Tag Archives: biological 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 http://legomenon.com/russian-matryoshka-nesting-dolls-meaning.html

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 https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-2-two-headed-fish/

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.

Natural History Collection Research


Dr Peter Mill and Dr Sandy (R.A.) Baker have both visited the museum recently to conduct research on our collection of parasite wet specimens, c.1950-1980. These samples previously belonged to their former colleague, Dr. R Wynne Owen (d.1985) who was a lecturer in the University of Leeds’ Deparment of Zoology. Wynne Owen’s specialism was fish parasites, but he also collected parasites from other hosts, including invertebrates, amphibia, reptiles, birds and mammals. Peter and Sandy have also been working with Wynne Owen’s collection of microscope slides, which are now housed in the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre

In addition to helping their own research to progress, Dr Mill and Dr Baker’s continuing work on these specimens will provide us with important knowledge about our collection. Their article on will be published in a forthcoming issue of Nature.

Last Friday we were also visited by Clare Brown (Curator of Natural Science at Leeds Museums and Galleries), who kindly offered expert advice regarding the care of our natural history collection.  We’re very pleased to see things progressing so well with this collection, and hope there will be more exciting work in the near future.

Hidden Histories: Taxidermy Hedgehog

Bisected taxidermy hedgehog.

Bisected taxidermy hedgehog.

One of the objects in our Hidden Histories exhibition is a model of a western European hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus. This species is prevalent across the North and West regions of Europe and is found in wood and grasslands, although it has been known to venture into towns and cities due to their easy access to food sources. It is an omnivore, mainly consuming slugs, beetles and other insects, although it has been known to eat small rodents and young birds. The hedgehog has a strong phylogenic link with shrews and other small mammals, and models have been used extensively in the past as a demonstration tool for Biology Department lectures on anatomy and mammalian evolution.

Our taxidermy model hedgehog has been bisected on one side to display its skeleton and allow for a better understanding of its anatomical structure. The hedgehog has been taken from the larger zoology collection recently acquired by the Museum. This collection originally belonged to the Zoological Museum based in the Department of Biology. The Museum contained vertebrate, invertebrate, entomological (insect) and pathological collections, in addition to microscope and magic lantern slides. Parts of these collections date back to the beginning of the Yorkshire College of Science in 1874 and initially they were displayed in the corridors and around the sides of laboratories of the Biology Department, originally based in the second floor of Baines Wing. In 1908 the Zoological Museum was officially established and set up in the old botanical laboratory, where it remained until 1997 when the L. C. Miall building was opened. In addition to a new museum room, the Miall building contained store rooms, a preparation room, an insect collection room and a room for the department’s Herbarium.

The bisected taxidermy hedgehog displayed in Hidden Histories was bought by the Department of Biology from E. Gerrard and Sons, a London based taxidermy company, in August of 1934. The specimen cost £2-15-0, or £2 and 15 shillings. The hedgehog was not the only bisected taxidermy model bought in 1934; a rabbit and a bullfrog were also obtained for £4 and 10 shilling, and £1 and 15 shillings respectively. In addition to providing new specimens, the biology department relied heavily on E. Gerrard and Sons for cleaning, repairing and remounting services.

Side image of hedgehog displaying taxidermy work.

Side image of hedgehog displaying taxidermy work.

Side image of hedgehog, displaying skeletal structure.

Side image of hedgehog, displaying skeletal structure.

Whilst university natural history collections, such as those held by the Zoology Museum at Leeds, were used extensively in the early 1800s as a teaching resource, a rise in laboratory based work and cellular and molecular biology in the early- and mid-1900s saw the use of these collections reduced.  However by the 1990s subjects such as biodiversity and wildlife conservation were becoming increasingly prominent and natural history collections became important again for both teaching and research. In spite of this, university collections remained at risk of being sold or given away due to financial problems. The Zoology Museum at Leeds seemed to avoid this financial pressure, and after the move to L. C. Miall and the better access the new rooms provided the collections became exceedingly popular amongst students. The collections were used to teach subjects such as vertebrate comparative anatomy and entomology, in addition to providing research material for final year students.

In recent years the collections have been used far less in teaching, although their involvement did not stop completely. In 2011, during my first year as an undergraduate in Biology and History and Philosophy of Science, we used skeletons within the Zoology Museum in a practical session for the Diversity of Life module. The practical involved measuring various bones of the hind legs from mammal skeletons within the collection to better understand how leg structure depends on the animal’s size and way of life.

The Zoology Museum in 2012, shortly before closure.

The Zoology Museum in 2011, shortly before closure.

Zoology Museum, 2012.

Coral specimens displayed in the Zoology Museum, 2011.

