A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 


Coming in from the cold: nineteenth-century exploration and science in the Canadian Arctic

This short essay originally appeared on the UK Polar Network (UKPN) Social Sciences blog: http://socialsciences.polarnetwork.org/blog/coming-in-from-the-cold-nineteenth-century-exploration-and-science-in-the-canadian-arctic

British discoveries in the “Arctic Regions,” 1818-1826. From John Franklin’s Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827 (London, 1828).

With the threat of climate change looming, the Polar Regions have never seemed so pertinent to our everyday lives. Yet historians have long considered such environments influential beyond their borders in a myriad of ways. For instance, nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and scientific work relate to broader themes of state power and expertise. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, examining the formation of imagined landscapes and scientific knowledge is revelatory of both past and present human self-conception.

By the early nineteenth century, the appointment of a naturalist to collect and catalogue specimens had become routine in British exploration – a trend characterised by historians as part of an imperialist drive to classify, quantify and comprehend the universe. The expedition acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and research tool (Sörlin, 2000, p. 51; MacLeod, 2009, p. 45). Understanding a region’s fauna and flora can be seen as a form of resource assessment. Browne (1996, pp. 313-314) considered the collection of natural history specimens and their return to British soil representative of “the whole culture of imperial enterprise.”

The hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic was of great interest to Britain’s government and scientific institutions. When John Franklin’s (1786-1847) first expedition began preparations for its journey in 1818, with the ostensible aim of surveying the coastline east of the Coppermine River, a naturalist was practically a prerequisite. This role was fulfilled by John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon. Richardson was commanded by the British Admiralty to collect specimens of plants, minerals and birds. Naval surgeons of the period often received their training at Edinburgh University, home to renowned natural history facilities (Browne, 1996, p. 307).

Yet in an era before the word “scientist” had even been coined, “professional” came with unwanted connotations. A professional was someone who investigated the natural world without a suitable aristocratic background or financial base (Allen, 2009, pp. 15-16). Yet imperial ambitions require expertise. Sending naval personnel to far-flung corners of the globe was one means of acquiring informed experts, without associating with those who found professional employment in scientific work. As one historian (Allen, 2009, p. 17) described the situation:

The nearest thing to a paper qualification for a post in the life sciences was a medical degree and the nearest thing to postgraduate training was a journey to little-known parts of the world as the naturalist attached to a voyage or expedition, perhaps as a surgeon on a naval vessel.

Naval surgeons collected specimens which became Crown property, or published field observations with the aid of Admiralty funding (Browne, 1996, p. 310). Richardson’s zoological specimens from Franklin’s first expedition were deposited in the Edinburgh university museum and the British museum (1). Upon his return to England in 1822, Richardson found himself courted by the Linnean Society and private clubs (2). Fame and entry into the scientific establishment came in spite of repeated failings during the expedition, which faced starvation on numerous occasions. Hardship imposed by the Arctic environment warped the scientific goals imposed by the Admiralty, as Richardson was forced to abandon the specimens he had collected during the summer months (Levere, 1993, p. 108). Meanwhile Franklin manipulated Richardson’s natural-historical remit for non-scientific purposes. Upon his party experiencing a shortage of grog, Franklin wrote to the one of his officers, George Back:

Some of the mighty strong [liquor] would not only be equally acceptable to the Canadians and Indians but is necessary for preserving any specimens which the Doctor [Richardson] may have which require Such means of preservation. Ours is not sufficiently strong for that purpose, and if you have not already got a Supply, I must request you to demand two galleons from each house at Great Slave Lake, and if they demur, a statement of the reason for this demand [specimen preservation] will procure their compliance (3).

In fact Richardson only carried a few jars for preserving specimens. A tax on glass meant that British naturalists did not favour preservation in alcohol until 1845 (Larsen, 1996, p. 360). Despite harsh conditions, Richardson attempted to continue his natural history work. In lean times and during a heavy gale, he ventured down to the coast off Cape Barrow in an attempt to identify fragments of seaweed. Collection practices were shaped by external factors, including the Arctic environment itself.

Cultural and scientific beliefs were also imposed upon the Arctic by British expeditions. Exploring the geology of the Barren Lands, Richardson framed his findings in Wernerian terms, supporting existing theories of a dynamic earth (Zeller, 2000, p. 88). In other areas of knowledge, naturalists were not so forthcoming, gripped by a fear of generalising systems and theorisation (Barber, 1980, pp. 64-65). In his later career, Richardson adapted biogeographical models to represent Arctic flora, based upon the reports of other travellers, particularly fur traders (Zeller, 2000, p. 89).

