Book Review: Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

Mosquito Empires examines the dynamics of empire in the ‘Greater Caribbean’ – the Caribbean Islands and the coastal regions of North, Central and South America – bringing disease and ecology into traditional political and social history. John Robert McNeill argues that ecological change led to the proliferation of mosquito vectors which shaped subsequent wars, empires and revolutions (p.3). Mosquito Empires is divided into four main parts, structured around chronological case studies. McNeill first establishes the lethality of malaria and yellow fever through accounts of conquest and colonisation by Atlantic powers prior to the proliferation of mosquito vectors. This is followed by multiple examples of the deadly effect of disease on Western arrivals, including the disastrous malaria epidemics suffered by the 1655 English assault on Jamaica, establishing the rise of a new ‘ecological-military order’ (p.101). The second section studies British attempts to conquer Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (1690-1780) and the defeat of General Cornwallis’s forces during the American War of Independence, all of which suffered in varying degrees from malaria and yellow fever. In its third part, the book discusses the role of disease in the success of Caribbean revolutions in St. Domingue, New Granada and Cuba, from 1790-1898. Finally, the book concludes with the eventual overthrow of the ‘Mosquito Empire’ as means of controlling yellow fever and malaria emerged via the experience of the United States in Cuba and Panama (p.313).

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John Trumbull’s ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ 1820. Cornwallis’s forces suffered from heavily from malaria at Yorktown http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/surrender-lord-cornwallis

In the historiographical context, Mosquito Empires draws upon a tradition of incorporating disease into wider historical contexts. A well-known example is the works of Alfred Crosby, which places microbes alongside soldiers in the battle for the Americas. McNeill’s work similarly identifies the role of disease in the formation of empires. In the Greater Caribbean, ecological changes produced by the transition to plantation economies allowed mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever to flourish, wreaking havoc among non-resistant populations, particularly European expeditions and colonialists (p.4). Mosquito Empires supports the idea of Western expansion as a two-way process, facilitating the movement of disease while creating new environments for disease vectors. The example given of U.S. triumph in Cuba and Panama appears to confirm disease control as a tool of empire, allowing conquest in regions previously closed off by the disease barrier. McNeill – to his credit – also covers clashes between Western empires in disease ridden zones, encompassing differential immunity among colonists and the manipulation of disease environments as a strategic defense (pp.141-142).

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McNeill contrasts the heavy toll suffered by French workers on the Panama Canal in the 1880s with American efforts following anti-mosquito campaigns from 1904-1914 (pp.310-312). “The Panama Canal — The Great Culebra Cut” by Charles Graham (1852-1911), artist – Reproduced from an original illustration drawn from photographs and published in Harper’s Weekly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Panama_Canal#/media/File:The_Panama_Canal_–_The_Great_Culebra_Cut.jpg

Occasionally overarching statements and interpretations weaken the author’s arguments. The link between man-made ecological change and the establishment of the ‘mosquito empire’ lacks firm evidence, respective diagnosis is problematic and questions over human agency and environmental determinism are left unresolved. The importance of human agency is ambiguous, the book being ‘not quite an essay in mosquito determinism’ (p.6). Certain claims made in the book surrounding the heritability of disease immunity (p.46), would benefit from the inclusion of arguments in K.F Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave (1984), which goes unmentioned despite its presence in the bibliography. Yet the book produces a sound main thesis, drawing heavily upon contemporary sources, while telling a forgotten story through a combination of environmental, political, military and medical history.

McNeill, John Robert, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Book Review: Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

So little ground has shifted in the genetically modified food debate that a twelve-year old volume remains pertinent today. Food, Inc. examines a series of controversies surrounding transgenic foods in ten chapters. The book begins with a whirlwind tour of agricultural genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s garden to the biotech revolution in agriculture since the 1980s. Following chapters are based around specific points of health, environmental and commercial contention, from the erosion of genetic diversity to bio-piracy and patenting. Journalist Peter Pringle – author of Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998) – attempts to occupy what remains of ‘the middle ground’ amidst what he perceives to be a divisive plethora of special interest groups.

