Review of ANNA MARIE ROOS, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639–1712), the First Arachnologist

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In the last decade or so, there has been a renewed interest in scientific biography among historians of science. The genre has been increasingly used to explore the dynamics between individual scientists and their social, intellectual and cultural surroundings. This is also the case of Anna Marie Roos’s first full-length biography of Martin Lister, a seventeenth-century physician and naturalist, a member of the Royal Society, and the recognized founder of arachnology and conchology. In his own time, Lister’s public love of collecting natural and artificial curiosities, his interest in a wide variety of topics and his particular fondness for studying spiders and ants made him a favoured target for satirists of virtuosi such as Thomas Shadwell and William King. His image as a minor naturalist interested in pursuing useless and irrelevant inquiries had a lasting influence and is still shared by a few modern scholars. Roos’s book is a clear attempt to rescue Lister from distortion and historical neglect and she mobilizes for the task an impressive number and variety of primary sources. They include Lister’s thirty-nine folio volumes of correspondence and notes, his numerous manuscripts and publications and many other original documents. Her book provides a detailed and contextualized account of Lister’s life and work, and she largely succeeds in bringing him to the fore of scientific activity in the late seventeenth century. The book is organized chronologically, from the birth to the death of Lister, and is divided into four parts, comprising a total of fourteen chapters. The first part includes a short introduction to the book which does not do justice to the variety of sources, subjects and methodologies used in the work. It focuses on Lister’s early life and education, first at the University of Cambridge (1655–1663) and then at the University of Montpellier (1663–1666) for his medical studies. It indicates that Lister’s years in France were crucial for his life’s work and involvement in the French and English Republic of Letters. The second part of the book is also the longest and covers the period when Lister established himself as a successful physician in York (1666–1683). This was also the period of his first publications on natural history, medicine, and chemistry, which led to his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1670/1671. His association with this institution was vital since it provided him with an avenue for publication in the Philosophical Transactions and also a forum for intellectual debate. Lister participated actively in disputes on arachnid flight, on the origin of fossils, and on plant circulation. This part of the book reveals also how, despite working in relative physical isolation, Lister’s correspondence with various members of the Royal Society and of the Republic of Letters enabled him to be at the very centre of discourse in natural history and natural philosophy. The third part of the book covers the period when Lister lived in London (1684–1692) and was able to have a role at the centre of Royal Society business, first as a member of the society’s Council and then as its vice-president. This was also the time when he produced his major works in natural history. Roos provides an insightful analysis of the difficulties and vicissitudes involved in the production of heavily illustrated books on natural history in the period. Special attention is given to the close relationship Lister had with his artists and to the role of family ties and of domestic spaces in the production of illustrations for his books. He had an ‘inhouse’ press for copperplate engravings, and only the assistance he received from his teenage daughters in drafting and engraving managed to secure for him the numerous illustrations he desired for his works on conchology. The final part of the book focuses on the remaining years of Lister’s life (1692–1712) when he withdrew from his studies in natural history and wrote works on classical medicine and literature as well as a memoir of his travels in France. During his final years, his professional and social status was consecrated when he was made a physician-in-ordinary to Queen Anne in 1702. The biography of Lister is written with passion and admiration for the man and his work. His portrait is now marked by personal and professional success rather than by the status of a minor naturalist. He is presented as a loving and caring husband and father, a committed friend, a thriving physician and a reputed author in various branches of knowledge, and as having an important role at the nexus of the Republic of Letters and scientific knowledge in the late seventeenth century. Lister’s descriptive powers and meticulousness are emphasized, but he is also portrayed as an innovator in proposing new interpretations and methods of treatment, as well as novel ways for visualizing results. Like the subject of her study, Roos seems to be a master of empirical accuracy and detail. Biography relies on particularities. There is, however, a danger of moving too close to the border of the trivial and the anecdotal, and at times Roos seems to cross this line. There is also sometimes a tendency for the minutiae of detail to overwhelm the narrative. Overall, the biography of Lister should be seen as an innovative and valuable contribution to the historical, social and cultural understanding of ‘scientific’ persona and practice in the seventeenth century. It will help in understanding better what characterized the map of knowledge at the time and exposes in particular the central role of natural history and its close relationship with other fields of knowledge. It contributes, moreover, to a more personal and dynamic view of the history of the Royal Society.
PALMIRA FONTES DA COSTA Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Original languageUnknown
Pages (from-to)293-294
JournalBritish Journal For The History Of Science
Issue numberNA
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012

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