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Scientific institutions

European science provided Australia with its first scientists and the scientific model on which settlement science would be based. But what was the world of science like in Europe at this time?

Enlightenment enthusiasm for reason and science had drawn its inspiration from classical times most notably the mathematics and observations of the ancient Greeks like Pythagorus, Euclid, Aristarchus and Aristotle. The religious worldview of the Middle Ages was now being challenged and as science began to build on the genius of the past through people like Galileo, Copernicus and Newton. As Europeans looked outward to the world, science was entering new territory. At the time when a tiny British settlement was established on the opposite side of the world as the the Colony of New South Wales, Europe could proudly vaunt its scientific academies, museums, universities, and botanic gardens often with an architecture appropriate to their high civic status.

British Museum

The British Museum
Opened in 1759 the Neo-classical architecture evokes the measured classical principles that characterised the Enlightenment
Neo-classical architecture was popular for civic buildings in the early years of Australian settlementCourtesy Wikimedia Commons

Wealth from the colonies was feeding through British society and this was combined with a process of cultural democritisation. Interest in the natural world was slowly passing from the world of patronage and privilege to the lower orders of society, to the not-so-wealthy in the beginnings of a transition from aristocracy to meritocracy, from country estate to urban residence with the steady excision of land from Church and Crown. Mechanics institutes had been introduced as learning centres for the ‘improvement’ of working people although this was still primarily a male world.

Discoveries & the Scientific Revolution

Globalising intellectual and consumer interests of the Renaissance evolved into a full Scientific Revolution (c. 1550-1700) based on precise time measurement, enhanced astronomical observation, selective animal and plant breeding, improved navigational instrumentation, cartography, and shipbuilding, chemical substance analysis, and the mathematics of curves. These had followed the ground-breaking introduction of the microscope, telescope, pendulum clock, balance-spring watch, compass, astrolabe, air pump, and mathematics of the magnet – all facilitated by written and printed communication through transport systems that went faster and further than ever before.[20]

Communication channels between scientists across Europe were busier than ever before as full advantage was taken of printed books and papers. Letters were passed back and forth in unprecedented quantity. After a period of science dominated by physics the biological world, and especially the world of plants, was receiving scientific and public attention as never before.

Historically the Scientific Revolution is a rather uncertain entity, not even solidly established like the Industrial Revolution or First World War and perhaps only important as an adjunct to the nineteenth century technology. Wootton characterises it as ‘a successful rebellion of the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers, and of both against the authority of theologians’ (Wootton p. 24) But there is ample evidence to suggest it had the greatest social impact since the Neolithic Revolution. It created the sense of progress and advancement that we all expect and accept today.

Much of the sense of excitement had been generated by Columbus’s discovery of the New World since the geographical map of the known world in 1490 was little different from that known to Ptolemy in about 150 CE. Experimental science had advanced with the work of astronomer William Gilbert (1544 – 1603), the astronomical observations of Galileo (1564-1642), Copernicus (1473-1543), and Kepler (1571-1630). The new confidence resulted in a debunking of Aristotle’s most outlandish claims about biology (such as spontaneous generation) and the notions of a supralunary heaven and sublunary world of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. With the publication of Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620) of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) came a willingness to rise above the superstition of the Middle Ages, to criticise the Greco-Roman world and develop a progressive experimental science that could advance beyond that of the ancients.