From the biography of a single nineteenth-century naturalist, a plethora of historical attitudes towards the Arctic are exposed. The Canadian Arctic may have been geographically “peripheral” to centres of European power, but engaged states, science and society. In the case of natural history, the Arctic was an untapped resource, place of training for future experts and testing ground for scientific theories. Two centuries on, these same values are still attached to the Polar Regions.


1. GELL MS, LETTER #8, Franklin, “Letter to John Richardson, 24 July 1823.”

2. GELL MS, LETTER # 4, Franklin, “Letter to Richardson, 24 October 1822.”

3. SPRI MS 395/70/4, Franklin, “Letter to George Back, 31 January 1821.”


Allen, David E., “Amateurs and Professionals,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 15-33.

Barber, Lynn, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).

Brown, Janet, “Biogeography and empire,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305-321.

Larsen, Anne, “Equipment for the Field,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 358-377.

Levere, Trevor H., Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 34-59.

Sörlin, Sverker, “Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 51-69.

Zeller, Suzanne, “The Colonial World as Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems) of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 85-107.

Reviving Frozen Fish in Manchester! Investigating Natural History, 1775-1851

Another day, another talk! This time I was kindly invited along to the University of Manchester’s CHSTM lunchtime seminar on October 21st. The series is a fantastic opportunity for young scholars to present their research and receive constructive feedback from friendly peers. My chosen talk was entitled “Resurrecting Frozen Fish: Competing Traditions of Experiment and Observation in Natural History, 1775-1851,” a topic which certainly appears to be unusual at first glance! But my past posts here on the anatomical discoveries of John Hunter with the electric ray and the Arctic exploration of John Richardson had been been leading up to this point.


A perch from William Yarrel’s History of British Fishes, Vol 1. (1836). Perches were routinely attributed with the ability to maintain life, even after encasement in ice.

I began with an 1851 article in The Naturalist: A Popular Monthly Magazine “On the Resuscitation of Frozen Fish,” which was just one in a series of articles that appeared in Victorian periodicals from goldfish owners, all of whom claimed to have revived their pets from a frozen state. While this belief may seemingly fall into the realm of popular natural history myths, serious weight was placed behind the claim by the British scientific establishment. During the first voyages of John Franklin (1819-1822 and 1825-1827), both Franklin and his surgeon-naturalist John Richardson noted that North American fish could be retrieved from a frozen state. Franklin’s journal described the phenomenon:

“The fish froze as they were taken from the nets, becoming in a short time a solid mass of ice, so that a blow or two of the hatchet would easily split them open, when the intestines might be removed in one lump. If thawed before the fire, even after being frozen for nearly two days, the fish would recover their animation.”


Engraving of Henry Aston Barker’s View of the North Coast of Spitzbergen (1819-1820) from collection of Russell A. Potter (2004). Franklin is depicted in the foreground.

Upon his return to England, Richardson published his zoological findings in his 1836 Fauna Boreali-Americana, where he announced that a species classified as the Grey Sucking-carp (probably the White Sucker or Catostomus commersonii) could be frozen and thawed while maintaining life. Richardson soon found himself courted by the scientific establishment. The Linnean society quickly came knocking, while the Strickland Committee also offered him membership. A young Charles Darwin corresponded with Richardson over a twenty-year period. Following the voyage of Edward Belcher to Borneo from 1843-1846, Richardson was employed as the go-to ichthyologist for the expedition’s zoological accounts. He also acted as editor to William Yarrell’s History of British Fishes, where Richardson’s claims regarding the Grey Sucking-carp were repeated.


Plate VII from Arthur Adams (ed.) The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang (London, 1850). Zoological specimens from Belcher’s Borneo voyage.

Interestingly, the entry of resuscitated fish into the British scientific establishment during the first half of the nineteenth century was preceded by an experimental program carried out by anatomist and naturalist John Hunter. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Hunter had set out to test the validity of the retention of life after freezing in animals. He declared:

“Those experiments were not originally instituted with any expectation of the event which resulted from them, but for the purposes of satisfying myself, whether an animal could retain life after being frozen, as has been confidently asserted of both fishes and snakes.”

Despite extensive tests on carp, toads and mice, Hunter saw no evidence of any animals surviving the freeze-thaw cycle. He published his conclusions in an article on the production of body heat in animals in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1775 and later in his Observations on Certain Parts of Animal Economy (1786). With these results in mind, why did the belief in the possibility of reviving frozen animals reemerge?

