Plant Cuttings

Classical texts re-imagined/re-imaged…

Weird Scientific Equipment
Image: Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks. London, W. and J. Innys, 1727.

Do you remember the good old days when students read for a degree? Well, I don’t know how much proper reading they do these days – i.e. that which involves actually touching and turning the pages of a book or research article (but which is probably nowadays forbidden on health and safety grounds – well, you never know what disease you might pick up from a multi-accessed textbook… and paper cuts can really hurt…). But if their access to the real thing is limited it is heartening to know that some classic botany/plant biology-related texts are now available online as open-access items. So, by way of whetting your – and your students’ – appetites, here are a few I’ve stumbled across (another H&S issue with piles of textbooks, journals, manuscripts in one’s room…)…

Accordingly, first mention goes to that great ‘plant physiology’ text of 1727, Stephen Hales’ Vegetable Staticks, made available by the Biodiversity History Library. That important tome investigated such phenomena as root pressure and transpiration, and made such suggestions that ‘plants very probably draw through their leaves some part of their nourishment from the air’, and speculated that plants might use light as a source of energy for growth. At the time these were ground-breaking suggestions, but the fact that we take such ideas for granted nowadays is largely due to the work of such 18th century luminaries.

Other classic texts can be accessed free courtesy of the USA’s National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) TTP (Turning The Page) Online initiative, which is itself a development of the UK’s British Library’s own TTP system. But, ‘in creating our version of TTP at NLM, we have refined the original technology by using advanced 3D computer generated imagery, digital image enhancement, animation, illumination models and software programming to simulate the act of easily flipping through virtual books displayed in a highly photorealistic manner’. To see how close this is to the real thing, you are welcome to browse such timeless classics as Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia. Lauded as ‘the first scientific best-seller, inspiring a wide public interest in the new science of microscopy’ [an essential discipline for unlocking plant structure, hence physiology, etc. – Ed.], it is also notable for coining the biological term cell.

If ethnobotany is more your bag, then there’s Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 A Curious Herbal. This charming publication includes hundreds of colour images of plants, many drawn from London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Drawn by Elizabeth, the illustrations are accompanied by text supplied by her medically minded husband, from his debtors’ prison cell, and before he was ultimately decapitated for international conspiracy (! I tell you, botany is so multi-faceted!). And there’s also The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Whilst it may not contain many botanic references amongst its treatments, it does at least have the great claim to fame of being the world’s oldest surviving surgical text (from approx. 17th century BCE), and was written on … papyrus (‘a thin paper-like material made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus’).

Also containing a gallery of images for each text, this NLM initiative is a lovely resource. And if it is primarily images you seek – to illustrate your teaching, etc. – then many of those in the Wellcome Images collection are now essentially copyright-free, for any usage, under a Creative Commons Attribution Only (CC-BY) licence. Wellcome Images ‘is one of the world’s richest and most unique collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science’, and is of great value for providing those important historical dimensions to your lectures (and let us not forget that ‘we are where we are now because of where we’ve come from’ – Anon.), e.g. on plants-and-people or other worthy topics.

Finally, for some insight into the old-fashioned ‘world-at-your-fingertips-before-the-digital-age’, a recently completed project gives us a chance to explore the library that accompanied Charles Darwin as he travelled the world aboard the Beagle. Will all – or any – of this rekindle interest in proper books? I do hope so!

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