend, Jenny Haniver?

Jenny Haniver and I just met. I was vaguely aware of her existence, but I’d never made her acquaintance. Like so much in my life, I found her through books. I first heard of her via an obtuse reference in a French work on fish from 1551. We were formally introduced in the pages of a rather spectacular and unusual 17th century text, Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo.  Ever since Jenny and I met, I seem to be seeing her everywhere.  Maybe she was around before, but I just wasn’t aware, or maybe she’s following me.  Anyway, you’re probably wondering who this Jenny Haniver character is, yes?

“Draco alter ex Raia exsiccata concinnatus” by Ulisse Aldrovandi. Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo. California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL666.O6 A42 1640

Maybe not who (or what) you were expecting?  Meet an early depiction of what is known as a Jenny Haniver: a ray or skate that has been cut and shaped by hand, and then dried in order to fabricate another creature altogether.  They make several appearances in natural history texts from the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed, they appear in some of the earliest zoology books.  I first saw this plate several years ago, when I was looking through some early herpetology publications; Ulisse Aldrovandi’s  Serpentum et Draconum…, published posthumously in 1640, is one of the older ones in the Academy Library collections.  It’s a fascinating work, filled with descriptions and illustrations of various snakes, as well as crowned serpents, winged dragons, and…that thing up there.  I didn’t think much of this particular plate, figuring that it depicted yet another imaginary beast.

I returned to Aldrovandi after reading Pierre Belon’s L’Histoire Naturelle des Estranges Poissons Marins, avec la Vraie Peincture & Description du Daulphin, & de Plusieurs Autres de Son Espece, a work in which Belon comments on the practice of fashioning flying serpents and dragons out of rays.  The next time I pulled the Aldrovandi, I saw the notation on the plate pictured above, which begins “Draco alter ex Raia” which tipped me off that Aldrovandi knew this specimen was a “dragon” crafted out of a dead ray. (Incidentally, I stumbled upon Belon’s reference while writing about his work for the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, where I am now a regular contributor: click here to read my musings on Belon for the BHL).

When I initially encountered Serpentum et Draconum… I was confused.  Aldrovandi is known today as one of the first natural historians to stress the importance of direct observation and accurate illustration in scientific texts (rather than relying solely on hearsay and the work of others who came before).  He was a scholar intent on seeing first-hand as many specimens as possible, dedicated to creating detailed, anatomically-correct illustrations to illuminate his descriptions.  As we can see, he had no trouble revealing a hoax or a fraud when he saw one.  Yet the same work that reveals this fraud is also full of winged dragons and many-headed hydras.

Of course, it is important to remember that while Aldrovandi did travel, he could not go everywhere.  In addition to specimens, he collected illustrations and paintings, which he used to formulate his descriptions and in his teaching.  Some of his specimens were mere fragments, such as bones, horns, skins, and feathers.  It is not too difficult to imagine how certain specimens, along with the descriptions of predecessors, could have led Aldrovandi to include these dragons alongside animals he had seen with his own eyes.  I’ve been batting this around a lot for the last week or so, this interesting book so full of contradictions, a mix of closely observed first-hand accounts, known fakes, and fantastic mythical figures.  It’s enough to make me work on my Latin.

Incidentally, the name “Jenny Haniver” is a puzzle all its own.  No one knows exactly when the term came into use, or what it’s supposed to mean.  The closest to an accepted explanation is that Jenny Haniver is actually “Jeune d’Anvers,” or “young girl from Antwerp” in French. Some speculate that the practice originated in Antwerp, and since some Jenny Hanivers are crafted to look more human than beastly, it’s a plausible theory. Here’s a photograph of a Jenny Haniver from the Canadian Museum of Nature that has more of a human appearance than Aldrovandi’s.

Want to learn more about Aldrovandi and Belon? Interested in the fascinating literature of natural history? As always, the Academy Library is open for your research needs by appointment, and we’re here to answer your questions. Just send us an email, give us a call at (415) 379-5484, or Chat with a Librarian.

Filed under: Rare Books — Librarian @ 2:11 pm

August 11, 2009

This is worth crowing about…

We’ve turned the page!

Drop by the Library Reading Room to see a new page of the Audubon Double Elephant Folio on display for your viewing pleasure.

This month’s choice is the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos (Corvus americanus in Audubon).

“American Crow” by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

We are showing off this particular plate to complement a recent post on the Academy’s Science in Action blog about our increasing understanding of the intelligence of crows and other corvids. Audubon wrote fondly of the crow, praising its intelligence, its bravery, and its devotion to its young.  He chastises those who poison or shoot crows in an effort to protect crops in the field, writing in the Ornithological Biography, “I cannot but wish that they would reflect a little, and become more indulgent toward our poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird, the Crow.”