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‘Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene [provitamin A]’: http://www.goldenrice.org/
Pringle begins with one of the ‘most vigorously investigated botanical mysteries’: asexuality or apomixis (p. 11). Understanding apomixis could result in fixed traits in crops, unchanging throughout the generations. Yet if the secret of apomixis is patented, the dominance of industrial capital over farming will advance still further. A central dilemma in Food, Inc., this is further explored in chapter two. Here the development of vitamin-A rich Golden Rice in 1999 provides a case in point; as a supposedly humanitarian effort to counter global malnutrition degenerated into a row on the funding of science and private ownership of biotech techniques and products. By contrast, chapter four covers the 1994 outcry over the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Flavr Savr tomato. To Pringle this episode is indicative of the poor conduct of the Reagan administration, food regulatory bodies and the ambiguous criteria of ‘substantial equivalence’ used to judge the safety of transgenic crops (p.65).

Yet anti-biotech forces do not emerge intact from the book. The British scientist and activist Mae-Wan Ho, is virulently refuted over her arguments on the instability of transgenic organisms containing mosaic viruses (p.98). Pringle divides the anti-biotech community into three categories: rejectionists, reformers and organic advocates. With the exception of reformers, these activists are portrayed as having played a significant role in creating public confusion on the safety of genetically modified foods. Other factors in the latter’s rejection of transgenic crops include an irresponsible media and Monsanto’s public relations disaster in Britain.

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A monarch butterfly: http://blog.hmns.org/tag/monarch-butterflies/. Food, Inc, discusses a 1999 controversy on the impact of Bt corn pollen on potted common milkweed plants, which host the butterflies.

Historian of science James Secord has argued that simplistic notions of scientific genius are often present in scientific journalism. Food, Inc. acknowledges a range of opposition to genetically modified food, from ‘anarchists and ideological scientists’ to trade unions and religious groups (p.118). Yet Pringle has little to contribute on the development of these movements. Instead the biographies of individual (often colourful) campaigners are covered. In a reflection of Secord’s criticism of scientific journalism, Pringle may have put too much focus on anti-heroic geniuses as driving opposition to the science of genetic modification. Food, Inc. readily equates a high media profile with practical influence over the anti-biotech movement.

For an introduction to current themes in agriculture and biotechnology, Food, Inc. is a useful resource. Yet room for expansion on several of its themes remain; the emergence and character of environmental protest being one area. Another would be critiques of a now-established (US-based) narrative of commodification of the natural world by an industrial elite. One topic of interest to historians of science mentioned in the book is the life and work of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov. This noteworthy story is covered in a 2008 work by Pringle, which this blog will review at a later date. Food, Inc. ultimately comes down in favour of genetic modification, albeit with misgivings. The book’s arguments should therefore be considered by all those interested in the biotech debate.

Pringle, Peter, Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Book Review: The Future of Scientific Practice: ‘Bio-Techno-Logos’

This eclectic volume emerged from discussions between members of the Bio-Techno-Practice (BTP) think tank at the University Campus Bio-Medico in Rome. Its authors found reoccurring questions in their discussions on cancer, other complex diseases and systems biology. These included the ubiquity of “bio” as a prefix, the dichotomy of reductionist verses systemic views and progressive convergence of explanatory systems, in fields ranging from ecology to robotics. Each contribution in this volume is linked by the relationship between “Bio” (the biological or physical world), “Techno” (how we conceive this world, through software, instruments or scientific paradigms) and “Logos” (our scientific understanding and representation of the world). Three chapters out of eleven are discussed below:

Embodied Intelligence in the Biomechatronic Design of Robots – Dino Accoto, Cecilia Laschi & Eugenio Guglielmelli

Lee Model 6A Manipulator on mobile platform, c. 1974: http://cyberneticzoo.com/tag/1960s/

Robotics is a young discipline – the first modern robot was installed in a New Jersey General Electric plant in 1960. Today, robot design can be based on a “biomechatronics” approach – combining information and methods from control engineering, mechanical engineering and the life sciences. The result is “bioinspired” or “biomimetic” robots, better able (in theory) to negotiate uncertain, real-world environments. Intriguingly, this approach builds on Norbert Wiener’s 1943 conception of cybernetics, “a unified approach to the study of living organisms and machines.” Practical results include octopus-like robots displaying “embedded intelligence” and wearable robots imitating symbiotic organisms.

