SHNH Stearn Essay Prize 2020 awarded to Amelia Urry (Cambridge) for her essay ‘Hearsay, Gossip, Misapprehension: Alfred Newton’s secondhand histories of extinction’
We are delighted to announce that the 2020 Society for the History of Natural History’s William T. Stearn Essay prize has been awarded to Amelia Urry for her essay ‘Hearsay, Gossip, Misapprehension: Alfred Newton’s secondhand histories of extinction’.
Beginning in the 1850s, Cambridge ornithologist Alfred Newton set out to preserve accounts of the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) and the British great bustard (Otis tarda), two birds that had become increasingly rare in the preceding decades. Instead of recording direct observations of these now-extinct species, however, Newton’s field notebooks are filled with transcribed witness statements, secondhand accounts, newspaper clippings, gossip, rumour, even folklore, collected by Newton meticulously over decades.
The central absence outlined by these uncertain accounts increasingly became the subject of Newton’s investigation into human-caused extinction, even as his efforts to construct definitive accounts were undermined by the doubt, contradiction, and uncertainty that would come to characterize extinction studies to the present.
Amelia is a PhD student (History and Philosophy of Science) at the University of Cambridge, where she studies the ‘deep uncertainty’ of Antarctic climate science. As a writer, she has explored themes of extinction and apocalypse, moving across histories of science and literature.
Of winning the award, Amelia says “It is an honour and a pleasure to receive the William T. Stearn Prize, and a great encouragement to my own fascination with the scientific difficulty of ‘proving’ environmental change. Though he published little in his lifetime, Newton’s meticulous research sheds light on the socially mediated nature of extinction studies, and the troubling and persistent role of uncertainty therein.”
The Society sends our very best congratulations to Amelia. Amelia’s essay will be published in an upcoming edition of the Society for the History of Natural History’s journal Archives of natural history.
William T. Stearn, CBE FLS VMH, was an outstanding botanical scholar, deemed the complete naturalist and was described in his obituary in The Times as “the greatest botanical authority of the twentieth century”. Professor Stearn is known for his work in botanical taxonomy and botanical history, particularly classical botanical literature, botanical illustration and for his studies of the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. His best known books are his Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners, a popular guide to the scientific names of plants, and his Botanical Latin for scientists and he is the the botanical authority for over 400 plant species.
William Stearn received many honours for his work, at home and abroad, and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1997. He received the Linnean Gold Medal of The Linnean Society of London (1976), and the Society for the History of Natural History’s SHNH Founders’ Medal (1986).