Friday, April 20, 2012

Scientific Names from an Auction Catalogue ~ The Reach of an 18th Century Natural History Collection

I appreciate auction catalogues.  On occasion I participate in the online auctions of stereoviews that John Saddy runs.  A stereoview, one of more intriguing products of the early years of photography, is a card featuring two slightly shifted images of the same scene which appears to be in three-dimensions when viewed through a stereoscope.  Each of these auctions runs for several weeks, featuring several thousand stereoviews organized into sometimes more than 1,000 lots of various themes.  Each lot includes 1 or more stereoviews – some exceed 100.

The heart of each auction is its catalogue featuring a succinct description of the stereoviews in each lot, accompanied by photographs of at least a few of the views in each.  I’ve concluded that fashioning a successful catalogue, for any type of auction, is an art.  Indeed, poring over the contents of its catalogue can be more than half the fun of an auction.

When is an auction catalogue more than simply a means to the end of moving the merchandise?  How does one become, say, an important scientific resource?

Research on the 18th century naturalist Daniel Solander for my previous post led me to an auction in 1786 of a fabulous natural history collection, an auction with enduring consequences.

To set the stage, I need to consider that ever present, ever demanding, and often unwelcome companion to almost every fossil hunt – what might be called curating the finds.  No question, it can be a chore to prep, identify, label, describe, catalogue, store, and, sometimes, display the fossils that make it back from the field.  For obvious reasons, curating is a safeguard for the fossils.  Paleontologist Bretton Kent (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994, p. 125) writes,
A curated collection, in its basic form, requires (1) labelled specimens, (2) an information system for collecting data, keyed to individual specimens, and (3) a secure, organized method of storage.  The integration of these three components is necessary to produce a study collection, rather than a mere accumulation of fossils.  (p. 125)
Though Kent distinguishes preparation from curation, I am inclined to add preparation into the mélange of curation activities because it’s such an integral part of doing right by your finds.  The American Museum of Natural History provides nicely detailed guidance on its website that takes the collector through the key steps for “managing fossil collections.”  Though targeted to museum collections, much of it is highly relevant for the amateur and his or her material.  Would that I could achieve the Museum’s standards.

Still, I try.

I spent part of a recent sultry April afternoon (with a high temperature nearly 30 degrees fahrenheit above the period’s average) taking some of the steps to curate thirteen fossil shells from the cliffs at Barton on Sea, England.  The fossils are a gift from a friend; one shell, Sycostoma pyrus, was the focus of the previous post on this blog.  These shells date from the Middle/Late Eocene (41 to 34 millions years ago).  I’ve photographed each and begun to enter identifying information into a database which will also include the images.  In the course of the afternoon, I moved the lot into plastic case, with each fossil now ensconced in a separate compartment.  I think most are too small to label directly, so each is also in small plastic bag with a loose identifying label inside and a comparable label affixed to the bag.  A meager but satisfying accomplishment.

At times I’ve thought it would be grand to be able to turn over the curating to someone else, someone with the necessary expertise and patience to identify, label, and describe my fossils.  But mine is a trivial accumulation of disparate, common fossils, hardly meriting such an investment – no scientific payoff from that.  But that was hardly the case for Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715 – 1785) whose collections of art and natural history specimens, including modern and some fossil varieties, simply staggers the imagination.  Many of the specimens, particularly the shells, were unknown scientifically.  She had the resources to have done what needed to be done.  Still, despite her wherewithal and good intentions, it didn’t all turn out the way she planned.

Born to a wealthy, prominent family (her father became the 2nd Earl of Oxford and her mother was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne), Margaret married well (William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709 – 1762)), outlived her husband, and amassed a huge fortune.  (For information on the Duchess of Portland, see, among other sources, Biography of Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), at the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections website.)

(This image is in the public domain and available on Wikipedia.)

Living in a highly intellectual, social environment, one that included such visitors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she was an intelligent and, apparently, highly driven collector of art, antiques, and, above all, natural history specimens, particularly sea shells.  With vast financial resources, she gathered extensive collections.  But she sought to do more than that.  As historian Evan M. Gaughan concluded, the Duchess managed to navigate the contemporary constraints placed on women in the sciences and arts by bringing the public sphere (off limits to women) into her home (women’s domain).  Bulstrode House, her country estate, was, according to Gaughan, “the site of an elaborate natural history program.”  (Naturalists, Connoissuers [sic] and Classicists:  Collecting and Patronage as Female Practice in Britain, 1715 – 1825, Master’s Thesis, Indiana University, 2010, p. 13.)
An adroit networker with deep pockets, the Duchess understood the benefits that associations with professionally skilled, well-connected individuals could offer.  Patronage of such men afforded the Duchess unparalleled opportunities to develop her [natural history] cabinets, make valuable links within the exploratory and natural history communities, and enhance her scientific erudition.  (Gaughan, p. 14)
Her impulse to acquire overwhelmed her ability to have her collected objects described and catalogued.   Bulstrode was awash with her acquisitions.

