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Society for the History of Natural History

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Society for the History of Natural History 2023 awards announcement. Founders’ Medal – P. Geoffrey Moore; President’s Award – Victoria Dickenson; Natural History Book Prize – Henrietta McBurney; Stearn Student Essay Prize – Cameron Barber

Society for the History of Natural History 2023 awards announcement. Founders’ Medal – P. Geoffrey Moore; President’s Award – Victoria Dickenson; Natural History Book Prize – Henrietta McBurney; Stearn Student Essay Prize – Cameron Barber

The Council of the Society for the History of Natural History is delighted to announce the following awards which will be celebrated at our forthcoming AGM on 13 June. We invite you to join us.

SHNH Founders’ Medal

Geoffrey Moore
SHNH Founders’ Medal 2023

The Society is very pleased to announce that our prestigious Founders’ Medal will this year be awarded to Professor Geoff Moore, Emeritus Professor of Marine Biology at the University of London.

Professor P. Geoffrey Moore (“Geoff”) Moore served as President of the Society for the History of Natural History from 2009 to 2012 during which period several initiatives were brought to fruition, especially the invitation to Sir David Attenborough OM, CH, CVO, CBE, FRS, FZS, Hon. FLS to become the Society’s Patron (Archives of Natural History 37 (2): 189–190) and, consequently, in 2011, the Patron’s Review whereby an outstanding younger scholar is invited to contribute a review essay to Archives of Natural History.

Geoff has been a prolific author of scholarly papers on the history and bibliography of natural history. His publications, spanning a period of fifty years, include over 260 refereed papers on diverse topics including ecology, taxonomy, pollution and conservation; many in collaboration with colleagues and research students. His principal professional research interests lie in fisheries and marine ecology, so he is very well-informed about the history of work on marine natural history in waters around Great Britain. He has been especially interested in those naturalists who have been notable for teaching and writing and the institutions to which they belonged, and by extension, in broadcasters and writers and illustrators of “popular” natural histories.

The diversity of Geoff’s historical research is clear from the papers and short notes accepted for Archives of Natural History, from

Geoff’s fascinating paper on  The background to the proposition that plankton be used as food in the United Kingdom during the Second World War (38 (2): 287–299) detailing information that had been marked as ‘secret’ and which Geoff uncovered an archive at the Scottish Association for Marine Science proved extremely popular in the UK press including in The Scotsman and The Daily Mail.

The SHNH President’s Award

Victoria Dickenson

SHNH is delighted to award the SHNH President’s Award 2023 to Victoria Dickenson for her work on the Gwillim Project: Women, Environment, and Networks of Knowledge and Exchange in Early Nineteenth Century Madras. The Award recognises an individual or team’s contribution and impact in promoting and improving accessibility, inclusivity and diversity to the study of the history of natural history.

The Gwillim Project centres around the life and world of two English sisters in early nineteenth-century Madras (now Chennai), Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds. Elizabeth and Mary’s letters home and detailed drawings, produced during their stay in Madras from 1801 to 1808, provide an immersive portrayal of Madras under East India Company rule. Their correspondence and artwork also provide insight into the landscape, climate, and ecology of the Coromandel coast, documenting birds, animals, fish, insects, flowers, and trees.

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, the Gwillim Project uses a virtual platform to make text and images accessible to all. The online archive encompasses over 250 images from McGill Library and the South Asia Museum (Norwich), and over 700 pages of the sisters’ manuscript correspondence from the British Library, made available under an Orphan Works License. These letters were transcribed by McGill students with ongoing assistance from a network of over 50 researchers in India, Canada, Britain, and the United States, who explained archaic dress terms, translated phonetic renditions of Telugu or Tamil words, and identified places and landmarks. Network members also identified birds, fish and flowers in the over 250 watercolours in the virtual archive, providing contemporary scientific names, mapping distributions, and locating habitats.

