History and Science

History and Science

Science and Houghton might appear like water and oil at first sight. However, delving into the library’s inexhaustible archive completely overturns that superficial impression, especially when it comes to the history of scientific inquiry. Houghton’s collection includes famous first editions and scientists’ papers, and the historian of science will feel at home among the enormous quantity of material concerning scientific and intellectual history.

Famous scientists and their intellectual output are at the core of Houghton’s collection. The library owns various first editions of significant tracts in the history of science, including a 1543 Nuremberg edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Cœlestium (WKR 13.3.5, 004952358), a 1687 edition of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica edited by Edmond Halley (EC65.N4844.687p (A), 002532032)—as well as a 1759 French edition translated by Gabrielle Emilie du Châtelet (EC65 N4844 Eh759d, 006276238) that is still published today—, John Locke’s 1661 edition of Robert Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist (EC65 B6976 661s, 004576795), and a 1858 report about the British Army’s mortality in the Crimean War written and prepared by Florence Nightingale (EC85.N5647.858m, 002917124).

Houghton’s collection of illustrious scientific works, however, does not stop there. The library also holds an English (Chem 400.2.2*, 001705165) and a French (Chem 400.3*, 005943499) copy of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier’s Essays Physical and Chemical, which can also be used by concentrations such as Romance Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature on account of their linguistic significance, as well as a 1799 copy of a proposed new nomenclature of chemistry that also involved Lavoisier in its making (Chem 12.3*, 002331178). Its archives also contain Carl Friedrich Gauss’ family papers (MS Ger 232, 009504696), which present students with the priceless opportunity to delve into the private life of a scientific giant; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Naturalist journal (MS Am 1280H [99], 008290191), which encloses its author’s annotations about multiple scientific fields, including zoology, botany, chemistry, and optics, an oak leaf, and a wax transfer of a butterfly; a fifteenth-century manuscript with Hippocrates’ medical remedies (MS Fr 124, 009180489); and the papers and correspondence of Louis Agassiz (MS Am 1419, 009030664), a Harvard professor who founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Houghton’s history of science collection, however, is not only made up of well-known authors and items. Some of its most interesting contents are not famous at all. One of the library’s most interesting items, for instance, is Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, an eighteenth-century entomology treatise by Dutchwoman Maria Sibylla Merian (Typ 732.05.567, 002860975). Besides its use of the Dutch vernacular in an age where the scientific community communicated almost exclusively in Latin and its exquisite hand-colored images of the flora and fauna of Suriname, the tract’s history is fascinating. Merian went alone to Suriname, then a Dutch colony, with her infant daughter, a rather unusual life story for an early modern European woman. Though the compendium does not include biographical details, Merian is a captivating figure whose life and scientific exploits can be studied in History and Science and Women and Gender Studies alike. Another item that can be studied through both of those lenses is Il Newtonianismo per le Dame (Typ 725.37.133, 003973520), an eighteenth-century work destined to teaching physics specifically for women.

Houghton is also home to other preciosities, such as a French book about the art of pyrotechny (Chem 7205.56*, 004460244), the papers of George Sarton (MS Am 1803-1803.4, 000601830), a Harvard professor and an important twentieth-century historian of science, and John James Audubon’s meter-long Birds of America (*AC8.Au292.827b, 004352714), an ornithology treatise but also a work of art in its own right. All of the materials cited above, however, are only a snippet of all that Houghton has to offer to Harvard’s historians of science.