At some point, Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, one of the most renowned scientists in England and a former protégé of Carl Linnaeus, took an interest in cataloguing the Duchess’ conchology collection.

(This image is in the public domain and available on Wikipedia.)

At least as early as 1765, the Duchess of Portland had swept Solander into her orbit.  Gaughan cited a letter English naturalist Peter Collinson (1694 – 1769) wrote to Linnaeus on May 1, 1765, in which he reported that “Dr. Solander  goes on very successfully at the [British] Musæum, and has been lately much engaged in surveying the Duchess of Portland’s Musæum, where there is a very great collection of shells and marine productions, gems and precious stones.”  (A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, and Other Naturalists From the Original Manuscripts, James Edward Smith, ed., 1821,  p. 65.)

Presumably it was after his return in 1771 from his nearly three-year journey on the first of Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration, that Solander began to work on the Duchess’ collection seriously, devoting one day a week, reportedly Tuesdays, to the task of describing and cataloguing.  This was in addition to his obligations at the British Museum where, by 1773, he had been made “keeper of the printed books,” as well as his responsibilities to Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), for whom he was librarian and curator of the Banks natural history collection.  Solander may have been prompted to invest his energy in the Portland collection because he contemplated updating the Linnaean Systema Naturae.  (See, The Collector’s Voice, Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting, Volume 2, 2000, by Susan M. Pearce and Ken Arnold, p. 139-140.  They posited that his work on the collection began in 1778.)

Solander’s premature death in 1782, left many tasks unfinished, including the cataloguing of the Portland conchology collection.  The Duchess wanted Solander’s descriptions published but was thwarted by Solander’s friend and confidant Joseph Banks.  The Duchess died a scant three years later.

With her family uninterested in maintaining the incredible array of objects collected by the Duchess in her lifetime, and in need of cash to pay debts, all of the collections came up for auction.  With the dispersion of her collections, the “Portland Museum” ceased to exist.

The number of objects in the collections is incredible and the lion’s share appears to be natural history specimens, many of them shells.  A formal, published catalogue to the items up for auction was a necessity.  Published as A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, Lately the Property of The Duchess Dowager of Portland Deceased . . . ., the catalogue briefly described over 4,000 lots of items to be auctioned.  Though the catalogue stated that the auction was to run for a total of 38 days, the record of sales indicates it extended to a 39th day.  The auction raised over ₤11,500, a total that could be the equivalent of more than $1 million today.  (For what it’s worth, I used the conversion function at Eric Nye’s Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website.)

Shown below are the catalogue’s frontispiece suggesting the bounty at auction, and the title page.

According to the Portland Catalogue, a vast majority of the lots consisted of “Shells, Corals, Petrifactions, &c.” or some different combination of those terms.  Relying on the definitions in paleontologist Gideon Algernon Mantell’s Petrifactions and Their Teachings; or, A Hand-Book to the Gallery of Organic Remains of The British Museum (1851)  I suspect that the author of the catalogue was actually describing fossils when using the term “petrifactions.”  Still, it may not be that simple, since one block of 45 lots is specifically described as containing “Recent and Fossil Shells, Corals, &c.” – the only time the word “fossil” appears in the catalogue.  Anyway, since I have not traced every name and reference cited in the catalogue, I don't know the extent to which fossils actually appeared among the shells being auctioned, but it appears that nearly all of the specimens were from extant species.

Over the more than two centuries since its publication, the Portland Catalogue has taken on a number of roles, such as serving as an historical measure of the extent of one prominent 18th century English woman’s commitment to the study of natural history.  Over time, the catalogue has also assumed a scientific role, principally as a noteworthy resource for conchology taxonomy, a role not without some debate and controversy.  Central to this scientific function is how the Portland Catalogue described the contents of individual lots, particularly that of shells.  A fairly typical example is the entry for lot #1960 which reads as follows:
1960  A pair of undescribed species of Murex, Lister, 930, 25. and a fine Buccinum
               pustulosum, S. Rum.  49.  B.  rare
Focusing on the third shell listed for that lot, Buccinum pustulosum, we have several abbreviations to explain.  The list of abbreviations at the front of the catalogue states that an “S.” appearing after specific names “refers to a Manuscript Copy of Descriptions of Shells, made by the late Dr. Solander, now in the possession of Sir Joseph Banks . . . .”  “Rum.” refers to a text by Georgius Everhardus Rumphius titled “Thesaurus Cochlearum, Concharum, Conchyliorum, &c.,” published in 1739.  I do not know what the “B.” refers to – it is not listed among the abbreviations being used.  (At first I thought the “B.” might refer to Buccinum but it is used in other entries as well.)

Relatively soon after the catalogue’s publication, some of its new names began to appear in the scientific literature.  Ultimately, this raised questions.  Was the catalogue an appropriate taxonomic resource given that it did not actually provide a taxonomic description of the specimens?  Did the anonymity of its author compromise its taxonomic value?  Indeed, who was the unknown author whose taxonomic work was being recognized?

