Thursday, 12 October 2017

On making a living as a naturalist and on Galapagos tortoises in the 19th Century

Archives of Natural History, the journal of the Society for the History of Natural History, always contains articles that inform and entertain. The latest issue does not disappoint.

The question of how people with an abiding interest in animals and wildlife generally found jobs that satisfied that interest when there was no career path to follow or any form of established employment in the offing has always interested me. In the late 19th and  20th centuries there were very few graduates and very few graduate jobs. Some worked up their interest and started small zoos; others worked as collectors of dead or alive specimens to satisfy the craze for natural history that gripped Victorian Britain, or as animal dealers sometimes added on to a pet shop, while others worked in publishing.

In the first paper in the latest issue Susannah Gibson has written The careering naturalists: creating career paths in natural history, 1790-1830. She describes the life of Edward Donovan (1768-1848) who carved a niche for himself as a ‘writer, artist, engraver, collector, curator and popularizer of natural history’. Donovan wrote and illustrated volumes of works on mainly British insects, birds, shells and plants. He also founded a museum in London to display his collections. He was highly successful, other than with his museum which lost money but seems eventually to have been diddled out of his earnings by the bookseller (then, as in Samuel Pepys’s time, in St Paul’s Churchyard) he had collaborated with throughout. The sums involved were, for the day, enormous at £60,000-£70,000. The only way he could attempt to get his money was through the Court of Chancery, an enormously expensive process. He tried to raise the money from his subscribers but he failed and he died with the matter unresolved.



Gibson contrasts Donovan’s career with that of George Shaw (1751-1813) who had degrees from Oxford and Edinburgh. He got a job at the Natural History Museum so could write books while being paid by the museum. By contrast, Alexander Macleay (1767-1848) became a civil servant in the Transport Office and pursued his interests as an amateur; he made an extensive collection, became Secretary of the Linnean Society, and then, when appointed Colonial Secretary in New South Wales became an important figure in Australian natural history. Money was a great problem to Macleay as well as to Donovan. They and other naturalists spent a lot of money buying specimens for their collections. In the end many collections, including those of Donovan and Macleay had to be sold in whole or in part to stave off bankruptcy. The sale of Donovan’s was by auction of close on 8000 lots over 65 days.

The second paper by Storrs Olson, The early scientific history of the Galapagos tortoises, deals with just that, up to and including the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1835. Olson takes to task those authors who have repeated the myth that the differences between the tortoises from different island contributed to Darwin’s thinking that led to the Origin of Species. He concludes (after naming the culprits in references):

Contrary to the mythology still being perpetuated today, Galapagos tortoises played almost no role in the development of Darwin’s evolutionary thinking. It would be nearly eight decades after the voyage of the Beagle before appreciation of the full extent of diversity of tortoises in the Galapagos would be revealed following the expedition of the California Academy of Sciences in 1905-1906.


Giant tortoises from the Cerro Azul population at the captive breeding centre
on Isabela (Albemarle). This form is now being treated as a separare species,
Chelonoidis vicina. 20 January 2013


Gibson S. 2017. The careering naturalists: creating career paths in natural history, 1790–1830. Archives of Natural History 44, 195-214 https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2017.0444

Olson SL. 2017. The early scientific history of Galapagos tortoises. Archives of Natural History 44, 241-258 https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2017.0447