Cabinets, collections, & curiosities

Although new ideas were never far from the surface, devotees were firmly engaged with the physical world as much as the conceptual one being curious about new lands, their peoples and strange new plants and animals. Households proudly displayed natures wonders and curiosities in ‘cabinets’ which looked like glass museum display cases. Families competed with one-another in their collections of shells, minerals, stuffed animals, birds’ eggs, bones, pressed plants, pinned butterflies and insects. To improve understanding of nature’s treasures there were was the telescope, thermometer and microscope (the compound microscope was greatly improved), along with the encyclopaedic tomes full of descriptions. Revolving geographic globes were popular along with maps produced by the world’s great cartographers like the Roman Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90–168 CE) whose Geographia described what was known of the world at the time of the Roman empire, his map of the world published in the late 15th century, Abraham Ortelius (?) creator of the first modern atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) in 1570 a Dutchman who speculated on continental drift, Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) who, in 1569, produced the first world map based on a projection that showed sailing paths with a constant bearing as straight lines and he was the first person to refer to a compendium of maps as an ‘atlas’. Another device of the times was the orrery, a physical and sometimes mechanical representation of the Earth, Sun, Moon and orbiting planets.

In London and Haarlem (Holland) scientific societies were private but in Paris, St Petersburg and Berlin they were state institutions that offered pensions and expected royal patronage. Natural history, which was more or less equivalent to today’s studies of botany, zoology, chemistry and geology, was in its prime. It had not taken much for natural history museums, herbaria and other scientific establishments to grow out of the tradition of the cabinets of curiosities accumulated by the wealthy dilettante collectors of the Enlightenment. New specialized biological disciplines and their research programs were about to emerge – like physiology, palaeontology, and comparative anatomy along with their research programs all built on the old natural history collections, now brought out of dusty storage public education programs as well as the new research.

By the early 19th century Europe’s natural historians were on the way to an inventory of the world’s organisms as lists of animals and numerous regional floras were written. Immediate commercial advantage was noted of any useful new species and all explorers, geologists, surveyors, clergy, botanists, travellers and colonial settlers were encouraged to contribute specimens to their museums and join the throng of people enjoying the new discoveries of natural science.

There was now a network of botanic gardens, museums and other scientifically based public institutions all adding to the an outward-looking sense of interconnection, vibrancy and progress of colonialism all evident through the new railways, roads, shipping routes, improved printing, and telegraph, not to mention the active correspondence maintained by the scientific community.


The West inherited the museum from the classical world and its antecedents, the Greek word Mouseion referring to a building or temple dedicated to the Greek mythological divinities, the Muses, mainspring of the arts. Pre-eminent in the classical world was the Musaeum and library built by Ptolemy I in Alexandria in about 280 BCE probably based on the model of Plato’s philosophical Academy and research centre at Athens.

Museums in the modern world have been interpreted in many ways: psychologically the possession of natural objects from around the world and from all ages, all named and categorised, locates the observer in space and time with the objects now framed, named and tamed and therefore more familiar and unthreatening; scientifically they are expressions of human curiosity and a means of acquiring, displaying, and distributing knowledge about the natural world. As a product of the Western world they hark back to the stored trophies of military campaigns and other exploration that we know existed in the ancient world and in this they were an early demonstration of power and politics, commerce and empire. At the time of the British empire, especially in the nineteenth century, natural history was benefitting from the haul of finds resulting from European imperial expansion into Africa, India and Canada. Communication in general was improving so with more efficient travel and postal services scientists maintained an active correspondence.

Biology, and botany in particular, were thriving on the biological discoveries and rewards of colonial expansion as private collectors were sent out and trade in the new plants brought in handsome profits. Shells had commanded high prices in the 1750s and plants were now doing the same. Traders dealing from ports on the Ile de France and Canton, for example, exploited this fascination by preparing portable herbaria and seed collections of local plants to sell as souvenirs.[1] The biological trophies needed scientific description, cataloguing and storage in European scientific museums and herbaria and had benefitted from the binomial system of nomenclature promoted by Swedish naturalist Linnaeus which replaced cumbersome descriptive phrases with simple two-word names: this allowed the efficient listing the many new curiosities. To this day Australian scientists work on these first collections either still housed in Europe or on specimens returned to Australia from the same institutions.

