American Collections blog

8 posts categorized "Science"

13 June 2012

From the Collections: Seneca Snakeroot

Team Americas' intern, Brendan, has been using the Library's early American science materials, here's what he found:

Seneca Snakeroot (illustration)
A botanical illustration of Seneca Rattlesnake Root printed in ‘An Epistle to Dr. R. Mead Concerning the Epidemical Diseases of Virginia …’ (1738) [BL Shelfmark 1170.f.13]

Every once in a while, you stumble across something that really catches your attention.  Perhaps it stirs up a memory, excites a childhood interest or fulfils a passing curiosity.  For me, it was a combination of all of the above.  I had the pleasure of coming across a rather nondescript book in a long list of early American science-related materials that the Library houses, which contained fascinating primary medical research for a wonder-drug that found its way into the hands of an American physician via the Seneca First Nations.

In ‘An Epistle to Dr. R. Mead Concerning the Epidemical Diseases of Virginia …’ [BL Shelfmark: 1170.f.13], published in 1738, Dr. John Tennant set out to demonstrate the real and potential benefits of providing preparations of Seneca Rattlesnake Root to patients suffering from diseases of the lung.  While the Seneca First Nations have used the root as a cure for venomous rattlesnake bites for centuries, Dr. Tennant, having seen the treatment in action, noted similarities between some of the symptoms of a snakebite and the respiratory diseases which plagued Virginians (namely pleurisy and peripneumony).  As a result, he predicted that an infusion of the root might yield positive outcomes in both cases.  He tested his hypothesis directly on his patients with careful consideration of their well-being and was met with some spectacular results.  Some of the stories that he includes are exciting to say the least, with near misses and great triumphs! 

This book provides a wonderful, and fairly easy-to read, snapshot of European medical practice in the Americas at the beginning of the eighteenth century.  Along with the application of the root infusions, Dr. Tennant explains how this new treatment fit into contemporary medical theory, discussing it in combination with bloodletting and taking the cardinal humours into consideration.  This document and others like it in the Library’s collections not only provide us with a window into eighteenth century science, but also serve as an ethnobotanical record outlining the uses of exotic plants and their relation to indigenous knowledge.  It highlights the First Nation’s willingness to share ancient information and collaborate with the settlers.  This book can be seen as a bridge between cultures, linking Europe to the Seneca and other First Nations groups.

At around the time that this book was published, Seneca Rattlesnake Root was arriving in Europe for the first time.  It would later become a mainstay of the nineteenth century pharmacist’s cabinet as a treatment for pneumonia.  Today, it is harvested in North America by the First Nations and sold all over the world to ease the symptoms of respiratory ailments.  It regularly appears as an ingredient in cough medicines and in drugs produced to treat bronchitis and asthma.  For additional information visit the Government of Canada’s ‘Seneca Snakeroot’ information page here.


13 March 2012

The Voyage of HMS Beagle: zoological views

Beagle zoology (birds)
Illustration from the birds focussed volume of, 'The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle'

A couple of weeks ago I spent a Sunday afternoon at Down House, where Charles Darwin lived and wrote his famous works. Many things struck me that afternoon but the map of the Beagle's voyage reminded me that Darwin's journey is a piece of history which provides a link between all of us here in the Americas and Australasian Studies department. Duly motivated, I decided to do a short blog on the Beagle's presence in the Library's collections.

The British Library holds a lot of material which refers to or resulted from the work conducted by Darwin and others during the voyage of HMS Beagle. Not only are there many copies of, 'On the Origin of Species' but there are also less popularly know publications, such as Darwin's paper, 'The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, etc.' (shelfmark: 07109.i.13). Amongst all of this, my favourite publication related to the expedition is, 'The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle' (which I also saw on display at Down House).

Beagle zoology (mammals)
Illustration of Australia's Mus Fuscipes, from the mammals volume of, 'The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle'

'Zoology' is a detailed account of the animals and fossils encountered and collected during the voyage of the Beagle with each volume being drawn together by various authorities of the time. Between them, the five volumes provide accounts of the various specimens collected and are richly illustrated with examples from various parts of the voyage (although the lithographs of Galapagos finches are understandably the most eye catching).

The account also underlines the scope and scale of the Beagle's voyage and Darwin's collecting, neither of which were necessarily unique to the time but they do illustrate a globalised scientific process. Unfortunately, it's becoming something of a trend for me to blog about restricted items and once again the library's original 'Zoology' (shelfmark: 791.I.17,18) is on this list. However, there are also some very good reproductions available in the reading rooms, not least the Royal Geographical Society's 1994 commemorative edition (shelfmark: Cup.410.g.500).


28 October 2011

Team Americas in Space

International Space Station
The International Space Station, May 2011

 Last night the Quebec Government Office in London hosted the event, 'An Evening in Space with Canadian astronaut, Julie Payette', at the Science Museum's Imax cinema, and Carole and I were invited along. The evening started with a screening of the rather awe-inspiring 'Space Station 3D'. Photographs and videos of space have been part of our visual heritage for a long time and have perhaps lost some of their early impact but the 3D effect and immersive screen reinvigorates the wonder of seeing the Earth from space.