Question Time:

This point was one of the first questions asked by the Manchester postgrads (on point as always)! There are a number of possible explanations:

1) Hunter’s experimental program was simply ignored or unheard of: Apart from a lone reference in Yarrell’s History of British Fishes, Hunter was apparently never directly mentioned in nineteenth-century natural history texts in the context of frozen fish or animal heat. There is a possible reference in Robert Hamilton’s 1833 volume of The Naturalist’s Library, where carp were stated to only thrive in warm and genial mediums, in contrast to goldfish, which a Viennese naturalist had reported as capable of revival from a frozen state.

2) Richardson and Franklin’s prestige as Arctic explorers gave greater weight to their arguments: The frozen north and unexplored Arctic wilderness radiated mystery and the sublime to an eager public, through harrowing journal accounts and illustrations such as Barker’s panorama. For many historians, European expeditions have acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and tool of research. Accounts of the development of natural history have often placed a heavy emphasis on the roles of exploration and empire, from the biogeography of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and the voyage of the Beagle.

3) The structure and readership of the nineteenth-century periodical was more conducive to a natural history based on observation and testimony than experiment: Gooday (1991) has noted that there existed divergent discourses of “nature” during this period, instruments such as the microscope acting as mere supplements to the practice of field-based naturalists until the latter half on the nineteenth century. Experiment was therefore looked down upon, while the editors of nineteenth-century periodicals preferred “facts fresh from the field” over dry theories and speculation (Allen, 1996: 114).

Another question was raised regarding how the restoration of life (or resurrection) interacted with orthodox religious belief and the tenants of natural theology. The language of “resuscitation” was most commonly used by contemporaries, frozen animals being seen as in a kind of suspended state of life, with most (if not all) of their functions reduced. Their survival was explained in terms of “tenacity,” or determination to cling to life. Resurrection or restoration of life originated in eighteenth-century explanations of heat restoring the “vital juices” of frozen creatures, but gradually lost out to other terms.

Further Reading:

Allen, David, “The Struggle for Specialist Journals: Natural History in the British Periodicals Market in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Archives of Natural History 23 (1996): 107-123.

Davis, Richard C., (ed.) Sir John Franklin’s Journals and Correspondence: The First Arctic Land Expedition 1819-1822 (Toronto, 1995).

Gooday, Grame, “Nature” in the Laboratory: Domestication and Discipline with the Microscope in Victorian Life Science,” The British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991): 307-341.

Hamilton, Robert, The Naturalist’s Library. Ichthyology, British Fishes, Part 2, Vol. 37 (Edinburgh, 1833).

Hunter, John, “Experiments on Animals and Vegetables, with Respect to the Power of Producing Heat,” Philosophical Transactions 65 (1775): 446-458.

Hunter, John, Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy, 2nd edt. (London, 1786).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone, The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009): 34-59.

An Arctic Shopping List for the Aspiring Naturalist c. 1819.

For John Franklin’s first Arctic Expedition of 1819-1822, Scottish surgeon John Richardson was appointed by the British Admiralty to collect information on the geology, flora and fauna of the region, alongside his regular medical duties. In a letter of the 26th of April 1819, Richardson wrote to Franklin with a list of materials necessary for the “collection and preservation of objects of Natural History,” assuring the commander that the least bulky apparatus available had been selected. This was in stark contrast to the botanist Joseph Banks, who in 1772 had been unceremoniously dumped from the second expedition of Captain Cook following demands for a sixteen-strong scientific team complete with their equipment.


Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer. A handy bit of kit for measuring the angle between different faces of a crystal. Maybe of more use to the serious mineralogist than the causal Sunday walker. William Hyde Wollaston, “Description of a Reflective Goniometer,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 99 (1809): 258.

Richardson’s duties as issued by the Admiralty included the collection of plants, minerals, birds and quadrupeds. The lengthy list of books and equipment attached to his letter to Franklin reflected this broad remit. The majority of Richardson’s list involved geological and topographical interests, including rock hammers, boring irons and a thermometer for measuring the temperature of springs. More complex devices included Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer for examining crystals and Alexander Adie’s 1818 sympiesometer (an improved version of the barometer). For the biological realm, a microscope, plant press and jars with spirits for the preservation of specimens appeared. Richardson also carried along a small reference library, with works on botany, mycology and a mineralogy manual.