Museums in the English-speaking world date from the seventeenth century with a rapid improvement in communication from the 1750s on – not only through faster and safer transport and travel, but through improved postal services and the exchange of ideas and information disseminated though a more efficient printing process. In the course of the 18th century they not only became larger and more numerous but their function was changing. Cabinets provoked a sense of wonder and curiosity, often displaying the rare and unexpected including new ethnographic artefacts from around the world. Emphasis was changing to education and explanations for the relationships, form and function of natural history specimens. Outstanding private collections were placed in public hands to become a source of civic pride both in towns and capital cities, most notably Paris and London. Donations to the public estate became more acceptable than to private collections. Museum technology especially ways of preserving specimens like birds was improving. With catalogues and an admission fee it was possible for smaller museums to survive. Scientific staff would occasionally act as guides to the public and give talks but lack of resources to curate collections sometimes led to their demise. The Museums Act was passed in 1845 and this permitted the levy of a halfpenny in townships of populations more than 10,000 as seed funding for a museum.

A closely related developing area akin to the museum was that of the trade and technology exhibition which was an excellent opportunity for countries to strut the burgeoning technology underlying ingenuity and its potential for industrial and economic power – a tradition that was to culminate in the Great Exhibition at the Joseph Paxton-designed Crystal Palace London in 1851 which served as a model for similar exhibitions in its colonies. This exhibition more than any other captured the public imagination stimulating the formation of museums in the provinces and colonies and the initiation of shared travelling exhibitions and specimen exchange.

Universities, academies and societies

Universities received less acclaim in this period than before or since as they were essentially institutions that passed on accepted knowledge rather than generating new findings. In France Montpelier was the leading medical school and in Germany Halle was one of Europe’s leading universities in the early 18th century and later overtaken by Göttingen which encouraged professorial research and publication and a tutorial mode of learning rather than just lectures.[2] They were largely the domain of wealthy males seeking careers in medicine, law or the Church. Science was taught in the arts and medical faculties. Edinburgh’s University achieved acclaim mid-century, supplanting Leiden for its outstanding medical work, the University museum and botanic garden being reformed by John Hope (1725-1786) Women were not permitted in the various academies, societies and universities, the few that were educated being part of a leisured class that was self-taught or tutored, participation only being gained by working in association with a male relative although there were some translated scientific papers, became illustrators, or managed notable gardens (wealthy women like the duchess of Beaufort, Empress Josephine etc.). There was an expectation that they would be familiar with the herbal and healing aspects of plants along with simple collecting and identification to improve their minds.

New knowledge, experiment and research were more the province of the societies and academies that sprang up at this time. Membership of at least one society was required for any self-respecting male scientist: it was through the academies and societies that it was possible to access libraries and collections, meet like-minded people, and develop establish extensive communication networks and prestige. More influential academies would manage observatories, advise government on scientific and technological matters, sponsor scientific expeditions, and offer financial rewards, prizes and medals for the solution of technological and scientific problems (e.g. an efficient way of calculating longitude) as, for example, in the use of astronomy and mathematics for navigation. Two institutions were to act as both pioneers and exemplars.

Royal Society & Royal Academy

In England the Royal Society of London (Royal Society), the first scientific society in Europe, was founded in 1660 under royal patronage following the Restoration of Charles II. Membership was open to non-scientists with no limit on numbers, early interest coming from philosophers and mathematicians with interest in natural history only emerging later as magnifying glasses and the simple microscope came into use. Publication of Philosophical Transactions began in 1665. Robert Brown was to dedicate time attempting reform by increasing the proportion of working scientists relative to the gentlemanly dilettantes as it was inevitably associated with the institutions of the wealthy and privileged. In the course of the century membership increased from 131 to 531.[3] Interests of the society in its early days followed those of the president so, for example, Newton’s presidency from 1703 to 1727 emphasised experimental science, while presidencies of Sloane (1727-41) and Banks (1778-1820) were more concerned with natural history.

