Martha - Scientific Casualty of the Day

Martha, a pigeon, died on Sep. 1, 1914. Named after Martha Washington, Martha the pigeon had lived at the Cincinnati Zoo for 29 years. She was the last of her species, and when she joined the choir invisible, the world suffered perhaps its most famous extinction. For Martha was a passenger pigeon. Once her kind had darkened the American skies and numbered in the billions. Now, unthinkably, the billions had been reduced to one, and then to zero. Upon her demise, Martha was frozen in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian, where she was stuffed and put on display, as a reminder of the peril of unchecked plundering of our natural resources. You can access Martha’s acquisition record online. After a half-century of display, Martha was removed to some shelf in the bowels of the Washington mall, but as the centennial of her death approached, the National Museum of Natural History refurbished Martha and placed her once again on view. In fact, the museum created a new exhibition around her: Once There were Billions, which opened this past June. And if you noticed all the photos of Martha on the acquisition record, many were taken so the Smithsonian could give us this—a rotating three-dimensional view of Martha.

The Cincinnati Zoo has not forgotten its most famous long-term resident. They built a pagoda-shaped memorial aviary in the 1970s, and there is a bronze statue of Martha on permanent display out front (see second and third images above). The memorial aviary also commemorates the passing of the last surviving Carolina Parakeet, a male named Incas, which, amazingly, died in the very same cage that had held Martha, on Feb. 21, 1918.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Astronomie Populaire ou Description des Corps Célestes (Popular Astronomy or Description of Heavenly Bodies), 1862.

Johann Hieronymus Schröter - Scientist of the Day

Johann Hieronymus Schröter, a German magistrate and astronomer, died Aug. 29, 1816, one day shy of his 71st birthday. Schröter erected his own private observatory in Lilienthal, equipped it with the best telescopes available, including a custom-built 27-foot Newtonian reflector (see first image above) and he proceeded to look at anything that moved in the skies. He published a series of fragmentary books on the moon and a number of the planets—indeed, he gave his books fragmentary titles such as Selenotopographische Fragmente (on lunar topography; see second image above for his map of the lunar craters Plato and Cassini), Aphroditographische Fragmente (on Venus), Kronographische Fragmente (on Saturn), and we have all of these in our History of Science Collection.

In 1805, Schröter published a book on the three known asteroids, Lilienthalische Beobachtungen der neu entdeckten Planeten Ceres, Pallas und Juno (see title page above, third image). Ceres had been discovered in 1801, Pallas in 1802, and Juno had been spotted at Schröter’s own observatory by an assistant in 1804. We own this book as well, but our copy of this work is special, for it came from the library of Schröter’s great contemporary and rival, the German-born English astronomer, William Herschel. Herschel does not seem to have cared for Schröter, even though they were both native Germans. Right on the first page of the preface, Herschel started writing critical comments—“it cannot be proper to call these Haupt [planeten, main planets]”, he writes in the margin, “when 30,000 of them would not make up one the size of the earth” (see fourth image above for a view of this page). The last straw came on page 8, when Schröter made a disparaging remark about the deceptive nature of a certain “English measurement”. Herschel scribbles “Without assigning the least reason he calls the English measures deceptions,” and with that, he seems to have put the book down and never picked it up again. There are no more marginal comments, and after page 60, the pages are uncut—no one has ever read them. Herschel’s disdain notwithstanding, Schröter was a very competent lunar observer, and we included his Selenotopographische Fragmente (1791) in our exhibition, The Face of the Moon (1989).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Hugo Grotius - Scientist of the Day

Hugo Grotius, a Dutch scholar, died Aug. 28, 1645, at age 62. In 1600, when only 17 years old, Grotius published his second book, an edition of an ancient astronomical treatise by Aratus with the commentary of Germanicus. What makes this book special is the manuscript on which it is based. Grotius had somehow acquired an illuminated copy of Aratus’s text, produced around 816 AD. The manuscript contained 35 “miniatures” of the constellations, which are in fact full-page paintings. Grotius had these illustrations copied as engravings by the great Dutch engraver, Jacobus de Gheyn.

The result was a very important work in the history of celestial cartography, because the engravings in Grotius’s book would be used by Johann Bayer when he fashioned his Uranometria (1603), the first modern star atlas. We have both Grotius’s Aratea and Bayer’s Uranometria in the History of Science collection, and we displayed them next to each other in our exhibition, Out of This World. The manuscript that Grotius owned is now at the University of Leiden, where it is known as MS Voss. lat. Q79. You can see the constellation Cepheus from that manuscript above, as well as the engraving after the manuscript illumination by Grotius. These are followed by the constellation Cancer in Grotius, and Johann Bayer’s map of Cancer in his Uranometria, clearly taken from Grotius’s engraving.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Bartolomeo Eustachi - Scientist of the Day

Bartolomeo Eustachi, an Italian anatomist, died Aug. 27, 1574, probably around the age of 65. In 1543, he witnessed the publication of one of the great books on anatomy (indeed, one of the milestone books of the entire history of science), when On the Fabric of the Human Body, by Andreas Vesalius, first appeared in print. With its large woodcuts, artfully drawn from observations made by Vesalius himself, it instantly revolutionized the teaching of anatomy, and almost every anatomical text published between 1543 and 1650 looks just like Vesalius’s book. Except for that of Eustachi. He started preparing illustrations for an anatomical text in the 1550s, and they could not have been more different from those of Vesalius. The Vesalius illustrations were woodcuts, very classical in appearance, the bodies standing like ancient sculptures in charming landscapes. Eustachi used copper-plate engravings, and his figures were not classical but mannerist—each body enclosed in a graduated grid, pushing against the confines of their restraint in varied and wonderful ways. If Eustachi’s Tabulae anatomicae had appeared as scheduled, there might have ensued a wonderful confrontation between partisans of the classical Vesalian style and advocates of the modern Eustachian style. But his book was not printed, for reasons unknown. The manuscript did not come to light until 1714, when the copperplates were discovered in the Vatican Library and finally sent to the press. Even 150 years too late, the plates had a profound impact on 18th century anatomy, and the book went through several editions.

