Botanical books illustrate science, pseudo-science

Author: Carol C. Bradley


On display in the Hesburgh Librarys Department of Special Collections, John Gerards 1634 bookThe herball, or, generall historie of plantesis open to a page illustrating a tree that grewor so legend had itin the outer islands of Scotland.

The tree, says rare books librarian Benjamin C. Panciera, supposedly grew barnacles that, when ripened, hatched into geese.I dont know if the eggs of the geese were supposed to grow more barnacle trees,Panciera says.The myth had already been discredited for a century when Gerard credulously repeated the tale in his book.

The Hesburgh Librarys Department of Special Collections is paying tribute to the 300th anniversary of the birth of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus with an exhibition of rare botanical manuscripts documenting the developing science of botany from the 16th through 18th centuries.

Carl von Linné (1707-78), known more widely as Carolus Linnaeus, invented the binomial taxonomic system still used by scientists today, that classifies all living things into kingdom, class, order, genus and species.

The exhibit,Writing the Book of Nature: Botany in Print, 1485-1778,will be on display in Special Collections at the west end of the library concourse through August 30.

Most of the books on display are from the Edward Lee Greene collection, Panciera notes. The collection, one of the premiere rare books collections in the library, is one of the top collections of its kind in the country, according to Panciera.The bulk of the collection is material that would be contemporary to Greene1850 to 1910. But he was interested in the history of botany in the pre-Linnean period, 16th to early 18th century.

A botanist and avid collector of books on the history of botany, Greenea contemporary of Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, C.S.C., and Notre Dame honorary degree recipient in 1894had originally trained for the ministry but decided to pursue botany instead. In 1904, he entered the Smithsonian Institution as an associate in botany, with the Smithsonian retaining the right to purchase his collection of 4,000 volumes for a fixed price of $20,000 during Greenes 10-year contract.

When the contract expired and the Smithsonian still had not purchased the collection, Greene made arrangements to transfer his collection to Notre Dame, where he had been offered a position as professor of botany and curator of botanical collections. When Green arrived on campus, his health was already failing, and he died just a few months later.

Greenes collection of pressed plant specimens became the foundation of the Greene-Nieuwland Herbarium, housed in the Museum of Biodiversity, Jordan Hall of Science. Joseph T. Ross, special collections cataloguer and co-curator of the exhibition, notes that he still occasionally finds leaves and flowers Greene pressed between the pages of his books.

The rare botanical books on display include a mix of scientific and the fantastic. In one display case rests De secretis mulierum item De Virtutibus herbarum, lapidum&animalium, printed in Amsterdam in 1662. The small volume (the title translates toOn the secrets of women, plants and minerals) is open to a section on the magical properties of the sage plant.If sage is buried in cow manure,Panciera says,itll turn into a worm. The blood of that worm, when placed on a mans chest, renders him completely anesthetized for 15 days. If the worm is buried, a rainbow will spring forth. This edition was printed in the 17th century, and further editions continued to be printed well into the 18th century,he points out.Even in the age of reason, people were still reading this.

Special Collections exhibitions are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; there is no admission fee. For more information, contact the department at 631-0290.

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