Archive for May, 2013

Future Food in Coprolites

21 May 2013


NB: I’m putting this here ’cause, the Tumblr theme I insist on using is dreadful for longform and I don’t know if Yahoo is going to eat all of my brains and turn them into daily horrorscopes or whatever and Google is about to kill reader so bye and thanks if we lose touch and I know I shouldn’t be publishing quasi-original [though admittedly trivial] Google books assisted history of science research on this neglected podunk weblog again but so sue me and maybe if I get the chance I will tell you about the UN sometime but so anyway here we are.

Mary Anning’s “fourth notebook” is a “commonplace book” that dates from the last years of the famous fossil hunter’s life. The book, which somehow wound up in the personal library of Richard Owen and is now in the collection of the Dorset County Museum, contains several distinctive essays and poems. The authorship of these have sometimes been attributed to Anning herself (for example see this fine recent biographical sketch by Davis [2009]) but it appears more likely that she actually transcribed them from other publications. I guess this is the kind of thing people did before Tumblr.

One poem (the first few lines of which are shown in Mary’s hand above) is particularly entertaining, at least assuming that you are hip to inside jokes about early 19th Century geologists and geological debates. It is a satirical ode to Roderick Murchison, the Scottish geologist who was knighted in 1846.

It appears to have been composed by a Cambridge physician writing under the pseudonym “The Travelling Bachelor” and was originally published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. It was transcribed by Anning in the same year, or shortly thereafter. Mary was well acquainted with the Victorian scientists that are lampooned in the poem, and we can imagine she was amused by the send-up, although whether she was sympathetic to the sentiments is hard to say. Owen himself gets a gentle ribbing about his anatomical obsessions, one wonders if he was amused or irritated by this poem that was so carefully copied down by Anning.

Encomium Murchisonaum 

Who first surveyed the Russian states?
And made the great Azoic dates?
And worked the Scandinavian states?
Sir Roderick

Who calculated nature’s shocks?
And proved the low Silurian rock
Detritus of more ancient flocks?
Sir Roderick

Who knows of what all rocks consist?
And sees his way where all is mist
About the metamorphic schist?
Sir Roderick

Who draws distinctions clear and nice
Between the old and new gneiss?
And talks no nonsense about ice.
Sir Roderick

Let others then, their stand maintain,
Work all for glory, nought for gain,
And each finds faults, but none complain.
Sir Roderick

Let Sedgwick say how things began,
Defend the old creation plan,
And smash the new one, if he can.
Sir Roderick

Let Buckland set the land to rights,
Find meat and peas, and starch in blights,
And future food in coprolites.
Sir Roderick

Let Agassiz appreciate tails,
And like the virgin old the scales,
And Owen draw the teeth of whales.
Sir Roderick

Take Thou thy orders hard to spell,
And titles more then man can spell.
I wish all such were earned so well.
Sir Roderick