Other societies

In France the Académie Royale des Sciences was founded in 1666 and differed in creating a hierarchy within its limited membership, and the French state provided salaries. With the Revolution came inevitable resentment of the aristocratic and monarchical culture of the academy which was closed in 1793 to be resurrected in 1815 under its original name, but never attaining the same prestige.[4]

Later, based on these models was the third-leading scientific society in Prussia, the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften of Berlin founded by Liebniz in 1700, Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1705, followed by Imperial Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg (1724) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (1739) with Linnaeus as its first president, these being the most prestigious academies of the 18th century although there was a proliferation of societies and other scientific institutions over the next 50 years with a lively exchange of correspondence and papers which led mid-century to shared projects such as expeditions – although the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars dampened enthusiasm and closed some academies for a while. Scottish intellectuals had a strong influence at this time, especially the philosophers, geologists and medics. An early philosophical Society was replaced in 1783 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh publishing its own Transactions in 1788.[, Societe d’Histoire Naturelle] By the early 19th century St Petersburg had lost contact with Western institutions with the anti-intellectual Czar Paul 1 and a distrust of the French Revolution.

Influential works included and in Britain coal mining and canal building had stimulated geological interest that culminated in the formation of the Geological Society of London in 1807 and the geological map of Britain published by William Smith in 1815 (and given financial support by Banks).

Linnean Society

Of the societies devoted specifically to natural history it was the Linnean Society, founded in 1788, the year of Australian settlement, which excelled under the leadership of physician botanist James Smith. Smith had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1786 and was President of the Linnean Society until his death in 1828, being knighted in 1814. Through the 1790s papers on Australian natural history were published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society and Australian popularity was running high.

When Linnaeus died his natural history specimens, including an extensive herbarium, had passed to his son Carl (jr) who had not shared his father’s botanical genius. Banks, wishing to keep the collections in competent hands, had offered to buy the collection but Carl (jr) had refused, the specimens passing to him. In 1783 Banks was notified that Carl had died unexpectedly and that the entire collection was available for 1,000 guineas. As Linnaeus had used these collections for the reclassification of the natural world they were of inestimable value as ‘type’ specimens and in much demand from, amongst others, Catherine the Great of Russia, botanists in Denmark, Holland, France, Switzerland, and Sweden itself where, among others, King Gustav, had expressed an interest.

As luck would have it the letter from Linnaeus’s executors arrived on Banks’s doorstep on a morning when he was at breakfast entertaining the young James Smith who had just finished studying medicine and natural history at the University of Edinburgh. Fortuitously Smith’s father was a wealthy wool merchant. It was one of the few occasions when Banks himself was in a difficult financial position, as wool was no longer being exported to America. Following Banks’s recommendation Smith took up the offer, leasing an apartment at Paradise Row near the Chelsea Physic garden as a place to house the specimens. These arrived 10 months later in 26 chests with Banks and ?Solander soon arriving to eagerly help Smith unpack.[6]

Horticultural historian Andrea Wulf[11] observes astutely that:

‘With Linnaeus’s collection in Chelsea, Banks’s collection at Soho Square, Sloane’s bequest at the British Museum and the living plant entrepôt at Kew, London had become the botanic centre of the world. Nowhere else was there such an accumulation of foreign plants – dried and living – as well as of botanical knowledge. The purchase of Linnaeus’s collection, one of Smith’s friends wrote, ‘most decidedly sets Britain above all other nations in the Botanical Empire’

Linnaeus’s natural history collection consisted of about 20,000 herbarium specimens, about 3,000 insects, 1,500 shells, myriad mineral specimens, 2,500–3,000 books and all of Linnaeus’s correspondence and manuscripts.[12] It was four years after this acquisition that the Linnean Society was formed with Smith as President. The society’s publication Transactions …, which was first published in 1791, provided a valuable voice for natural history, with an emphasis on botany. In France a Linnean Society had been founded a year before the one in Britain but it was strongly discouraged by influential Academicians who had always preferred the French system of plant classification and jealously guarded their control over scientific affairs, recognizing only the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpelier (est. 1706) among the provincial societies.[8]

Scientific communication

In the general population of Europe literacy was still very low at this time so the use of printed matter was limited to the educated few.