Sadly the Zoology Museum closed in 2012. A large number of the skeletons and skulls have been retained and displayed around the foyer of the L. C. Miall building. Some of the collections, such as the Herbarium and majority of the insect collection, were given to the Discovery Centre of Leeds City Museum. The remainder of the Zoological Museum has been passed onto us within the Museum for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, forming part of our biological science collection. Whilst we do not have the space at the moment to display the whole collection, which includes skeletons, skulls, coral, taxidermy and specimens preserved in spirits on a large scale, we are doing our best bring it to the attention of a wider audience . This includes representing it in the Hidden Histories display and a smaller display outside the Gillinson Room within the Philosophy department. In addition to this, we are trying to use the collection for its original purpose: teaching.  Recently the Museum carried out a workshop with a local school using skull’s from the collection to highlight natural history and how an animal’s skull can help to reveal its life style, size and habitat. The workshop also focused on the importance of objects as a source of information in their own right. In addition to the natural history workshop, the school group attended a Victorian medicine workshop, and in the afternoon put together their own displays using various objects from our museum store. The day was very successful, and the students gave some wonderful feed back. Hopefully our natural history workshop will become as popular our Victorian medicine one.

For information on the history of the Zoology Museum and its collections, and also university natural history collections in general see:

Baker, R. A. ‘The University of Leeds Natural History Collections – Part 2’, The Biology Curator, 15 (1999), pp.2-4

Baker, R. A. & Edwards, J. M. “Louis Compton Miall (1842-1921) – the origins and development of Biology at the University of Leeds”, The Linnean, 14 (3) (1998), p.40-48

Lepidoptera Collection at leeds.

Hello all, firstly thanks to Mike for setting me up so I can start blogging.

Secondly, here’s what I’ve done so far on my chosen object- a lepidoptera collection in the biology collections at leeds. I’ve found it hard to find out specifics about the object, but alot on lepidoptera in general. I’ve got my piece and an atempt at a 30 word label below. Please send feedback so I improve it.

Butterflies and moths both belong to an order called the ‘Lepidoptera’. Which is one of the most diverse groups of insects on the planet, estimates of the number of species range from a 100,000 to a quarter of a million, divided into between 125-175 families depending on who you talk too. Their diversity and notorious beauty from around the world can be clearly seen in the specimens here in Leeds because they have been obtained from many places, such as the Americas (labelled as ‘new world butterflies’ in this collection). The Lepidoptera play an enormous role in pollinating the earth’s planet population and form a vital part of the food chain.

Surprisingly there is no taxonomic difference between a butterfly and a moth, indeed it would taken expert to tell which of the species in these cases where moths and which where butterflies. Despite many generalizations, and several detailed looks by taxonomists there is no distinction that can be drawn upon, it seems some families of butterflies are closer to families of moths than they are to other species of butterfly. One of the most widely held generalizations for example is that moths are nocturnal and butterflies are not. Though this is true for the butterfly, it is not so for moths, many species are Crepuscular (active in twilight, at dawn and dusk), and of the 2,500 species of moth endemic to Britain, a hundred are active during the day, but there are only 60 species of butterfly in Britain, and so there are more species of moth flying around in the day than there are butterflies.

The origins of the names ‘butterfly’ and ‘moth’ are largely lost in time, but there are several theories surrounding them. There are two theories of the word ‘butterfly’ firstly, that it comes from the old English word ‘buterfleoge’ meaning ‘butter-coloured flies’. The second idea is that it comes from the old English ‘flutter-bys’, in parallel with an old English belief that witches took the form of butterflies to steal milk and butter.  This is doubted, even if butterflies and witches did really, really like butter (?)… How much can a butterfly carry? But it is still a nice idea.

The origins of the ‘moth’ are more mundane; there are numerous languages from which it could have originated most interestingly is from the word ‘midge’ a common term in English used up until the 16th century to indicate larvae, usually in reference to the devouring cloth.  This leads to a great misconception of moths; that they eat clothes. Moths love to lay their eggs in dark recesses, making your wardrobe the perfect place to breed. But of the afore mentioned 2,500 species of moth in Britain only 6 of their larvae have been shown to actually eat textiles, giving the rest of them a bad name.

Whatever the origins of their names, they have always been treasured for their beauty, and more recently used in science as a model organism for ecology and genetics as they are so old (studying the change in genes over millions of years). Though this research has happened in Leeds to a limited extent, the collection here was never used for this and was probably more used for teaching in identifying butterfly species.


Moths and Butterflies are known as the ‘Lepidoptera’, their use in science is limited but are treasured for their beauty and diversity, so collections like this one are common.