Managing Complexity: Model-Building in Systems Biology and its Challenges for Philosophy of Science – Miles MacLeod

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Schematic showing high-confidence protein–protein interactions between NANOG and NANOG-associated proteins. From “Systems biology of stem cell fate and cellular reprogramming,” Ben D. MacArthur, Avi Ma’ayan & Ihor R. Lemischka. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 10, 672-681 (October 2009): http://www.nature.com/nrm/journal/v10/n10/fig_tab/nrm2766_F1.html

Systems biology is described by MacLeod as not “normal science,” posing distinct challenges for philosophers of science. Based on a five-year ethnographic study of two systems biology labs, MacLeod claims that systems biology (loosely defined as an attempt to model complex biological systems using computers and mathematics) positions itself against other biological fields like molecular biology. The former uses “mesoscopic modelling,” neither a “top-down” nor “bottom-up” approach to biology, above the molecular level but incapable of encompassing biological phenomena like disease. Systems biologists are ambivalent about general theories of biological systems and often pursue different modelling agendas. Methodological and epistemic diversity define the discipline. As such, a philosophy of scientific practice that explains how this diversity trades off against disciplinary certainty and approaches to handling complexity is required to encompass it.

Teleology and Mechanism in Biology – Marco Buzzoni

A prevailing brand of thought in the philosophy of biology is that the teleology (or purpose of) organisms can be explained by empirical forces which are themselves not intrinsically teleological. A real-world example would be August Weismann’s claim that the “philosophical meaning” of Darwinism is found in the principle that evolution “does not act purposefully, but nonetheless brings about what is suitable for an end.” This mechanistic approach dispenses with both nineteenth-century reductionism and the positivist unity of science. Yet Buzzoni declares that a mechanical investigation of life cannot dispense with teleology or final causes. Teleology is not only essential to causal imputations, but acts a powerful “heuristic-methodical device” to investigate biology in a testable and reproducible way. Purpose should not be excluded from the scientific-experimental investigation of biology, as this assumption makes it possible to examine mechanical, physio-chemical laws and connections in organisms.

Although complex in some areas, The Future of Scientific Practice tackles significant hurdles in the philosophy of biology, while firmly grounding itself in contemporary science.

Marta Bertolaso (ed.) The Future of Scientific Practice: ‘Bio-Techno-Logos’ (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: www.pickeringchatto.com/BTL

 

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Book Review: Scientists’ Expertise as Performance: Between State and Society, 1860-1960

Russian agronomist Aleksei Doiarenko’s career was most turbulent. Promoting agricultural modernisation in Tsarist Russia, Doiarenko entered the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture during the 1920s. Yet his careful negotiation of academic, popular and political audiences to achieve expert fame was cut short by the Great Purges of the Russian revolution. The importance of Doiarenko and other experts is examined in Scientists’ Expertise as Performance. The book’s four sections represent expert performance: searching for audiences, convincing them, engaging with the state and shaping or reshaping social and political objects. A sample chapter from each section can be found below:

Borderless Nature: Experts and the Internationalization of Nature Protection, 1890-1940 – Raf de Bont

tigerThe Prince of Wales and the Maharaja of Gwalior with tiger and two leopards, c. 1900: https://www.thedodo.com/community/AnimalHistoryMuseum/canned-hunting-a-legacy-of-emp-711831617.html

The idea that nature crosses national borders is an axiom in conservation today. Yet in 1900, nature was viewed in a local and national manner, its protectors stressing the patriotic value of their activities. Perceptions of nature changed with the rise of a small network of experts from 1890-1940. At international ornithological conferences, conservationist concerns over the decline of migratory birds were raised. Ornithologists presented themselves as rational experts, quite different to the “hysterical activists” of organisations such as the RSPB. Scientists such as Paul Sarasin rallied zoologists to worldwide nature protection, arguing that “nature today knows no borders.” Interaction between new scientific experts and policymakers occurred at various conferences through the 1920s and ‘30s. Establishing an expert role in conservation involved strategic dissociation from “unscientific hunters” or “silly nature hysterics.”

