Author Archives: holmesmatthew9920

About holmesmatthew9920

I am a PhD student in the History and Philosophy of Science. My research interests include environmental history and the history of agricultural biotechnology and the life sciences.

HPS in 20 Objects, Lecture 2: Two-Headed Fish

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.


The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.


The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at

Matthew Holmes


Botanical Lithographs: The Botanische Wandtafeln

The folios of large botanical lithographs held by the museum are educational tools, part of set entitled ‘Botanische Wandtafeln’. They are associated with Carl Ignaz Leopold Kny (1841-1916), who was a German botanist and Professor of Plant Physiology at the University of Berlin. These wall charts were historically European (specifically German) phenomena, which originated with Kny’s idea of displaying them in classroom lecture halls.

Botany Lithographs 458Botany Lithographs 460

The educational utility of the Botanische Wandtafeln arose as a result of rising class sizes, which in mid nineteenth-century Germany could be well over one hundred students. The importance of the visual in German education was another factor. Thoughts on this subject were strongly influenced by the ideas of Heinrich Pestalozzi (1766-1827). Pestalozzi theorised that children learn by transforming vague sense impressions (or Anschauung) into distinctive ideas. It was therefore important that pupils should see or handle objects, instead of merely hearing about them.

The Botanische Wandtafeln were published between 1875 and 1911, numbering one hundred and twenty plates in all and were accompanied by a 554-page textbook by Kny of the same name. Two printmakers and more than ten artists were associated with their production, which was made possible by the German development of lithography on an industrial scale by the Englemann workshops from 1816. While the production costs of colour prints fell, the Botanische Wandtafeln set was by no means cheap, selling for the sum of one hundred and fifteen dollars in 1911.

The charts depict the anatomical and morphological details of plants in impressive detail. As with our pathological illustrations by Ethel M. Wright, this botanical illustrations are wonderful displays of artistic talent alongside scientific knowledge. Illustrated topics include cell structure and development, insectivorous plants, fern and bryophyte structure and algal fertilisation. Kny, dissatisfied with the existing botanical literature, conducted original research on several topics to properly prepare the charts. The folios held by the museum are unusual, the charts usually being rolled up for storage. Many of the charts are coloured, though a number are in black and white. The Botanische Wandtafeln is considered to be a famed exemplar of Victorian era and pre-1914 Germanic science.

Botany Lithographs 464Botany Lithographs 468

Further Reading:

Bucchi, Massimiano, ‘Images of Science in the Classroom: Wall Charts and Scientific Education, 1850-1920, in Luc Pauwels, Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication, University Press of New England: Hanover, 2006, pp. 90-119.

Edmonds, Jennifer M. ‘The University of Leeds Natural History Collections – Part 1’, The Biology Curator (1999), 14, pp. 3-10.

Schmid, Rudolf, ‘Wall Charts (Wandtafeln). Remembrance of Things Past’, Taxon (1990), 39, pp. 471-472.

Schmid, Rudolf, ‘The Phenomenon of Botanical Wall Charts (Botanische Wandtafeln) from 1874 to 1914’, American Journal of Botany (1985), 72, pp. 879-880.