Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Darwin's drawers

Not to be confused with Vickie's knickers, the title here refers to a remarkable rediscovery of antique slides prepared by botanist Joseph Hooker after being collected by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, Fellow at Royal Holloway, relates, “While searching through an old cabinet, I spotted some drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants’. I can’t resist a mystery, so I pulled one open. What I found inside made my jaw drop! Inside the drawer were hundreds of beautiful glass slides made by polishing fossil plants into thin translucent sheets. This process allows them to be studied under the microscope. Almost the first slide I picked up was labelled ‘C. Darwin Esq.’ This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834!” Of the 314 fossil specimens, 17 had been gathered by Darwin when he was on the Beagle (slideshow here). The Geological Survey implemented a formal registry process for acquisitions in 1848, but by that time Hooker had left for an expedition in the Himalayas. After many relocations, the collection passed out of memory. Dr. John Ludden, Executive Director of the Geological Survey, remarked, “This is quite a remarkable discovery. It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections.”

This is only the latest reappearance of specimens collected by Darwin. In 2009 - the 200th anniversary of his birth - the only egg from the voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle was rediscovered by 80-year-old volunteer Liz Wetton while cataloging and reboxing the bird egg collection at Cambridge University's Zoology Museum (photos here). Wetton described, "It was an exhilarating experience. After working on the egg collections for 10 years this was a tremendous thing to happen. I've been moving the egg collection from the Victorian drawers into new boxes and when this one said 'C. Darwin' I thought it may be important." The find also reminds me of the painstaking documentation of a cabinet that belonged to a rival of Darwin after it was purchased at an antique shop (see Alfred Russel Wallace's cabinet and A second look at Wallace's cabinet).

ABOVE: Microscope slides from the Sir Joseph D. Hooker Collection, British Geological Survey: 1st image) Petrified conifer from near Whitby, North Yorkshire, U.K., 2nd image) Large conifer axis from Scarborough, Yorkshire, U.K., 3rd image) Stigmaria from Wolverhampton, West Midlands, U.K., 4th image) Strobili from unknown locality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You may add your comments here.