Contested Modernity: A.G. Doiarenko and the Trajectories of Agricultural Expertise in Late Imperial and Soviet Russia – Katja Bruisch

Aleksei Doiarenko maintained a desire to further dialogue between scientists and the rural population throughout his agronomic career, which spanned multiple regimes. State intervention in the national economy increased during the First World War, with agricultural knowledge gathering administrative and political value in the face of Russia’s food supply crisis. Doiarenko was therefore well placed to take up positions in the Provisional Government of 1917. His expertise later merged with the political apparatus of the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution. After Stalin’s rise to power, the position of agricultural experts became untenable. By 1929 collectivisation saw leading pre-revolutionary experts arrested. Doiarenko suffered the additional misfortune of falling foul of Lysenko, losing his academic post in 1948. He was rehabilitated with Krushchev’s personal support in 1961, his death in 1958 notwithstanding. Doiarenko’s fortunes as an expert were tied to dominating political visions of agricultural modernity.

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Soviet collectivisation propaganda: http://ssthumanities.weebly.com/stalins-economic-policy-and-impact.html

The Rise of the Scientist-Diplomat within British Atomic Energy, 1945-55 – Martin Theaker

When British atomic scientists returned home from wartime projects at Montreal and Los Alamos, their expertise was indispensible to post-war governments. Atomic energy was seen as a solution to Britain’s economic and geopolitical problems, including a plateau in domestic coal production. In the face of austerity, both Labour and Conservative governments increased atomic energy spending year-on-year. Scientists such as John Cockcroft embraced newfound roles as atomic ambassadors. Cockcroft undertook lecture tours, which included visits to New Zealand and Australia. He later visited states behind the Iron Curtain, consulting on technical matters and possible collaboration with the UK. By the mid-1950s, Britain had a world-leading atomic industry, the prominence of science-diplomats bound to domestic eminence. Science adapted to political constraints, ensuring that the expert became a permanent fixture in British politics.

Expertise and Trust in Dutch Individual Health Care – Frank Huisman

In 2009, challenges to the medical profession in the Netherlands emerged from anti-vaccination campaigners. Following a large information campaign, turnout for the HPV vaccination was much lower than expected, in no small part due to internet rumours and conspiracy theories. To understand growing distrust of the Dutch medical profession, a historical overview is taken. National legislation governing the medical profession was enacted in 1865, which was supported by the rise of the intervention state during the early-twentieth century. Yet the 1990s saw the liberalisation of legislation, with citizens described as well informed patient-consumers. Paradoxically, calls for the liberation of the patient have gone hand in hand with calls for even more medical expertise.

Scientific expertise has enjoyed great success in modern policymaking. Yet academic experts have never fully controlled the “expert society” they helped create. Drawing upon a large number of historical perspectives, Scientists’ Expertise as Performance delves into the difficulties surrounding issues of the “expert” in commendable fashion.

Joris Vandendriessche, Evert Peeters & Kaat Wils (eds.), Scientists’ Expertise as Performance: Between State and Society, 1860-1960 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: http://www.pickeringchatto.com/expertise

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Book Review: Anatomy & the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850

Anatomy has had applications far beyond medicine. In 1699 Edward Tyson compared the anatomical structure of lions and cats, marvelling at the resemblance of their parts. Based on the observations of natural historians, Tyson remarked that humans and chimpanzees similarly resemble each other. Although Tyson did not develop a theory of common ancestry, dissection and anatomy has yielded insights into natural and social worlds throughout history. Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 compiles a series of case studies, from contributors across the humanities. With some thirteen pieces contained in three sections, a very select few are reviewed below:

Earth’s Intelligent Body: Subterranean Systems and the Circulation of Knowledge, or, The Radius Subtending Circumnavigation – Kevin L. Cope

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Joseph Wright, “Vesuvius from Portici,” ca. 1774-1776. The Huntington Library: http://emuseum.huntington.org/view/objects/asitem/1046/159/title-asc

An eighteenth-century country parson, Thomas Robinson was fond of ale, sporting events and collecting minerals. His first book The Anatomy of the Earth was replete with anatomical analogy. Just as the skin of animals held lice, so the “Skin” or “Outer Coat” of the Earth produced grass, trees, vegetables, birds and beasts. Under the surface lay “the Bones, that is, Stones, Metals and Minerals.”  In an attempt to envision divine order in a seemingly random world, Robinson turned to anatomy. Inequalities and differences in nature became part of a complex system of circulation. Volcanoes, underground streams and similar processes represented the bodily systems of the earth, which could become blocked or rupture to create floods or earthquakes. Robinson’s geological anatomy provided a natural explanation as to why disasters did not only strike the sinful.