The images show two Vesalius woodcuts on the left, and two Eustachi engravings on the right. We have a first-edition Vesalius and a 1728 edition of the Eustachi work in our History of Science Collection, and they were the source for all four images above.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Antoine Lavoisier - Scientist of the Day

Antoine Lavoisier, a French chemist, was born Aug. 26, 1743. Lavoisier is rightly considered the father of the chemical revolution of the late 18th century, and he is remarkable for having achieved this stature without discovering a single new element or gas or any other natural phenomenon. Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide were identified by others. What Lavoisier did was to reinterpret how these elements interact. Contemporary chemists invoked a substance called “phlogiston” to explain why things burn or rust; it was thought that phlogiston was given off when a substance burned. In 1778, Lavoisier proposed that oxygen was the key element; things burn by taking on oxygen, not by giving off phlogiston. Rusting is just a slower “oxidation” of an element.

The oxygen theory of combustion turned out to have much more explanatory power that the phlogiston theory, especially since it explained why substances gain weight when they oxidize. Lavoisier later set down the first modern list of elements, and he also reformed chemical nomenclature, dumping the colorful alchemical language of “flowers of sulfur” and “sugar of lead” in favor of carbonates and oxides and adjectives like sulfuric and nitrous. His collaborator in much of his work was his wife, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, who also illustrated most of Lavoisier’s scientific publications. It is sad that she had to witness Lavoisier’s final fate. Lavoisier was a member of the Ferme-Générale, a tax collection agency, and he was arrested along with the other administrators during the Reign of Terror and executed by guillotine on May 8, 1794, at age 50. As a countryman said at the time, “It took only a moment to cause this head to fall, and a hundred years will not suffice to produce its like.”

The double portrait of Antoine and Marie-Anne above was painted by the great Jacques-Louis David in 1788, and you can see it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The other image shows a reconstruction of Lavoisier’s laboratory at the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris.

We have nearly all of the works of Lavoisier, as well as numerous translations, in our History of Science Collection.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

James Lick - (Honorary) Scientist of the Day

James Lick, an American real-estate tycoon, was born Aug. 25, 1796, in Philadelphia. He moved to South America in 1821 to make pianos, living mostly in Argentina and Peru. Having made a modest fortune, and sensing that California was about to boom, he moved to San Francisco in 1848 and started buying land. This was just before the Gold Rush, so he quickly grew wealthy, eventually becoming the richest man in California, owning huge chunks of San Francisco and San Jose. As he neared death, he decided to donate his fortune to various charities, but he saved the biggest chunk to fund the building of an observatory with the largest telescope in the world. After he died in 1876, the Lick Observatory was constructed on top of Mt. Hamilton, just east of San Jose, and in 1888, a 36” refracting telescope was installed, which was indeed the largest in the world (for about 9 years). Lick was buried under the pier that holds the refractor.

The images above show the completed mountain-top observatory, from a period photo; the Lick refractor, from a period wood engraving, and a photograph of the moon, made with the Lick refractor in 1897. We featured the album that contained the Lick lunar photographs in our exhibition, The Face of the Moon.

 As an incidental point of interest, when Lick first came to California from Peru, he brought with him over 500 pounds of chocolate, which he sold at great profit. He wrote to his neighbor back in Peru, who had supplied the chocolate, and told him of the opportunities in San Francisco. His neighbor quickly followed suit and re-established his chocolateering business in San Francisco. His name was Domingo Ghirardelli, and you can still visit his establishment, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, at Ghirardelli Square, the next time you visit San Francisco.

 Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Initial letters from a selection of rare books.

Francois Péron - Scientist of the Day

Francois Péron, a French zoologist, was born Aug. 22, 1775. In 1800, Péron signed on with Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste, two ships that were headed for Australia, commanded by Nicolaus Baudin, with a full complement of 24 scientists on board. Péron was the junior naturalist, but as others succumbed to scurvy and dysentery, he gradually rose to become the senior man (which is to say, the sole survivor). The voyage gathered some hundred thousand specimens, quite a number of them still living, which—animals and plants alike—would be farmed out to such artificial Edens as the gardens of Malmaison, the estate of Josephine, Napoleon’s wife. Baudin himself died in 1803, before the ships returned, and so it fell to Péron’s lot to write the narrative of the voyage. The curse of Baudin eventually spread to Péron, who died in 1810, when he was only 35 years old, and the narrative had to be finished by yet another. We displayed Péron’s Voyage de découvertes aux terres Australes (1807-16) in our Grandeur of Life exhibition in 2009; on the web version you can see the plates of two banded wallabies and two black emus. The images above, from the same work, show two platypi (Ornithorhynchus), a family of Tasmanian aborigines with their reed canoes, and a pair of quoll (Dasyrus), which are small carnivorous marsupials.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City