The film is worth seeing, and Julie Payette's short lecture that followed was a treat for anyone who has even fleetingly wanted to be an astronaut. The emphasis of the talk was on how being in space opens up questions about how we relate to land on Earth and our own cultural differences. This was driven home by a great piece of 'it's Earth, but not as we know it' where photographs of parts of the world were shown in a different orientation from that which we would normally see and without any borders or human mapping. The effect of this re-imagining of familiar places was thought provoking and gave an insight into how being an astronaut must drastically change your world view.

One other thing that was mentioned which you may want to know: apparently, you can't see the Great Wall of China from space but you can see the Pyramids and the wake of ferries in the English Channel. It seems the contrast between light and dark is the main way of perceiving things from such an altitude, with the Wall not providing much contrast to its environment while the Pyramids and the bow wakes of ships do.

Finally, the evening drove home to me just how much of a presence Canada has in space, whether it be in the form of astronauts such as Julie Payette or equipment such as the 'Canadarm', a robotic arm used to manipulate loads from the Space Shuttles. You can find out more about Canada's activities in space via the Canadian Space Agency website and more about the International Space Station via the NASA site, or even through the British Library's own resources. I've just been bowled over by the amount of results returned by typing 'International Space Station' into Primo, with everything from books on building the station, to journal articles on experiments run there being available.


19 September 2011

Tweet Tweet: John James Audubon's Birds of America


John James Audubon's Birds of America is undoubtedly a treasure but, it must be said, a bit unwieldy, especially in its double-elephantine folio.  Much handier is this new iPad version, which I spotted being announced on Twitter this morning.  It can be seen in its new habitat in two formats: the full, 'complete version', and the lesser-spotted 'highlights version'.  Both can be purcashed via eBook Treasures (along with other tomes, such as Blake's notebook).

More birds from the blog's backlist.


17 December 2010

What the #?~!?

Two of the things that happened this week were: (1) A Celebration of Swearing and Profanity, with participants from Viz and In the Thick of It, as part of our Evolving English exhibition; and (2) the launch of the Google Books Ngam Viewer Beta.  Important, sensible research has taken place on this corpus of words, as the New York Times has noticed, but I did what I suspect many others did and combined (1) and (2).

What did I learn?  Well, there is steady increase in the proportion of a word beginning with S, starting in the '60s, and plateauing in 1980s, before rising in the '90s.


A similar pattern is revealed by [f***]:

Except, there is more of a pronounced lull in the '80s, and its rise starts a little later.

Now for the C-word:


A little more random, a later start, but more of a backlash in the 1980s.  As a control, here's [Apple Pie]:


What explains this?  Can we tie it into a narrative of progressive easing up in censorship (or a decline in literary standards), followed by a backlash, perhaps lead by Reagan-era cultural politics and embodied by Tipper Gore's explicit lyrics stickers?  Does the line of the C-word graph point to the extra-layers of profanity attached to that epithet?  And what does it mean in terms of gender politics? I'm sure we'll here a lot more about this sort of research, not least as a starting off point for more in-depth enquiry and for raising questions.  That's my excuse.

Update: more in the Grauniad.


08 October 2010

Polar resources: 400 years of exploring the final frontiers

Voyage of the Fox 

The voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas: a narrative of the discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions / Francis Leopold McClintock. London: John Murray, 1859. BL: 10460.d.2.

Information about the Polar Regions is currently being accumulated in vast quantities by governments and scientific bodies across the globe. This is not a new phenomenon as the history of human interaction with the Arctic and Antarctic is one littered with paper, maps and other notations. The British Library collections are a significant repository of these materials, with holdings relating to the Arctic dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century. In the current geopolitical climate these materials can provide us with insights into how current interactions of government and corporate interests with the Polar Regions may develop.

The North West Passage has long been a subject of fascination to explorers, profiteers and geopolitically minded governments and the history of its exploration by British interests is well documented at the British Library. In sixteenth-century accounts of the search for a passage to the East via the north of the Americas, by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Martin Frobisher, we see concerns familiar to current interest in the Arctic. Rights of access to profitable trade routes and prospecting for resources are significant concerns to these explorers, set against a background of major geopolitical change as Europe’s power balances shift in the aftermath of Columbus navigating to the Caribbean.

Nineteenth-century collections in the Library bear out a similar tale, although by this point the major actors in the sphere of Arctic exploration and exploitation are the British Navy, Canadian government and Hudson’s Bay Company. The writings of Sir John Barrow are spread across the Library’s collections and his accounts of the significance of the Arctic to the British empire are punctuated with warnings about threats to sovereignty posed by business interests and geopolitical concerns raised by the actions of countries such as Russia. We also begin to clearly see the importance of science as a tool for envisioning, delimiting and enforcing control over the Arctic, as evidenced by the significant role of factually accurate illustrations and detailed cartographic charts in writings from this time.