Visualizing the Fibre-Woven Body: Nehemiah Grew’s Plant Anatomy and the Emergence of the Fibre Body – Hisao Ishizuka

Staying in the eighteenth century, medical men mused over the fundamental building block (minima naturalia) of the body. One popular viewpoint for Enlightenment physiologists and anatomists was the fibre theory. Textile and weaving metaphors for bodily tissues followed in the wake of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665). Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682) furthered the fibre theorist’s cause, postulating that plants were composed of fibres and leant authority by numerous illustrations. An advantage of Grew’s observations to natural philosophers was the suggestion of a designer through textile metaphors, allowing the latter to dodge charges of atheism or political radicalism. Even as investigations into the brain and nerves appeared in the late-eighteenth century, almost all physicians subscribed to the idea of a fibre-based body, woven with innumerable threads.

Visualizing Monsters: Anatomy as a Regulatory System – Touba Ghadessi

L0021649 A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica L0011136 Vesalius "De humani...", 1543; figure

Plates from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543): http://wellcomeimages.org/

Early modern European culture held a fascination with monsters. Physical deformities were viewed as both theological omens and curiosities of nature. Anatomists adopted the normative body displayed in Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543), visual comparison highlighting the abnormal. Medical accounts structured public and expert accounts of monstrosities, which maintained their appeal as “pathological” specimens into the nineteenth century. In fact, Ghadessi asserts that it was this scientific inquiry into the abnormal which allowed a court culture obsessed with the deviant to flourish, without its participants appearing deviant themselves. Monstrous subjects, combined with anatomical knowledge, provided an alternative manner of understanding human bodies, while confronting ideas of cultural conformity.

Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 is not for the reader wanting a general overview of anatomical practice in medicine. Instead, the social impact of anatomy is discussed through literature, language and analogy. The intellectual and cultural place of anatomy in the early modern and modern world is re-imagined in a series of intriguing studies.

Matthew Landers & Brian Muñoz (eds.), Anatomy and the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: www.pickeringchatto.com/anatomy 

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Book Review: Knowing Nature in Early Modern Europe

Before “science” in its modern sense existed, denizens of early modern Europe sought to explain their world through a system of knowledge termed “natural philosophy.” Natural philosophy covered a diverse array of subjects, from theology to pharmacology to natural history. The collection of chapters in Knowing Nature in Modern Europe seek to examine some of these disciplines, their methodologies and practices, while bringing together approaches from humanistic Renaissance studies and the history and philosophy of science. The book is divided into three sections, each containing three case studies by different authors. A few notable examples from the fields of physiology and natural history spheres are covered below:

The Moral Physiology of Laughter – Stephen Pender.

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On the left, a medieval depiction of the four humors. On the right, Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I from 1514: http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/05/01/as-a-lute-out-of-tune-robert-burtons-melancholy/

Is laughter really good for you? According to some seventeenth-century writers, bouts of laughter were dangerous for body and soul. French physician Jean Fernel argued that, in cases of extreme merriment, death could result as “the Cordial Blood, and Vital Spirits, are… suddenly diffused to the exterior parts, that Life goeth out therewith, and returneth not.” Descartes tackled the physiological mechanisms behind laughter in The Passions of the Soul (1649), describing how a sudden rush of blood inflated the lungs to expel “an inarticulate and explosive cry.” Philosophy in his time was a “way of life,” with therapeutic applications for troubled minds. A key part of this lifestyle was rhetoric and conversation – or the art of knowing when laughter was appropriate. Moral aspects of laughter were therefore intertwined with its physiology.

The Use of Scripture in the Beast-Machine Controversy – Lloyd Strickland.

