Flora and Fauna Intersections of art, science, and history

Natural History is the study of organisms focusing on observation rather than experimentation. Naturalists study an array of subjects including animals, plants, fungi, and minerals in their natural environments. Herbals, bestiaries, histories, and encyclopedias were created by naturalists in an attempt to survey, classify, describe, and explain the world around them. This exhibit explores examples of natural histories and natural history collections from the holdings of the MRU Archives and Special Collections. The exhibit illustrates the connections within the discipline of natural history to art, history, exploration, and science.

Aristotle is credited as being the first naturalist for his work in producing the first written classification of animals based on personal observation. He argued that organisms should be studied in their own environment and that eye-witness observation was important for verifying information. Subsequent natural scientists built on Aristotle's classification system and observation model for centuries even after knowledge of most of Aristotle's writings was lost to the Western world.

Nullius in verba. 'Take nobody’s word for it'. - Motto of The Royal Society
A first edition printed leaf from Aristotle's Opera, or collected works, from 1497, printed by Aldus Manutius of the Aldine Press. This printed edition was important because it was the first major reintroduction of Aristotle's works, in the original Greek, to the western world. The reintroduction of classical masters to a larger general public was made possible by the printing press and helped to usher in an era of interest in scientific observation.

Medieval Natural History

Hortus Sanitatis: The Garden of Health

Building on the work of other medieval encyclopedias, the Hortus Sanitatis, or Garden of Health, became the most comprehensive natural history produced in the Middle Ages. It was the first time the physical description and medical uses of plants, animals, and minerals were brought together in one work. The Hortus Sanitatis was also notable for being one of the first times art was used to depict purely natural objects. Previously, popular woodcuts featured topics such as religious symbolism, family crests, cityscapes, and portraits. The woodcuts in the Hortus are stylized but easily recognizable and frequently include images of humans observing animals in natural habitats. However, unlike Aristotle, the author of the Hortus includes entries for mythical beasts, such as unicorns and basilisks, that are based on folklore not personal observation.

The MRU Archives and Special Collections has two leaves from a 1497 first edition of the Hortus Sanitatis, printed by the Johann Prüss and written in Latin. The many large woodcut illustrations of the Hortus made it a very popular work that went through many reprintings and was translated into several vernacular languages.

Woodcut of an eagle.
Peacock with other birds ; a group of birds ; a falconer with falcons.
Man with water snakes ; beach hopper and plant.
Hedgehogs and a hyena.
A leaf from Hieronymus Bock's New Kreuterbuch von Underscheidt, Würckung und Namen der Kreuter, so in teutschen Landen wachsen , 'New plant book of differences, effects, and names of plants that grow in German lands' from 1546.

The Kreuterbuch is a herbal that classifies and describes the properties and uses of over 700 plants. The complex illustrations and diagrams in herbals made them more difficult to print but also contributed to their wide popularity. The quality of the illustrations in the Kreuterbuch is highly detailed, although religious symbolism, in the form of a serpent and Adam's skull and leg bone, is still prominent and typical for the period. Herbals and natural histories from before the 17th century often operated from an anthropocentric view, which placed humans at the center of a divinely created world. This world view greatly impacted how natural scientists interpreted observational information about plants and animals. As the Age of Enlightenment introduced a more scientific view of the world, religious influence in natural histories gradually fell out of favour.

Enlightenment Histories

The Natural History of Birds / Histoire naturelle des oiseaux

The Age of Enlightenment led to a surge in the popularity of natural histories. In particular, quests to catalog and classify species in distant or newly accessible countries captivated naturalists. The Natural History of Birds by Georges-Louis Leclerc, known as the Comte de Buffon, is an example of this trend. The Natural History of Birds is a nine volume encyclopedia set that was part of a much larger natural history collection called Histoire Naturelle. The intention was for Histoire Naturelle to contain all of the known information about the natural world. In reality only 36 total volumes were published and they focused primarily on birds, quadrupeds, and minerals. Buffon's treatment of these topics was extremely influential, however. He put forward a non-biblical explanation for the history of the earth, was the first to suggest a theory for lost/extinct species, and even came up with a proto-evolutionary explanation for species variation that impacted later naturalists such as Darwin.

Buffon describes the three different cries of the Bullfinch, all of which he calls "unpleasant". The Bullfinch makes its nest in bushes 5-6 feet from the ground and spends its summers near woods or mountains.

The MRU Archives and Special Collections has volume four of Buffon's Natural History of Birds, which was printed in 1793 by A. Strahan and T. Cadell. The illustrations mark a definite increase in detail and quality from the Hortus Sanitatis, and usually include aspects of the bird's natural habitat.

