Godman’s mammals: An Illustrated Natural History

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

I have our rare book cataloger, Tatyana Pakhladzhyan, to thank for introducing me to American Natural History, a delightful three-volume set by John D. Godman (1794-1830), a physician, lecturer, and naturalist. She initially came across it in our S.132 section, which comprises books on zoology, natural history, and mineralogy (The Academy library has a unique classification system – watch the blog for an upcoming series on our staffers’ favorite sections.)   After consulting with our curator, the decision was made to move the book into our Americana collection.

Godman, American Natural History, 1826-1828.

Engraved, added title page in Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828.

Though he is best known as a naturalist, Godman first made a name for himself as a medical man. Godman studied at the University of Maryland Medical School, graduating in 1818. He then moved around Pennsylvania and Maryland for a few years and succeeded in Philadelphia as a lecturer. Godman moved to Cincinnati in 1821, where he briefly taught at the Medical College of Ohio.1,2

In 1822, Godman moved back to Philadelphia. The next year he took over leadership of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy.1 Godman had a lifelong interest in nature, but it is in this period that he began to focus on his natural history studies. He became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute, and American Philosophical Society.2 In 1826, he became the chair of anatomy at the Rutgers Medical College in New York City, but he was ill with tuberculosis and soon resigned. Too sick to lecture, he devoted himself to his literary pursuits and died in 1830. In his later years, he wrote a series of nature essays that were first published in a magazine and then posthumously as a collected work, Rambles of a naturalist.1,2 These essays are considered to be significant yet understudied American nature writings.2

Godman also contributed to medical literature, both as a writer and editor. He published a work on fasciae of the human body, Anatomical Investigations, in 1824. While living in Cincinnati, he edited the short-lived Western Quarterly Report of Medicine, Surgical, and Natural Science, which was the first medical journal published west of the Alleghanies.1,2 He later served on the editorial board of the Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, which was renamed the American Journal of Medical Sciences thanks to his efforts.1

American Natural History is Godman’s effort to document and classify North American mammals. The creatures include wolves, bears, seals, cats, weasels, the domestic dog, and the decidedly American bovine, the bison. The descriptions are accompanied by illustrations depicting the animals with remarkably expressive faces.


Bats from Volume I of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828.

As Godman details in the preface, he started on American Natural History in 1823 and anticipated a speedy year to year and a half of work to publish the first volume. Instead, the first two volumes were published in 1826 and the third followed in 1828. He explains the delay:

“It has been frequently necessary to suspend it for weeks and months, in order to procure certain animals, to observe their habits in captivity, or to make daily visits to the woods and fields for the sake of witnessing their actions in a state of nature. On other occasions we have undertaken considerable journies, in order to ascertain the correctness of statements, or to obtain sight of an individual subject of description.” (pp v-vi).

Godman’s emphasis on observation paid off; his work is noted for its accurate descriptions.2,3


Title page of Harlan’s Fauna Americana, 1825. Click on enlarge.

Looking further down the same shelf, we found another early American book on mammals, Richard Harlan’s Fauna americana: being a description of the mammiferous animals inhabiting North America. This was published just a year before American Natural History. Harlan’s book was based on A. G. Demarest’s Mammologie (1820). Godman openly criticized Harlan for this reason and maintained the superiority of his work. A rivalry developed between the two, with Godman generally considered the victor.2 Wesley C. Coe corroborates this in his article “A Century of Zoology in America.” He regards Harlan’s text as “a compilation of work from European writers…[that] had little value,” while Godman’s is an “illustrated and creditable work.”4 Nevertheless, Fauna americana will soon join American Natural History on the shelves of our Americana collection.

Please enjoy this selection of illustrations from American Natural History:


Common wolf and dusky wolf in Volume I of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


Common and hooded seals from Volume I of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


Canada lynx and wild cat in Volume I of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


Harp seal and walrus in Volume I of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


American gerbillus in Volume II of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


Opossums in Volume II of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828.


Mountain goat and prong-horned antilope in Volume II of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828.


Bison in Volume III of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


Dolphin in Volume III of Godman’s American Natural History, 1826-1828. Click to enlarge.


