Gathering the Animals: Natural History in America to 1815

Whitney Barlow Robles is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. In summer 2015, she was a Research Fellow of the Consortium. Read more about her research below. My project reexamines natural history’s formation in early America by using animals and natural specimens as its organizing principle and chief subjects. While histories of early American natural history have traditionally emphasized the human perspective, often using naturalists’ commentaries on animals as implicit reflections of the human social and scientific order, this project places nonhuman species and biological specimens at the narrative center to understand how animals influenced and limited the very project that sought to study them. By devoting each chapter to a particular set of animals or specimens, I anticipate showing how attempts to order and rationalize nonhuman species obscured crucial elements of the animals themselves, as well as how certain species evaded naturalists’ attempts altogether. Drawing from environmental history, animal studies, and new materialism, I expect my project will contribute to debates on how little-acknowledged historical actors shaped the enterprise of natural history in North America and to efforts by historians of science to understand systems of knowledge production. My research fellowship from the Consortium primarily supported a portion of this project devoted to fishes in early American natural history. Specifically, I have been considering how the material form of different species encouraged or discouraged certain types of specimen preservation, scientific engagement, and representational strategies at a time when ichthyology was a nascent discipline in the early republic. My research on this subproject began with a group of fish specimens at Harvard, all of which are flattened, dried, and glued or sewed to pieces of parchment filled with inscriptions. These fishes, which the naturalist William Dandridge Peck prepared in the 1790s, represent the oldest existing collection of biological specimens at the university. And they prompt a deceptively straightforward question: why flatten a fish? Since then, I’ve investigated naturalists’ motivations for flattening fishes (and other biological specimens) in this manner, tracing the roots of this practice to the botanical tradition of pressing plants and storing them in herbaria. I’ve also explored why certain species lent themselves well to such preparation and others failed in this regard—for instance, a flat flounder was ideal, a flat stingray was not. Finally, I’ve considered how flattening naturally three-dimensional animals made them book-like and canvas-like, and thus interpretable by naturalists at the time as part of God’s handiwork, like actual flattened pages in the so-called “Book of Nature”—even as this mode of representation posed many challenges and limits, as well. This summer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, I explored the scientific ichthyology collections under the guidance of Mark Sabaj Pérez to understand the diversity of preparation techniques used in the early nineteenth century. The Academy’s three-dimensional dried specimens and fishes preserved whole in alcohol will serve as a useful foil to the flattened fishes I’ve been studying. I also found a number of important documents in the Academy’s research library. The most exciting discovery was a handwritten 1776 booklet prepared by London-based purveyor of curiosities George Humphrey with instructions on preparing biological specimens for overseas shipment from various colonies to Europe. Humphrey described an additional method for preparing flattened half-skins of fishes—a significant find because it was not published, unlike other instructions that made it to print and thus reached a wider number of naturalists. Humphrey’s description of these flattened fishes also explicitly confirmed my hypothesis that these preparations represented a convergence of specimen and illustration, and were meant to function like illustrations in certain respects. I also spent time this summer at the American Philosophical Society, which holds a number of letters written by or to Peck. They provide an important complement to Peck’s papers at Harvard that I had examined previously. In particular, Peck’s early correspondence with Philadelphia naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton exposes Peck’s initial insecurities about becoming a naturalist, as he was largely self-taught. The letters also reveal a budding friendship in which Barton helped Peck navigate the worlds of botany and zoology in Philadelphia and beyond. While this portion of the research focused less on animals, it gave me important insights into Peck’s mindset and circumstances when he created his exemplary fishes. My final stop was the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where I primarily studied the Bartram Family Papers, and found important discussions of flattened fishes in letters between John Bartram and other naturalists. One letter from Peter Collinson drew an explicit comparison between these flattened fish preparations and a flat herbarium, or hortus siccus (a frequently used Latin term meaning “dry garden”). The letters also detail what naturalists focused on in these unique preparations—in particular, the placement of fishes’ fins and the numbers of bony rays per fin, which were important for filing these animals within the Linnaean system. I am truly grateful for the Consortium’s support and for the opportunity to spend time at these wonderful Philadelphia institutions. In particular, I would like to thank the Consortium for making this opportunity possible, Mark Sabaj Pérez and Jennifer Vess at the Academy of Natural Sciences for their in-depth support with my research, and Charles Greifenstein at the American Philosophical Society and Tammy Gaskell at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for their help in coordinating my research at those archives.