Several scientists took on these questions in papers published in the first two-thirds of the 20th century.  I’ll reference several of these here.

In 1916, Tom Iredale, Australian ornithologist and conchologist, assessed the taxonomic value of the Portland Catalogue and asserted in no uncertain terms that under the laws of taxonomy “anonymity is no bar to acceptance . . . .”  (Solander as a Conchologist, Proceedings of the Malacological Society, Vol. XII, November, 1916, p. 87.)  Further, he cited authorities supporting the position that the absence of descriptions was not fatal because “names accompanied by the citation of a published figure are perfectly valid and must be recognized . . . .”  (p. 87)  Iredale ascribed the many entries that met those criteria (names and citations to previously published work) to Solander because “I think that as Solander drew up the descriptions and named the specimens in the Portland Museum and ‘the Compiler’ [i.e., the author of the catalogue] simply saw that there was no discrepancy [,] the credit must belong to Solander.”  (p. 88)  He was agnostic as to who “the Compiler” might be.

I would note that a dip into the current edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the defining set of rules governing zoology taxonomy, turns up provisions reflecting Iredale’s understanding.  For names published prior to 1931, a new name need be accompanied only by an “indication” which is defined as “a bibliographic reference to a previously published description or definition . . . ."  (Article 12.2)  Further, Article 14 provides that anonymity in a work published before 1951 doesn’t preclude its availability under the Code.

In a piece published in 1921, paleontologist William Healey Dall was fully ready to accept the numerous new names from the catalogue that referenced published works.  He noted that the “anonymous editor of the Catalogue added a few names on his own account [in addition to those from Solander] and was apparently a conchologist of some note . . . .”  He ascribed all of those names in appropriate entries in the catalogue followed by an “S.” to Solander.  (Species Named in the Portland Catalogue:  I, American, and Molluscan Species Named in the Portland Catalogue, 1786, Part II, Foreign Species, The Nautilus, Volume XXXIV, 1921.)

Some 40 years later, conchologist S.P. Dance argued, apparently persuasively, in his article The Authorship of the Portland Catalogue (1786), that the unknown author was in fact the Reverend John Lightfoot (1735 – 1788), a botanist and conchologist, who worked extensively with the Duchess of Portland’s collection and served as her chaplain.  (Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, January, 1962, Vol. 4, No. 1 : pp. 30-34.)  (Unfortunately, I have been unable to access this key article, thwarted by a “paywall.”)

Malacologist E. Alison Kay described how Dance compared the Solander manuscript descriptions (which came into Banks’ possession on Solander’s death and then were given to the British Museum) with the Portland Catalogue, and showed that those names followed by an “S.” in the catalogue were not necessarily consistent with those in the manuscripts.  Dance concluded, according to Kay, that “a number of names bearing an ‘S.’ did not originate with Solander and to avoid confusion it may be preferable to attribute all of them to Lightfoot.”  (The Reverend John Lightfoot, Daniel Solander, and the Portland Catalogue, The Nautilus, Volume 79, Number 1, July 1965, p. 11.)  She endorsed this approach to the problem of authorship for the Portland names.  (I will do the same in the rest of this post, though it masks some ambiguity and, in several instances, may deprive Solander of some credit that should accrue to him.)

In a slightly later piece, Harald A. Rehder, Smithsonian malacologist, noted that most opposition to using the Portland Catalogue in taxonomy had fallen to the wayside, and the catalogue “is now generally considered a valid source of scientific names.”  (Valid Zoological Names of the Portland Catalogue, Proceedings of the United States National Museum, Volume 121, 1967.)

Among the many entries in the catalogue that Rehder cited as containing valid names is that for lot #1960 (presented above).  He outlined the taxonomic history for Buccinum pustulosum, noting that, although it was named Murex argus in 1791, the name Lightfoot had assigned to it previously had taxonomic precedence.  Later, the genus name was changed so that the species name for this gastropod, according to Rehder, was now “Argobuccinum pustulosum (Lightfoot, 1786).”  This was clearly in keeping with Dance’s proposal that all of the new names from the catalogue be attributed to Lightfoot, not Solander, a position certainly reflected today in the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), an online database of extant marine species managed by taxonomists.

The image below is of an Argobuccinum pustulosum (Lightfoot, 1786) as presented in the Encyclopedia of Life (it is in the public domain, and posted on the web by Jan Delsing from his own collection).

A search of the WoRMS database reveals another 20 species names, in addition to that of Argobuccinum pustulosum, that are still attributed to Lightfoot, though his name appears in parentheses because some aspect of the names has changed in the ensuing 226 years.  Perhaps even more impressive are the additional 15 scientific names for genera, subgenera, species, subspecies, and varieties listed in the database derived directly from the 1786 auction catalog and attributed to Lightfoot.  No parentheses around the "Lightfoot, 1786" following those names.

What a delightful twist of fate that the demise by auction of the Duchess of Portland’s natural history collection ensured that its influence would live on.

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