  1. “Godman, John Davidson.” In Dictionary of American biography, edited by Allen Johnson. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931.
  1. Rosen, Susan A. C. “John D. Godman, MD.” In Early American nature writers: a biographical encyclopedia, edited by Daniel Patterson, Roger Thompson, and J. Scott Bryson. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. Retrieved from http://books.google.com, July 28, 2016.
  1. Faul, Carol. “Godman, John Davidson.” In Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists, edited by Keir B Sterling. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997. Retrieved from http://books.google.com, July 28, 2016.
  1. Coe, Wesley. “A Century of Zoology in America.” The American Journal of Science series 4, 46 (1918): 355-398. Retrieved from http://books.google.com, July 28, 2016.


The Dragons of Aldrovandi

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s St. George’s Day, and what better way to celebrate than with dragons?

Title page of Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo, 1640.

Title page of Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo, 1640. Click to enlarge.

Perhaps the most famous illustrations of dragons in our collection come from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s posthumous Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo (The History of Serpents and Dragons), 1640.

Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was a physician and naturalist from a noble family in Bologna. He received a medical degree from Padua in 1553, and became a full professor at the University of Bologna in 1561.1 Pope Gregory XIII, his cousin, supported his career, appointing him as inspector of drugs and pharmacies and offering monetary aid for his many natural history works, only four of which were published during his lifetime.1,2

Aldrovandi maintained a museum of biological specimens, supervised by Bartolomeo Ambrosini, who shepherded Serpentum et draconum to publication after Aldrovandi’s death.2 The book offers descriptions and engravings of snakes, along with more legendary creatures, some drawn from descriptions given by merchants, others debunking the practice of stitching together animal parts to create “monsters.”3,4 Aldrovandi even claimed to have a dragon in his museum, collected in Bologna in 1572 at the bequest of his cousin, the pope.2

Enjoy the dragons! Click on an image to view the gallery.


1. Ulisse Aldrovandi: Italian Naturalist. Encycl Br. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/13659/Ulisse-Aldrovandi. Accessed April 23, 2015.

2. Findlen P. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1996. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=MdytpHTVf1gC&pgis=1. Accessed April 23, 2015.

3. An “Ethiopian dragon” | Royal Society Picture Library. Available at: https://pictures.royalsociety.org/image-rs-10449. Accessed April 23, 2015.

4. A “dragon” made from fish parts | Royal Society Picture Library. Available at: https://pictures.royalsociety.org/image-rs-10446. Accessed April 23, 2015.

Brazil, Richly Illustrated

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

The Dutch West India Company occupied northeastern Brazil for 30 years, from 1624 to 1654. The first 10 years of occupation financially strained the Company, despite considerable profits made from sugar, Brazil-wood, and occasional loot swiped from Iberian ships.

In 1636, Johann Maurits arrived to govern, tasked with stabilizing the settlement. Under his leadership (which lasted until 1644), the colony thrived.

Among the 46 artists and scholars Maurits hired as his research staff to promote scientific studies in Brazil were physician Willem Piso and astronomer Georg Markgraf, who arrived in 1638. The Historia naturalis Brasiliae, their collaborative illustrated folio volume, in twelve books, was published in 1648. Rich in description of native life, the book contains 446 remarkable woodcuts illustrating local flora and fauna. It comprises the most important early documentation of zoology, botany, and medicine in Brazil. The woodcuts are based on an original collection of paintings and sketches, now lost; many of these original depictions were likely done by Markgraf himself.

The lushly illustrated and very beautiful frontispiece features a European traveler, presumably Dutch, reclining before two natives in a verdant green wood, teeming with wildlife. Even in black and white, the exuberant foliage coupled with the beautiful natives may remind the modern viewer of the Caribbean paintings of Paul Gaugin.

Title page of Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648. Click to enlarge.

Piso wrote the first four books, which deal mainly with diseases native to Brazil and their remedies. The physician, assigned as Maurits’ personal doctor, turns his clinical eye to the ways of the native populations, from whom he makes several important discoveries. He offers a vivid account of a patient in the throes of tetanus, and suggests that the root cause of the ailment may be a minor wound, of the kind that craftspeople incur while working.