The coly belongs to the 'old' continent and can be found in the warm parts of Asia and Africa. Buffon considers its habitats and instincts otherwise unknown.
Buffon describes the Manakin as a small handsome bird that appears joyous in the morning, and warbles in delicate notes.
The Rock Manakin is from South America and is best characterized by its crest which is "longitudinal and of a semicircular form".
The Forked-tail fly-catcher haunts flooded savannas and lodges among mangrove trees. Buffon describes the males as having a black hood, blue-grey stomach, and a bright bay robe that covers the upper-back to the tail.
Local Exploration

20th Century Exploration: Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains

The images below are hand painted watercolor illustrations that accompany the text of Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains by Stewardson Brown published in 1907. Brown was an American botanist who was the curator of the herbarium at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He is known for his field work throughout North America, the Rockies, and Bermuda. The many beautiful illustrations are accredited to Mrs. Charles Schaffer, also known as Mary Townsend Sharples or Mary Schaffer Warren. Schaffer started her career as a botanical illustrator by reproducing rare specimens found during her husband's botanical explorations. After her first husband's death in 1903, Schaffer collaborated with Brown to complete his unfinished work and publish Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Schaffer is well known for her early exploration of the Rockies, her botanical writings, her painting and photography, and for her survey of the Maligne Lake area in Jasper National Park.

Left to right: Red monkey-flower ; Yellow columbine/Western columbine ; Blue larkspur/Nutt lithophragma ; Large purple fleabane/Blue fleabane/Saussurea ; Yellow willow-herb/Broad-leaved willow-herb ; Creeping raspberry ; Aster ; Salmon-berry.

The illustrations often show similar species side-by-side and include internal elements, like root systems. In addition to watercolors, Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains also contains photographic plates created by Schaffer. While photography would come to replace paintings as the primary format of scientific illustrations, Schaffer's work demonstrates the level of detail, the vibrancy of colours, and the flexibility of content that made painted illustrations an invaluable part of natural histories and works of art in their own right.

Photograph plate from Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Magic Lantern Slides: Prairie Flora

Magic lantern slides are an optical projection device consisting of miniature paintings on glass plates that can be projected with light onto a larger surface. Lantern slides were created in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the advent of the photographic process in the 1800s that their use became popular for education and scientific study. Film was used to capture black and white photographs of plants, animals, minerals, fossils, and landscapes which would be hand painted before being bound between panes of glass. The portable nature of the slides and the new level of detail possible in photography made scientific illustrations accessible to a much larger audience.

Left to Right: Calochortus apiculatus ; Coprinus micaceus ; Mitella violacea ; Pinguicula vulgaris; Tofieldia intermedia ; Hydnum coralloides ; Unnamed fungus ; Unnamed white flowers ; Vernation ostrich fern ; Drosera rotundifolia ; Soft brittle pine.

The MRU Archives and Special Collections has a collection of over 700 lantern slides that were created by educational companies and individuals for teaching purposes. The examples above and below were created by William Copeland McCalla, a botanist, teacher, author, and photographer whose work had a significant impact on botanical studies in Alberta and the Canadian prairies. McCalla created over one thousand lantern slides of plants, animals, fertilization and seed production, the microscopic structure of plants, and landscapes. McCalla’s slides are hand painted and are notable for their artistic quality and detail. McCalla’s slides were acquired sometime before 1930, when the slides were used as an educational aid in science classes offered by the University of Alberta.

Right to left: Unnamed flower with root ball ; Zantedeschia aethiopica ; Trillium sessile californicum ; Equisetum arvense ; Rosa acicularis lindl ; Streptopus amplexifolius ; Armillaria mellea ; Coprinus atramentarius ; Epilobium latifolium ; Gladioli ; Iris germanica ; Picea canadensis ; Potentilla fruticosa.

Field Work: The Rise, The Fall, The Rise Again

Field work has always been the primary method of data collection used by naturalists. Field work gives scientists a fuller understanding of an organism by taking its connection to the natural environment and other organisms into consideration. Field work is also more conducive to long term studies that can follow an organism throughout its entire lifecycle, or even study a family of organisms over several generations. The MRU Archives has a collection of field notes from mineralogist Dorian G.W. Smith from his expeditions throughout Canada and other parts of the world. The notes provide insight into the methodology of natural scientists and the value of field work.

Smith was a mineralogist and professor of geology at the University of Alberta from 1966-2000. Part of Smith's field work involved collecting mineral samples. His studies contributed to the development of the mineral identification software MinIdent.
Illustrations created by Dorian Smith as a student. Artistic skill was considered a valuable tool for a field scientist. It helped to familiarize the observer with the form and structure of specimens. An approach to geology informed by natural history taught geologists to 'read' rock layers by examining mineral formations and fossils left by plants and animals.

Starting in the beginning of the 20th century natural history started to fall out of favour as a science. It was criticized by harder sciences as being a collection of facts that didn't serve a larger purpose. Additionally, scientific research was shifting away from field work and towards the controllable environment of the laboratory. Laboratory experiments are easier to fund and are able to focus on providing more immediate results and actionable data. Laboratory experiments also allow scientists to focus on biological processes, such as cell biology, evolution, and bioscience, and less on studying individual organisms or environments. However, with the rise of environmental science and ecology, natural history is starting to make a come back. The environmental data that was gathered by naturalists during the early part of the 20th century is being used as a measuring point to evaluate how organisms and ecosystems are being impacted by humans and environmental change.

Contact us

The images and records discussed in this display come from the Early Print Collection, Rare Book Collection, and the Dorian G.W. Smith fonds. Please contact us at archives@mtroyal.ca to learn more.

Published April 12th, 2021