The first of a series of learned academic and scientific journals was the Journal des Sçavans (later Journal des Savants) published in Paris in January 1665, followed by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published in London in March of the same year. In the early 18th century the Philosophical Transactions was the only scientific periodical published on a regular (quarterly) basis while in Paris the Académie Royale des Sciences published its Memoirs but at irregular intervals. To increase appeal and improve communication between scientific societies some of the new periodicals included not only scientific papers but reviews, translations and other items of general interest and exchange of publications between societies became common practice. During the Enlightenment periodical increased in numbers and size, mostly in the second half of the century, and Latin was progressively abandoned for the native language: publications also covered a wider range of topics, reflecting the increasing specialization and advent of new disciplines that was taking place. Over this period there was also an increasing use of objective third person language including more experimental detail in preference to the former letter-like (epistolary) communications.


Frontispiece of Diderot’s Encyclopédie – 1772
The figure in the centre represents truth — surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the Enlightenment)
The two figures on the right are reason and Philosophy, tearing the veil from Truth
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Dictionaries and encyclopaedias

With the rapid increase in scientific information, especially natural history, came the need to provide syntheses of known information, especially for the increasingly affluent wider public, and this resulted in compendia of various kinds, especially dictionary-glossaries and encyclopaedias, which provided some relief from the theological texts that had tended to dominate the publishing market. It still seemed almost possible at this time to distil in one source the entirety of the world’s accumulated knowledge. Outstanding examples include the French Dictionnaire Universel of 1690 and several produced by the English in the early 18th century including the Cyclopaedia (1728) of Ephraim Chambers (a line of publications still in production), then mid-century there was the massive German 64 volume Grosses Universal-Lexicon (1732–1750) of bookseller and publisher Johann Zedler.

Certainly the most respected midcentury compendium was the Encyclopédie (1751–1780) of Denis Diderot and Rond d’Alembert, influential French philosophes attempting to give all knowledge to the world, this work eventually taking 28 years to produce, extending to 35 volumes and regarded by some as the engine of the Enlightenment. Such books were not necessarily well received because it was transferring the foundations of knowledge from the Church to scientists, intelligentsia, and the man in the street. Publication allowed experiments to be repeated by anyone with the appropriate equipment, making knowledge a more democratic preserve. The encyclopaedia also treated the skills of artisans with great respect, which had not been the case before. Many books of the day were banned and the Pope ordered that the Encyclopédie be burned and Diderot spent 3 months in gaol for what were regarded as seditious entries on religion and natural law.

Other highly successful compilations include the ?42 volume Histoire Naturelle from 1749 until after his death in 1788 of Buffon and the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771) which emulated similar but earlier German compendia.

Popularization of science

With the 18th century decline in courts, natural history moved into the salons, coffee houses and provincial academies. The garden displays of royalty and patricians were also declining with the rise of public institutions. Books were writted in the vernacular.

As more lowly social classes increased in wealth there was an improvement in literacy and literature became accessibility to a much wider, though still small, public. Certainly one reason for popularizing science was to banish ignorance and superstition among the ‘lower’ classes.[9] A coffeehouse culture developed where, for the price of a coffee, it was possible to join in scientific and learned discussions, or attend lectures and lessons given by the cognoscenti. In London the Royal Institution was founded in 1799 as a venue for popular lectures. Some scientists were able to supplement meagre incomes by giving public lectures, sometimes dramatized to add entertainment value, or used to sell scientific equipment. This was one means for women to gain access to scientific information as they were barred from the male-dominated scientific societies with rationality considered a male trait absent in most women – a view held by Rousseau and Kant.[10] Key scientific works like Newton’s Principia Mathematica, originally published Latin, was presented in a form that could be digested by general readers; scientific commentaries appeared written in a non-technical and engaging style. Botanists were aware that the dry emphasis on description and classification needed supplementing with the new and exciting work in anatomy, physiology and pathology, not to mention applied fields of botany including horticulture, agronomy and agriculture.