Georg Markgraf wrote the remaining eight books, subtitled Historia rerum naturalium Brasiliae and mostly devoted to natural history. The books’ topics range from medical uses of plants; to fish, birds, insects, quadrupeds and reptiles; and to full descriptions of geographic regions and their inhabitants. Images from two of these books, dealing with quadrupeds and with insects, are pictured here.

Markgraf describes the appearance, habits, and environment of each animal depicted. Some of the four-legged creatures pictured have names we still use today: the armadillo, on page 231, would be recognizable as such to a child, as would a short-legged jaguar, on page 235. In other cases, it’s more difficult to link the textual description with the images—the placement of the woodcuts doesn’t always correspond with the text. Is, for example, the shaggy llama on page 244 the Peruvian sheep referenced in the text? Markgraf points out that the creature pictured has a two-toed foot on his back legs, just as a llama does.

Click on an image to enlarge and view the gallery.

Of note in the insects section is the smiling spider on the bottom of 243, his belly almost entirely silver in color, and his mottled brown and black legs described in the text as weaving an exceedingly elegant web.

Spider on page 248 of Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648. Click to enlarge.

Spider on page 248 of Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648. Click to enlarge.


Happy Bird-day, Conrad Gesner (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

Gesner_historiae_v3_1585_395-bMarch 26 marks the birthday of the man behind one of my favorite books in our collection.

Conrad Gesner was born in Zurich in 1516. His family was not wealthy, but thanks to various benefactors he was able to study and travel to Straussburg, Paris, Basel, and elsewhere. He became knowledgeable in many topics, including linguistics, botany, and zoology. He also received a medical degree and was a practicing physician.

His most famous work, Historia Animalium, is a well-illustrated, enormous encyclopedia on animals. The work was influential not only due to the quality and quantity of the woodcuts, but also because of its descriptions. Gesner relied heavily on existing works about animals, but he also included his own observations and enlisted many contributors who provided descriptions and specimens.1,2

Five volumes were published in total, the first in 1551 and the last, posthumously, in 1587. The first volume was on quadrupeds that gave birth to live young, the second on quadrupeds that laid eggs, the third on birds, the fourth on fish and aquatic animals, and the last on serpents. Since it is Gesner’s bird-day (get it?), we’re celebrating with some of his flying friends from Liber III of the Historia Animalium. In our copy, a 1585 edition, the woodcuts are hand-colored and many of the birds’ French names were added in by an early reader.

Click on an image to view the gallery:


1. Locy, William A. The growth of biology. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1925.

2. Locy, William A. Biology and its makers. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.

A Gallery of Gauzy Wings (Item of the Month)

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Plate 8: Ephemera rupestris, the Rock Day Fly. Click to enlarge.

Plate 8: Ephemera rupestris, the rock day fly. Click to enlarge.

As we head into full summer, it seems appropriate to take a look at one of our many natural history books for this item of the month. Anyone who spends time outside at this time of year encounters insect life of many kinds.

While we mostly tend to avoid the bugs we encounter, many 18th century naturalists found them enticing subjects of study. John Hill (1714?-1775), the author of the charming A Decade of Curious Insects (1773), was no exception. Hill was an English apothecary and botanist with frustrated literary and theatrical aspirations. He also had a medical degree from the University of St. Andrews, but whether he actually studied to become a physician or just purchased the degree is unclear. He worked as an apothecary and created and dispensed many herbal remedies. He is most remembered now for his various botanical works, including the British Herbal (1756), a series of popular herbal medicine treatises, and the 26-volume Vegetable System (1759-1775).1,2

Hill_Title Page_watermark

Title page of A Decade of Curious Insects. Click to enlarge.

Hill had a longstanding interest in microscopic observation and revised an English translation of Jan Swammerdam’s heavily illustrated Book of Nature, or the History of Insects in 1758. In the little work that is the subject of this post, however, he made the observations himself, using a lucernal microscope probably much like the one pictured here.

