Saturday, 2 August 2014

Herbarium specimens tell us about people as well as plants!

The August issue of New Journal of Botany should be dropping through your letterboxes later this month, and one of the papers - by Quentin Groom, Clare O'Reilly and Tom Humphrey - offers a fascinating insight into the society's history. I asked Quentin to tell us more about their paper 'Herbarium specimens reveal the network of British and Irish botanists, 1856-1932'. 

Lydia Becker, British botanist and suffragist
Image: Wiki Commons
Quentin said "The Victorians were fanatical about botany. At the same time as professional botanists, such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Hooker, toured the globe for new species, amateur botanists at home did the same for the British Isles. This paper sheds light on the workings of these botanists, who they were, how they worked and who they worked with.

"Victorian botanists were the forebears of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. They established societies to help botanists swap specimens and build their collections. Their legacy is the hundreds of thousands of herbarium specimens found in museums, botanic gardens and libraries around the country - and, for that matter, all over the world.

"The role of amateur botanists in science should not be underestimated, but it is not easy to study. The contribution of women in particular is difficult to assess, because few published, yet they were prolific collectors and illustrators. Nevertheless, the mass digitisation and transcription of herbarium specimens by the Herbaria@Home project has enabled us to piece together the interactions between botanists, creating networks of botanical exchange to show who were the main contributors and who they exchanged specimens with.

"The results of this study have shown that botanists of this period were well connected, exchanging specimens liberally across the country. It also shows the gradual increase in female participation and the decline of the clergy’s involvement. This mirrors the societal context of the period where women were campaigning for suffrage and, at the same time, Darwin was laying the scientific foundations of modern biology and ecology.

"The work of herbaria@home is far from finished and as more specimens are digitised their hidden data will be revealed. So far, 140,000 specimens have been transcribed, but we know there are many to go. British and Irish herbaria house about 20 million specimens. These apparently withered specimens are not just curiosities, but windows to the past and source data for historical and scientific research. They obviously tell us about the plants that were collected but, as this paper shows, they also tell us about the people who collected them".