The revelation of these biological curiosities was brought to European society in several ways. There was the travelogue as exemplified by the accounts of foreign lands by William Dampier and Labillardière in his Relation …; there were the lists that were the published lists and catalogues produced by nurseries and both public and private gardens; and for the connoisseur there were illustrated magazines carrying for each species a simple name, description and historical account of introduction. The availability of books in the native tongue adorned with beautiful illustrations, often made or copied from sketches made at the site of collection, and accompanied by simple names was a new experience for a public eager to consume real-life epic literature. French magistrate Charles de Brosses published the popular Histoire des navigations aux terres australe … in 1756.

Transition to the 19th century

(add Romanticism)

Emergence of Humboldtian science

Science in the early 19th century was strongly influenced by what had become known as ‘Baconian Science’ – essentially an increased precision involving precise measurement and mathematical law. It is part of a period in which natural science emerged from natural history.[17] There was now some disdain for the phase of collecting and describing that had gone before. At the forefront of this thinking was the much-travelled, internationally renowned and lionised German Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) who described himself as terrestrial physicist. His travels entailed an array of sophisticated scientific apparatus that would have daunted many botanists, but not Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) who joined him on the South American travels which included climbing Chimborazo and observing the remains of Inca civilization in Peru, the 30-volume report on these travels being his major contribution to science. Darwin took Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial Regions of the New Continent (transl. 1814-1829) with him on the HMS Beagle, sending Humboldt observations of atmospheric refraction made by Captain Fitzroy thus advancing science and ‘progress’. In an 1805 essay Humboldt distinguished between a botaniste nomenclateur and a botaniste physicien, the latter with higher philosophical objectives.[18] He had in mind a period of study for plant geography that would investigate the climatic and other physical factors that influenced plant (and animal) distribution. His non-religious and holistic approach to science supported by detailed instrumental observations. His ideas were expounded in his five-volume Kosmos (1845) which attempted to unify the various branches of science in an approach that became known as ‘Humboldtian Science’ which gave rise to the disciplines of biogeography and comparative climatology.


In the 1750s the persistent problem of longitude measurement was resolved through the improvement of the marine chronometer by John Harrison and when combined with sextant readings facilitated production of accurate marine charts.


For a timeline of learned societies see here.

1851 – The first general legislation to do wih ‘noxious weeds’ enacted in South Australia
1856 – The Victorian ‘Thistle Bill’ as ‘noxious weeds’ legislation, followed by legislation for blackberry in 1874 and St John’s Wort in 1892
1856 – The Systems Garden now situated behind Melbourne University Botany Department was designed and established by Frederick McCoy
1861 – The Acclimatization Society of Victoria established
1922 – The first professional course in plant pathology given by Waterhouse in Sydney[21]
1927 – CSIR Division of Economic Botany established

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The costly circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519 to 1522 had created in European eyes the first tangible physical boundaries. Once these boundaries were established it could only be a matter of time before the halting process of unification would would begin. While the Roman Empire had been based around the Mediterranean the British Empire was truly global incorporating first the Atlantic then the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Perhaps surprisingly this was a political and economic strategy that had been combined with science and especially botany. So began a global inventory of the natural world and a reinvigorated period of globalisation. Natural philosopher William Whewell (1794–1866) captured this contraction of time and space, of progress and integration, in the following words:

‘… by annihilating the space which separates different nations, we produce a spectacle in which is also annihilated the time which separates one stage of a nation’s progress from another’.[19]

Through this period we see the increasing democratization of museums and academia, partly as a need for funding to maintain their activities.

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