Exhibition sheds light on natural history’s forgotten hero
A collection of rare books and original documents from the life and work of one of natural history’s first pioneers has been brought together by a scientist and historian at the University of Sheffield.
The exhibition, which is part of a research project led by Professor Tim Birkhead from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and Emeritus Professor Mark Greengrass from the Department of History, gives a unique insight into the extraordinary but little known life and work of Francis Willughby – a 17th century natural scientist.
Willughby was a key player in the scientific revolution of the 1650s and 1660s. He is regarded as the first true ornithologist and together with his colleague John Ray, produced the first encyclopaedia of birds in 1678, which is on display at the Sheffield exhibition.
Collections in the exhibition include illustrated examples of Willughby’s printed works, as well as those from his contemporaries and predecessors from the age of New Philosophy and the Scientific Revolution.
Willughby’s books on birds, fish and insects will also be exhibited, as well as specimens that he collected from his travels across Europe with friend and fellow scientist John Ray.
It also features records of Willughby’s interest in the study of language and dialect, which were crucial aids to his study of the natural world across Europe.
Until recently, Francis Willughby has hardly been recognised, partly because he tragically died when he was only 36 years old.
Francis Willughby could be regarded as the Isaac Newton of English 17th century natural history. His pioneering studies of birds and fish were epoch-making publications.
Professor Tim Birkhead
His books on birds, fish and insects were all published after his death in 1672 and are available to view at the University of Sheffield exhibition.
Professor Tim Birkhead, who is also due to publish the book The Wonderful Mr Willughby in 2018, said: “Francis Willughby could be regarded as the Isaac Newton of English 17th century natural history.
“In the 1600s, natural history was a subject where there were more questions than answers. Willughby’s contribution was to apply techniques of close observation of the natural world in order to understand essential differences between species.
“His pioneering studies of birds and fish were epoch-making publications.”
Emeritus Professor Mark Greengrass added: “This exhibition brings to life a little known pioneer in natural history. However, it also demonstrates the value of collaborations between science and the arts and humanities.
“Our research illustrates how scientists and historians can work together to uncover new insights into the past and our understanding of the natural world.”
Anne Horn, Director of Library Service and University Librarian at the University of Sheffield, said: "The University Library develops high-quality exhibitions of our distinctive collections that are accessible to all and benefit the city and the wider community.
“In creating this exhibition, we are delighted to be able to showcase some of our beautiful rare books and unique archival documents and share the experience of them with the public."
The exhibition, which runs at the University’s Western Bank Library until 28 February 2018, also features a collection of rare specimens from the natural world that has been uncovered by the University of Sheffield’s Alfred Denny Museum.
Established in 1905 and named after the University of Sheffield’s first professor of biology, Alfred Denny, the museum’s collections include fossils and materials from extinct animals, which demonstrate the diversity of animal life on Earth.
The Francis Willughby display is the latest in a series of exhibitions to be held at the University’s Western Bank Library. The series also provides opportunities for students at Sheffield to use the skills and knowledge they have developed as part of their degree to help research and curate exhibitions, and to assist with installation and marketing
Francis Willughby’s contribution to natural history will also be celebrated at the University of Sheffield’s Inaugural Librarian’s Lecture, which is being delivered by Professor Tim Birkhead at the University’s Western Bank Library on Friday 8 December 2017 at 6pm.
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