Richardson quickly embraced all aspects of his duties as a naturalist on the expedition, even if his journal reveals a fascination (bordering on obsession) with lichens. Franklin’s expedition had arrived safely at the Hudson’s Bay factory on the 30th August 1819, despite their ship crashing into almost every obstacle in the Hudson’s Straits, including rocks adjoining Resolution Island on three occasions. Seemingly undeterred, Franklin wrote to his superiors from Fort Hudson describing Richardson as having “assiduously availed himself of every opportunity” to collect specimens, accompanied by the expedition illustrators, Mr Back and Mr Hood. During the course of the expedition (and Franklin’s second overland voyage of 1825-1827), Richardson’s collecting would result in the publication of the four-volume Fauna boreali-americana (1829-1837), detailing quadrupeds, birds, fishes and insects. Plants were listed in the two-volume Flora boreali-americana (1829-1840).


From the John Richardson’s Fauna boreali-americana Vol. 4 (Norwich: 1837), Plate VII.

That the majority of Richardson’s list was dedicated to the collection of geological objects and data is unsurprising. Franklin’s expedition would after all travel towards the aptly-named Copper Mine river, on an enterprise of a “purely Public and Scientific nature.” Richardson himself appeared to follow in the Humboldtian tradition of linking species to their geographical region. However, despite the best of intentions and the latest scientific gadgetry, Richardson’s observations and collection of objects of natural history did not go entirely according to plan. Harsh conditions and food shortages led to obvious problems in attempting to maintain a pristine collection of potentially tasty animals. Richardson’s geological specimens were undoubtedly among the first trappings of the expedition to be abandoned on arduous marches. On the positive side, much of the bulkiest equipment would have been left at Fort Chepawyan before the expedition moved onward. Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer may have survived the voyage in relative safety, rather than being abandoned in the frozen wilderness.

Richardson’s collections from the early stages of the expedition did survive to reach England, bringing him scientific fame and authority on all matters to do with the natural history of the Arctic. Whether it was worth starvation, hypothermia, cannibalism and murder is open to question. But don’t let that put you off! Should you wish to take your own Arctic trip (or visit your nearest National Park), Richardson’s handy kit-list for engaging with nature is reproduced (as accurately as possible) below:

For collecting & preserving of Minerals
Three hammers of two, four and six pounds Weight respectively
Three Chisels of various shapes
Set of small boring Irons
Miners Compass – Blow Pipe – & Dr. Wollastons goniometer
A bag covered with Oil skin, lined with leather
Thin paper, fit for writing upon (Silk or leather paper 2 reams)
Coarse wrapping Paper 4 reams
Thermometer for ascertaining the Temp[erature] of Springs
Adies Sympiesometer for measuring the Altitude of Mountains – This Instrument is stated to be equally correct with the barometer, to be much more portable & not so liable to be broken.

For collecting & preserving Plants
Tin Box varnished – small portable microscope with 2 eye glasses
A Press, consisting of two pieces of a plane tree, each 1 inch thick, 12 inches wide & 18 inches long, with a male and female Screw at each corner.
[Blossom] blotting paper 2 reams – 20 sheets strong pasteboard
3 Reams of Foolscap paper – 6 Quires of wove post paper

For preserving Animals
Paste for preparing skins of quadrupeds & birds
10lbs of [Tow] & Cotton
Several Jars with Spirits (sent from the College of Surgeons)

List of Books
Parsons Synopsis plantarium
Waklenburgs Flora Lapponica
Hooker & Taylors’ Muscologia Britannica – Hooker’s procured
Synopsis Lichenum (if this is not to be got, Lichens universalis)
Turners Synopsis – not to be had
Persoons Synopsis Fungorum
Bridel Muscologia – Last Supplement – not to be procured
[Priesh’s] Flora
Gmelin Systema Natura
Arkens manual of minerology

I know this sounds like a lot to carry about. So bring some friends or hire a local guide! To truly engage in the spirit of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, you can eat them when the food runs out. Not that you’ll have much space left for sustenance with all this natural history gear.

Further Reading

Davis, Richard C., (ed.) Sir John Franklin’s Journals and Correspondence: The First Arctic Land Expedition 1819-1822 (Toronto, 1995).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone, The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009).

Richardson, John, Fauna boreali-americana Vol. 4 (Norwich: 1837).

Stuart Huston (ed.), Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin 1820-1822 (Kingston, 1984).

Wollaston, William Hyde, “Description of a Reflective Goniometer,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 99 (1809): 253-258.