As well as digitising and contextualising these valuable resources, the Gwillim project has disseminated its findings through a range of media, engaging with a variety of audiences. A series of nine webinars on YouTube, have, to date, attracted over 22,000 views, the majority from India. In-person events in at the Dakshina Chitra Museum and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, have expanded the reach of the Project to schoolchildren, university students, local historians, and birding enthusiasts, while exhibitions of the original watercolours have been hosted by museums in Toronto, Montreal, Norwich and Chennai. A co-authored book, Women, Environment, and Networks of Empire, Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras, 1801-1807 will be published by McGill Queen’s University Press in 2023.

SHNH Natural History Book Prize (John Thackray Medal)

Henrietta McBurney

The Society is very pleased to announce that our prestigious Natural History Book Prize (the John Thackray Medal) will this year be awarded to Henrietta McBurney, for Illuminating natural history: the art and science of Mark Catesby. Publisher: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,2021.  ISBN: 9781913107192. Henrietta McBurney is a freelance curator and art historian. She was previously curator in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle.

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.

All the judges agreed that the book was outstanding, noting that it was superbly illustrated, meticulously researched and an absolutely riveting read. McBurney manages to bring Catesby to life and places him within the network of seventeenth-century naturalists, as well as within his own world of colonial America. The work adds a new dimension to our understanding of this remarkable man as McBurney delves into every aspect of Catesby’s life, with his scientific and artistic record of the plants and animals he saw during his travels in North America, to his tireless, commitment to distributing his collections and publishing his findings in several books after his return home to England. One judge commented that the book was a magnum opus pulling together all the information on Catesby, both published and unpublished, into a single volume. Another particularly liked the book’s three appendices, which they thought were extremely useful: transcripts of Catesby’s surviving correspondence, notes on the plant specimens he collected in North America, and a detailed discussion of the paper used for his drawings and books including notes on the watermarks. In addition to its scholarship, the book is beautifully produced, with 250 colour and black-and-white illustrations which are essential to her text.

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

SHNH Stearn Essay Prize

Cameron Barber
Stearn Essay Prize 2022

We are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2022 Stearn Essay Prize is Cameron Barber, St Andrews University, Scotland, for his paper “Biological Jewels”: the Glass Specimens of Herman O. Mueller, and the Forgotten Tradition of the Specimen-Glassblower.

Bavarian glassblower Herman O. Mueller was employed for over forty years at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in his role as a specimen-glassblower. From 1903 to 1945 he produced over one thousand models of invertebrate organisms that combined beauty, morphological accuracy and exceptional glassblowing. His talent often surpassed that of the famous Blaschkas of Dresden. Mueller enjoyed worldwide fame in his lifetime, yet his life and models have since fallen into obscurity, and few publications record his achievements. In contrast, the Blaschkas are the subject of extensive documentation. To correct this imbalance, Mueller’s life and work will be analysed by drawing in the large collection of primary sources in the Research Library of the American Museum of Natural History, the Library of Congress and the Rakow Research Library of the Corning Museum of Glass, amongst others. Mueller’s life provides important insights into the now forgotten but once widespread position of the specimen-glassblower, the changing role of natural history collections in the early twentieth century, and the ways in which the lives of important figures can be obscured by a focus on other, better documented individuals. 

Cameron writes: It is an absolute delight to receive the William T. Stearn Prize, an honour for which I am most grateful! Herman O. Mueller’s wonderful glass specimens represented a lifetime’s work in mastering morphology, taxonomy and comparative anatomy, through the lens of his genius glassblowing learned as a child in Bavaria. It has been splendid to bring his story to a wider audience and the prize has afforded me the confidence that I can produce scholarship of broad interest, which I intend to carry forward into the future.  




Society for the History of Natural History AGM 2023

13 June 2022 13.30 BST


The SHNH AGM will be held as part of the programme of our Summer conference, The Language of Nature, to be held at the ThinkTank, the Birmingham Science Museum, on 13 June 2023. The Society’s AGM will take place after the lunch break, at 1.30 pm London time /13:30 BST.