When Descartes carved up the universe between the corporeal and the spiritual in his Discourse on the Method (1637), animals became automatons, devoid of soul, or even mental activity. By the end of the eighteenth century, Descartes’s views on the beast-machine steadily lost popularity, in tandem with Cartesian philosophy. Strickland notes how actors in the controversy (including Descartes) readily claimed their philosophy acted in accordance with scripture. Supporters of animal automatism cited passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to declare that the blood, rather than a soul, drove animal action (which raised difficulties for animals with no blood). Ultimately, appeals to scripture from both sides were often corroboratory in nature, proving no more helpful in solving the controversy than empirical or rational arguments.

Early Modern Natural Science as an Agent for Change in Naturalist Painting: Jacopo Ligozzi’s Zoological Illustrations as a Case Study – Angelica Groom.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi, watercolor of vol.002 Pets:

 http://www.librari.beniculturali.it/opencms/opencms/it/comitati/comitati/comitato_1.html

In a lavishly illustrated piece, a ten-year (1577-87) collaboration between naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi and naturalist painter Jacopo Ligozzi at the Medici court is depicted. Ligozzi was charged with visually recording the flora and fauna of the grand ducal collections. At the time, natural objects were “improved” by artists through the aesthetic conventions of Florentine mannerisms. Zoological and botanical images were then passed between illustrators for copying, facilitating the movement of visual information around Europe. Prints from the Medici collection appeared in Aldrovandi’s work, who exercised a great degree of control over the production of natural history images, ensuring aesthetic convention did not trump accurate observation. Yet artists’ access to courtly menageries proved instrumental in the development of greater mimeticism in zoological paintings.

Knowing Nature in Modern Europe provides a series of intriguing insights into how nature was studied and interpreted in early modern Europe.

David Beck, (ed.), Knowing Nature in Early Modern Europe (London, Pickering & Chatto, 2015) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at:  http://www.pickeringchatto.com/titles/1806-9781848935181-knowing-nature-in-early-modern-europe

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Book Review: The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Today, the arboretum – a green space containing systematically planted trees – may seem a commonplace and enduring aspect of the British landscape. Yet The British Arboretum (2011) demonstrates that, in the nineteenth century, arboretums were sites of scientific innovation, public education and Edenic ideals. Authors Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins and Stephen Daniels move from the late-seventeenth century and depleted British woodlands to arboretums as public recreation grounds two centuries later. Standing over this cultural and scientific history is the figure of John Claudius Loudon, author of the Arboretum Britannicum (1838), an influential study of hardy British trees and shrubs.

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Plates from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum Britannicum (1838).

In addition to shaping scientific and cultural landscapes, arboriculture altered the biotic makeup of the British Isles. From the seventeenth century, growing numbers of exotic trees were imported to adorn and enrich gardens, parks and plantations. Arboretums were established to classify and label growing numbers of new arrivals. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) became so popular that it was imagined the tree would replace its European cousin. The scientific name of the species honoured German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who introduced numerous Japanese plants to Europe in the eighteenth century, including the troublesome Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Imported varieties required specialist knowledge, as existing taxonomy was unable to cope. The Linnaean system was of limited use, British botanists subsequently adopting the “natural system,” which combined systematics with plant physiology and anatomy.

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Plan of the Nottingham Arboretum: http://exchange.nottingham.ac.uk/blog/the-peoples-green-spaces/

In its second half, The British Arboretum provides readers with a series of case studies of historical arboretums. One of the first purpose-built Victorian public parks was the Derby Arboretum, designed by Loudon on behalf of industrialist Joseph Strutt in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Loudon used popular publications such as the Gardener’s Magazine as a utilitarian, rational form of recreation for all social classes. In reality, tension existed over the use of the new green spaces. At the Nottingham Arboretum in 1857, there was little evidence of botanical education reaching the lower classes. Footballs were kicked, trees damaged, plant labels stolen and worst of all, amorous activities occurred in the foliage. Arboretums persisted, but their own popularity and subsequent clamour for access diminished their original scientific purpose.

The British Arboretum is more than another history of green spaces. The authors reach beyond the boundaries of the arboretum, engaging with key themes in British cultural and scientific history in an informative and accessible manner.

Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins, Stephen Daniels, The British Arboretum (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011) is available at: www.pickeringchatto.com/trees

 

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