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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.