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Society for the History of Natural History

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Announcing the 2024 SHNH Natural History Book Prize longlist (Thackray Medal)

Announcing the 2024 SHNH Natural History Book Prize longlist (Thackray Medal)

We are delighted to announce the longlist nominations for the SHNH Natural History Book Prize (John Thackray Medal), awarded for the best book published on the history or bibliography of natural history in the preceding two years.

We send our warmest congratulations to all authors.

Alan Brooke: Nature’s Missionary, Seth Lister Mosley, Naturalist, Museum Curator and Mystic, 1848-1929.
Huddersfield: Huddersfield Local History Society. ISBN: 9780992984151

Seth Lister Mosley is an influential and until now underexplored figure in British social and cultural history. He made important contributions to museology, to the popularisation of science and science education, and to the study of natural history. He was a pioneer in the development of notions of ecology and eco-systems as well as an early exponent of environmentalism. His reputation as a taxidermist, illustrator, naturalist, journal editor, and newspaper columnist extended far beyond his home town of Huddersfield but it was there that his life-long ‘mission’ to establish a museum was realised with his appointment as its first Curator in 1920.



Christine E. Jackson: A Newsworthy Naturalist: The Life of William Yarrell.
John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-913679-04-4

William Yarrell (1784–1856), was an influential naturalist at a time when natural history was becoming an important factor in 19th century society. He wrote two important books: A History of British Fishes and A History of British Birds, still being quoted as the authorities well into the next century and admired today, especially for their delightful wood engravings. He was a member and sometime Treasurer, Secretary and Vice-President of the Zoological, Linnean and Entomological Societies. He was known to, and greatly admired by, the leading naturalists; Charles Darwin sought Yarrell’s advice on several occasions. In addition to his key role as an organiser and disseminator of knowledge about the British fish and bird fauna, Yarrell also conducted significant original scientific research, being perhaps best known as the first person to recognise Bewick’s Swan as a separate species from the Whooper Swan, naming it Cygnus bewickii after his illustrious ornithological predecessor.


Mackenzie Cooley: The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance.
University Chicago Press

The Renaissance is celebrated for the belief that individuals could fashion themselves to greatness, but there is a dark undercurrent to this fêted era of history. The same men and women who offered profound advancements in European understanding of the human condition—and laid the foundations of the Scientific Revolution—were also obsessed with controlling that condition and the wider natural world. Tracing early modern artisanal practice, Mackenzie Cooley shows how the idea of race and theories of inheritance developed through animal breeding in the shadow of the Spanish Empire. While one strand of the Renaissance celebrated a liberal view of human potential, another limited it by biology, reducing man to beast and prince to stud. “Race,” Cooley explains, first referred to animal stock honed through breeding. To those who invented the concept, race was not inflexible, but the fragile result of reproductive work. As the Spanish empire expanded, the concept of race moved from nonhuman to human animals. Cooley reveals how, as the dangerous idea of controlled reproduction was brought to life again and again, a rich, complex, and ever-shifting language of race and breeding was born.


Edith Widder: Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea.
Virago ISBN: 9780525509264

Edith Widder’s childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist was almost derailed in college, when complications from a surgery gone wrong caused temporary blindness. A new reality of shifting shadows drew her fascination to the power of light—as well as the importance of optimism. As her vision cleared, Widder found the intersection of her two passions in oceanic bioluminescence, a little-explored scientific field within Earth’s last great unknown frontier: the deep ocean. With little promise of funding or employment, she leaped at the first opportunity to train as a submersible pilot and dove into the darkness. Below the Edge of Darkness takes readers deep into our planet’s oceans as Widder pursues her questions about one of the most important and widely used forms of communication in nature. In the process, she reveals hidden worlds and a dazzling menagerie of behaviors and animals, from microbes to leviathans, many never before seen or, like the legendary giant squid, never before filmed in their deep-sea lairs. Alongside Widder, we experience life-and-death equipment malfunctions and witness breakthroughs in technology and understanding, all set against a growing awareness of the deteriorating health of our largest and least understood ecosystem.


Doreen Cunningham: Soundings
Virago ISBN: 9780349014951

From Mexico to the Arctic ice, grey whale mothers swim with their calves. Following them, by bus, train and ferry, are Doreen and her toddler Max, in pursuit of a wild hope. Doreen first visited Alaska as a young journalist reporting on climate change among indigenous whaling communities. There, drawn deeply into an Iñupiaq family, she joined the bowhead whale hunt, watching for polar bears under the never-ending light. Years later, now a single mother living in a hostel, Doreen embarks on this extraordinary journey: following the grey whale migration back to the Arctic, where greys and bowheads meet at the melting apex of our planet.




Nicholas K. Menzies: Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China.
University of Washington Press. ISBN: 9780295749464

China’s vast and ancient body of documented knowledge about plants includes horticultural manuals and monographs, comprehensive encyclopedias, geographies, and specialized anthologies of verse and prose written by keen observers of nature. Until the late nineteenth century, however, standard practice did not include deploying a set of diagnostic tools using a common terminology and methodology to identify and describe new and unknown species or properties. Ordering the Myriad Things relates how traditional knowledge of plants in China gave way to scientific botany between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, when plants came to be understood in a hierarchy of taxonomic relationships to other plants and within a broader ecological context. This shift not only expanded the universe of plants beyond the familiar to encompass unknown species and geographies but fueled a new knowledge of China itself. The importance of botanical illustration is highlighted as a tool for recording nature—contrasting how images of plants were used in the past to the conventions of scientific drawing and investigating the transition of “traditional” systems of organization, classification, observation, and description to “modern” ones.


Read more on the SHNH Natural History Book Prize and on the 2023 winner Henrietta McBurney for her wonderful publication Illuminating natural history: the art and science of Mark Catesby. Publisher: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,2021.  ISBN: 9781913107192.

The book explores the life and work of the celebrated eighteenth-century English naturalist, explorer, artist and author Mark Catesby (1683–1749). During Catesby’s lifetime, science was poised to shift from a world of amateur virtuosi to one of professional experts. Working against a backdrop of global travel that incorporated collecting and direct observation of nature, Catesby spent two prolonged periods in the New World – in Virginia (1712–1719) and South Carolina and the Bahamas (1722–1726). In his majestic two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–43), esteemed by his contemporary John Bartram as ‘an ornament for the finest library in the world’, he reflected the excitement, drama and beauty of the natural world. Interweaving elements of art history, history of science, natural history illustration, painting materials, book history, paper studies, garden history and colonial history, this meticulously researched volume brings together a wealth of unpublished images as well as newly discovered letters by Catesby, which, with their first-hand accounts of his collecting and encounters in the wild, bring the story of this extraordinary pioneer naturalist vividly to life.

For those interested in reading more about Illuminating Natural History  you can access a recent review by Robert McCraken Peck in the Society’s Journal, Archives of Natural History


Winners will receive the SHNH John Thackray Medal, instituted in 2000 to commemorate the life and work of John Thackray (1948–1999), Past President of SHNH, and an outstanding scholar of the history of science with an enviable knowledge of natural history. He served as an Officer of the Society for the History of Natural History for 24 years (1973–1997) and in 1999 became the Society’s President. He authored 30 books and articles including Guide to the Official Archives of the Natural History Museum (1998).