Historical collections are a significant resource to contemporary researchers interested in today’s Polar geopolitics. Scratching the surface of the Library’s collections reveals a long history where exploration and science are used to assert sovereignty and define borders. It also suggests cyclicality to these events and highlights the significance of wider geopolitical pressures, motivated by periods of change, to the intensification of interest in the Arctic across a broad historical transect. More information on these resources can be found here should you wish to use these collections to supplement your research.


16 September 2010

Talking plants

Botanical Illus Sloane 
Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica....., London, 1707-25. Shelfmark: 38.f.4

Team America is very pleased to welcome our first guest blogger - Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary, UOL: 

My current research seeks to understand the ways in which knowledge of the natural history of the Caribbean islands, especially Jamaica, was produced and communicated in the period between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century. During that period, it was the plant life of those islands that was the prime focus for natural philosophers, many of whom were doctors interested in the medical uses of plants. There was also a concern to search for agricultural products that could play a profitable part in Britain’s imperial economy.

What I am interested in is the range of forms of communication of botanical knowledge. This involved speech, correspondence, collections of specimens (herbaria), and printed matter from newspaper articles to scholarly papers and elaborate volumes of botanical engravings. I want to know who communicated with whom about the plants of Jamaica and how they did so, thinking about both local discussions of plants and those which spanned the Atlantic world. I ask what the protocols were for these forms of communication? Who could be part of the ‘conversation’? And who the audiences were that they addressed. There are various elements to this: the role of polite sociability in the work of men of science in the Atlantic world; the particular forms of knowledge that were communicated between doctors and patients; attempts to make the knowledge of plants ‘public’, via both print and botanical gardens (and the intersection of the two in printed catalogues of the gardens’ collections); and the cross-cultural communication of botanical knowledge between Europeans and enslaved and indigenous people. Eighteenth-century Jamaica was a slave society based on deadly forms of agricultural labour on land which had been appropriated from its earlier inhabitants. It was a society of great brutality. Yet there was also an acknowledgement, albeit a circumscribed one, that enslaved Africans and Amerindians had knowledge of the botanical riches of the islands.

In doing the research it has been vital to be able to work across the range of material held in the Caribbean collections in the British Library. The communication of botanical knowledge depended upon images as well as many sorts of text. It has been crucial to the research to be able to consult, for example, the letters held in the manuscripts collections from Henry Barham (a Jamaican doctor) to Hans Sloane (then returned from Jamaica to London) as well as reading their published accounts of the natural history of the island. It has also been necessary to work between the manuscript correspondence of Thomas Dancer (the superintendent of Jamaica’s botanical garden) with Edward Long (a historian of the island who dealt in both ‘civil’ and ‘natural’ history) about the difficulties of getting public support for the island’s botanical garden, and the published garden catalogues and reports of speeches in newspapers in which Dancer celebrated the public spirit of this venture. It is only with such a range of material ready to hand that the range of forms of communication can become apparent, along with moments in which other voices are partially heard. For example, along with celebrating the contributions by European planters and plant collectors to the botanical gardens, in 1792 Dancer listed the Akee tree (a crucial part of Jamaica’s national dish of Akee and saltfish) as being an ‘African Fruit, introduced by Negroes in some of Mr. Hibbert’s ships.’ There is here a sense, albeit anonymous, of the African contribution to Jamaican botany, and to the talk about plants, their names and their uses.


Professor Miles Ogborn, School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London

London Group of Historical Geographers

08 September 2010

No-one wears white after Labor Day... a post-summer treat

Summer's gone; day's spent with the grass and sun.  But we don't mind, at least not when we can offer up some summery sea-shells such as these:


It's one of the many delicate copperplate, hand-coloured engravings contained in Thomas Say's American Conchology (New Harmony, Indiana, 1830-[1838]) [1256.f.21].  This particular specimin is Fulgur Pyruloides, and 'inhabits our soutern coast'; he reported that he 'never found it so far north as New-Jersey'.

Say's pioneering work is devoted to the cataloguing of American shells, a work he pursued in partnership with his wife, Lucy, and who produced many of the drawings in this volume.

They had married in secret during a scientific expedition to New Harmony, the utopian community founded by Robert Owen.

Here, the Says continued their studies, wrote, drew and coloured their work, and oversaw the output of the community's School Press.

As the great bibliographer, Streeter commented, 'A work as extraordinary for having been produced in the wilderness as for its elegance and the importance of its contribution to natural history'. 

Say, who died in 1834, is honoured in the naming, among other creatures, of the Caribbean mud crab, Dyspanopeus sayiLucy moved back east, where she 'longed for the freedom I used to enjoy when I lived on the Banks of the Wabash'  She was elected as the first female member of the  Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia in 1841; she died in 1885.


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