All ten engravings in our copy are hand colored, although the illustrations could also be purchased separately and painted for personal education or enjoyment. As the verso of the title page notes, “Ladies who may chuse to paint these Insects themselves may have Sets of the Cuts on Royal Paper printed pale for that purpose.”

The text provides detailed descriptions of each insect, with particular attention paid to the colors of individual body parts. Sometimes Hill also offers his observations on their habits. Day-Flies, for example, “are an inoffensive race; born to pass thro’ their little stage of being, the prey to a thousand enemies; but hurtful to no creature.”

Plate 7, Ephemera culiciformis, the "white wing'd day fly." Click to enlarge.

Plate 7, Ephemera culiciformis, the “White Wing’d Day Fly.” Click to enlarge.

The Savages, Sphex and Sphex Spirifex, attack other insects with an unmatched intensity. In the case of the Comb-Footed Savage, “The number of other Insects these destroy, is scarce to be conceiv’d ; the mouth of their cave is like a Giant’s of old in romance ; strew’d with the remains of prey… he will kill fifty for a meal.”

Plate 3, Sphex pectinipes, the comb footed savage. Click to enlarge.

Plate 3, Sphex pectinipes, the comb footed savage. Click to enlarge.

A warning, though, that anyone who enjoys inhaling the fragrance of a bouquet of flowers might be in for a dreadful surprise if the either the Straw-Colour’d or the Tawny Chinch lurks inside. According to Hill, a gentleman who suffered from headaches sneezed onto a sheet of paper one day, and a microscopical examination of the “moving particles” revealed them to be Straw-Colour’d Chinches.

Plate 9, Allucita Pallida, "The Straw-colour'd Chinch."

Plate 9, Allucita Pallida, “The Straw-colour’d Chinch.”

Hill noted that both chinches inhabit a variety of popular flowers. “Many have this pain [headache] from the smell of Flowers,” he writes. “Some have been found dead, with quantities of violets, and other Flowers, in their chamber. Physicians have attributed these deaths to the powerful odour of those Flowers; but that they should be owing to these creatures, is much more probable.”

Plate 10, Allucita fulva, the tawny chinch.

Plate 10, Allucita fulva, the tawny chinch.

Perhaps you should think twice the next time you stop to smell the roses, just in case.

The book’s illustrations are too lovely not to share. Here are the remainder (click an image to view the gallery).

1. Barker, G. F. R. (1891). Hill, John (1716?-1775). In Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, volume 26. London: Smith, Elder & Co. Retrieved from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Hill,_John_%281716%3F-1775%29_%28DNB00%29

2. Gerstner, P. A. (1972). Hill, John. In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volume VI. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Of Unicorns on Land and Sea

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

This spring the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The most famous (and probably most beloved) items in the collection are the Unicorn Tapestries, the seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for this elusive animal.  A special exhibit about the unicorn is on display at the Cloisters through August 18th.

Unicorn horns and their purported medicinal uses are described in a variety of early books on drugs and natural history.  One of these, Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux… (Paris, 1694) contains a detailed section on the unicorn, complete with an illustration of the five types of unicorns:

Pomet (1658-1699), a druggist to Louis XIV, also maintained an apothecary shop in Paris.  His Histoire was first translated into English in 1712, and appeared in a second edition in 1725.  The book contains detailed information about plant-based remedies, but also describes the compounding of various cures made from parts of exotic animals, metals, minerals, stones, and a variety of other substances.  In the case of the unicorn, Pomet admits almost immediately that what is sold by apothecaries as unicorn horn comes not from a unicorn at all, but from a fish, the narwhal, whose attributes he describes later in the animal section of the book. Of course, Pomet was wrong to describe the narwhal as a fish, as it is really a species of whale and whales are mammals.

The horns of unicorns and narwhals were believed to be effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons and to cure various unspecified plagues and fevers.  Some people wore the horns as protective amulets, while others collected complete horns as curiosities for display.  While Pomet offers many details about both unicorns and narwhals, he hedges his bets regarding their efficacy, explaining that while some people believe in their worth, “I shall neither authorize nor contradict, having never had sufficient Experience of it.”