The American Crow will be on display until September 8.  If you are visiting the Academy and would like to see it, email library@calacademy.org for an appointment.

Filed under: Audubon,Rare Books — Librarian @ 1:41 pm

August 6, 2009

Good for the Swarm?

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.”

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI

One of the things I enjoy most about being a librarian is that I have the opportunity to assist people with research on a wide variety of topics.  Sometimes the best part is what I unearth during the quest– even though these oddities are rarely useful to the patron, they often get me thinking.

I found one such item yesterday while I was pulling some books about pollinating insects for one of the students in the Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute.  Behold, one of the items found whilst prowling through the stacks:

Kidders Guide to Apiarian Science by K.P. Kidder.  Burlington, VT: Samuel Nichols, 1858

Kidder’s Guide to Apiarian Science by K.P. Kidder (1858).  California Academy of Sciences Library, SF523 .K46

One could be forgiven for thinking this is a charmingly-illustrated beekeeping manual from the 19th century (which it is).  But only after I brought it out from the stacks and  into the light of day did I notice the cover illustration:

That, my friends, is no ordinary beard, but rather a beard of bees.

I’ve seen people with bee beards before, at county fairs and beekeeping demonstrations, but I never gave much thought to the history of the practice.  I can’t find agreement in the literature about who popularized it (several sources give credit to Ukrainian apiarist Peter Prokopovitch, but I have not been able to confirm this.  You can read about his proven achievements here).

Did you know that the Academy has beehives on the Living Roof?  I checked with one of the keepers, and so far, no one has worn the Academy’s bees as a beard, so I had to do some of my own research.

A beard of honeybees is a manipulation of natural swarming behavior.  Bees swarm for different reasons, and can be induced to do so by a variety of means.  One type of swarming is what bees do when they need to find a new place to live.  After reproducing and raising young in a colony, the nest site can become overcrowded.  The established queen leaves the colony to her strongest daughter, takes about half the workers, and leaves to find a new nest elsewhere.  In the swarm, honeybees don’t really operate as independent creatures, but for the good of the whole.  Some bees look for a new nest and recruit others, some go follow to check it out, others assess different sites, and eventually some pilot the swarm toward their new home.   Individual actions eventually add up to a collective decision about a new home.  It is essential that the bees operate this way or the breakaway group could die.

Bees can be induced to swarm if you move the queen.  A queen can be captured and held, inducing her workers to swarm and cluster around her, as if preparing to move the colony.  Wear the queen in a little cage around your neck, and voilà, you have a beard of bees!

I am not a beekeeper, nor am I a bee expert.  I know some folks disapprove of bee beards, on the grounds that it can be stressful and potentially harmful (or fatal) to the bees involved.  Ethics aside, bee beards illustrate something that makes bees particularly interesting. As a swarm, the beard demonstrates how a colony, which integrates individuals by means of communication, cooperation, and division of labor, functions as a “superorganism.”  The colony as a whole can be thought of as one creature.  In other words, the lone honeybee doesn’t survive; it’s all about the group.

Or, what is good for the swarm is good for the bee.

Filed under: Rare Books — Librarian @ 5:06 pm

July 21, 2009


Bird brain

Special comb.: (a person with) a small brain; so bird-brained a., having a small brain; fig. inattentive, flighty.

(Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition)

Two birds from Little Screech Owl by John James Audubon. Birds of America (Octavo Ed. 1870).  California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870

A pair of "bird brains" (literally!) from "Little Screech Owl" by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

I know a bunch of things about John James Audubon.  I know that he was a talented painter, a gifted naturalist, a passionate hunter, and by turns a successful businessman and an impoverished failure.  I know that he shot a lot of birds in order to paint them, and that he ate many of the birds he shot, and that he wrote about how good (or bad) those birds tasted.  I know that after failing to sell much of his art in America, he became a sensation in England, a romantic New World icon– in Audubon’s own words, he became the embodiment of an “American woodsman.”

And I know that John James Audubon was many things, but not a birdbrain, at least not by the OED definition.

But I’ve got birds on the brain lately, thanks to Mr. Audubon.  If you’ve been up to the Academy Library lately, you’ve no doubt seen the new furniture in the Library Reading Room, which includes an exhibit case for the Academy’s copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, the immense work known as the Double-Elephant Folio.

Our Double-Elephant Folio was the gift of Edward E. and Florence Hopkins Hills of San Francisco. The set survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in the hands of the San Francisco Art Association, who sold the work to Hills in 1941.  The work came to the Academy in 1964.

We’re thrilled to share this work with Academy Staff and Library visitors.  Watch this space for more information about Audubon and his great work.

Visiting the Academy and want to see the Library and the Audubon?  Make an appointment at library@calacademy.org.

Filed under: Audubon,Rare Books — Librarian @ 3:38 pm
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