Martin Lister is today best known to historians of entomology and to librarians of rare books; in his lifetime, however, he was a fashionable physician, one of the leading naturalists of his time, and an influential member of the Royal Society. With her weighty, engaging, full-scale study, Anna Marie Roos now gives him back his contemporary prominence and in so doing redraws the historiographical picture of the sciences in later seventeenth-century England.
Natural history has long been somewhat neglected in studies of empirical intellectual life in seventeenth-century England. Virtually nothing equivalent to C. E. Raven's monumental study of John Ray (1950), or M. F. Ashley Montagu's detailed treatment of Edward Tyson (1943) has been published in the past half century. Historians of ideas in the Early Modern period, generally mesmerized by the drama of cosmological debate, have paid some attention to microscopy and rather more to the intellectual fissures provoked by geological speculation, but have not been much attracted by the minutiae of bug collecting or by plant and animal research. And yet, for the many in seventeenth-century England who were curious about the natural world, the terrestrial and the organic were as fascinating as the cosmos into which they were to be integrated. Roos, in a book that combines an almost microscopic account of Lister's technical work as naturalist and physician with a macroscopic presentation of the social, institutional and intellectual contexts within which he worked, brings these matters back to centre stage, and so enhances our understanding of late seventeenth-century intellectual life.
As a result of the fortunate circumstances, related by Roos in her introduction, by which the bulk of Lister's papers were preserved, it is possible, as she says, to reconstruct ‘what it was like to be a man, a doctor, a naturalist, and a virtuoso in the days when “science” or natural philosophy was just being born, before the age of specialization when “taking all knowledge for one's province” was done as a matter of course’ (p. 5). This ambitious exercise Roos carries out with brio, giving us an intimate picture of the day-to-day life of a savant with a sharpness of focus and an immediacy rarely encountered elsewhere. In so doing she depicts marvellously the everyday banality, excitement and tedium of experiment and empirical fieldwork, the ways in which this could be disseminated in the Republic of Letters, details of the functioning of a learned institution (the Royal Society), and the difficulties of publication. The account of the strategies deployed by Lister to print his books, his training of his daughters as engravers and the development of their high skills is fascinating, as is Roos's description of how Lister's experience in this field was harnessed by the Royal Society to publish Francis Willoughby's work on fish. Roos moves seamlessly from such matters to technical details of the chemical, geological and entomological researches that Lister effected and to the debates to which they gave rise, without neglecting biographical arcana. These build up to an intimate, and lively, portrait of Lister the man in his social and temporal context.
It is in this marriage that Roos achieves, between Lister's technical work and her biographical account of him, that her book is exemplary. It is a compelling work to read, written in a lively, even racy style, which communicates well the author's ‘creative flights of fancy’. These, although they can occasionally leave the reader earthbound, generally transmit and underlie the empathy of imagination that gives the work realism and a colour lacking from more cautious scholarly works.
Scholarship and care, however, are not lacking. Roos supplies translations—usually her own—of everything she quotes, something that is essential given that all Lister's scientific books are in Latin. She supplies an exhaustive listing of his manuscripts, and has ranged widely through the secondary literature, both historical and scientific. Occasionally one feels that her familiarity with contemporary historiographical fashions is detrimental to the presentation of Lister, but one can only admire the thoroughness of her research, especially in primary sources. Generally she has been well served by her publisher: notes are where they should be at the foot of the page; the typeface is pleasant; the book is sturdily bound and opens flat without cracking; and there is a generous allocation of 39 plates, although their generally flat, sometimes distinctly muddy, reproduction leaves much to be desired. Unfortunate, however, is the sloppy copy-editing. Authorial genitive abuse goes uncorrected; obvious typing errors (‘the letters was … ’, p. 304 n. 100; ‘brought’ ‘for bought’, p. 307; ‘degree in Chancery’ for ‘decree in Chancery’, p. 320; ‘Fontanelle’ for ‘Fontenelle’, p. 414, to cite but a few) are not infrequent, while missing words (‘to create written descriptions [of] the natural environs’, p. 274) pass unnoticed by the publisher if not by the reader. Spot checks also showed the index to be defective. Given the attention that Lister lavished on the production of his excellent books it is a pity that such blemishes should appear in what is otherwise an excellent biography of him.
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