The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

November 22, 2016

November 22, 1635

Francis Willughby, (November 22, 1635  to July 3, 1672) has been cited as the first researcher to apply modern scientific methods to the study of birds. His major work, Ornithologiae libri tres (1676) was published after his death by his teacher and colleague John Ray, who shares authorial credit. We relied on a 19th century work, A Memoir of Francis Willughby, Esq. F.R.S. the Naturalist (1838) by Joshua Frederick Denham
to put Willughby in an historical context. Denham is very good at this, though to the modern reader he roams many tangents.

For one thing Denham aspires to explain the intellectual circumstances in which Willughby worked, in order to highlight the nature of his accomplishment.

[Denham says] 
..... it may not be unacceptable to some readers if it be attempted briefly to state what is to be understood by the scientific pursuit of any department of Natural History. Mankind universally have, no doubt, ever been able to distinguish and to describe with more or less accuracy some or other of the individuals of the animal kingdom; every one who has frequently seen such creatures, knowing the difference between a quadruped and a bird, between a bird and a fish, and between individuals of the same order, as between a dog and a cat, a pigeon and a hawk; and it is probable that even written descriptions and drawings of some animals, ...[have] various degrees of truth and similarity...

To elucidate the organizational difficulties faced by early naturalists, specifically with 
what is called by Cicero “the insatiable variety of nature;” Denham quotes another:

...... Alluding to the best classification of quadrupeds extant, [who] observes, “Commencing with the orangutan, the series passes thence to the baboon, the monkeys, the howling apes, the prehensile monkeys, and the bats. So far there is an evident appearance of a natural series, and we begin to think the author is really arranging animals according to the order of organization; but when we have arrived at the end of the first fragment of the chain, and dismissing all idea of continuity, we are to begin on another. Immediately after the bats are placed the hedgehogs, and following them come the bears. Every person possessing the slightest knowledge of these animals must perceive how unnaturally they are combined....that it can exhibit only disjointed parts of the universal frame of being. 

And Denham glances at King Solomon (and certain Victorian university types) who

.....In the account given of that monarch's attainments, in the first Book of Kings, 4th chapter and 33d verse, it is stated,... spake of trees, from the cedar that is on Lebanon, even unto the hyssop, (or moss," rather, the first trace of vegetable germination,) that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes;”... Though it is impossible to say, amid the absence of all means of judging, except isolated assertions like these, what were the real attainments of Solomon in Natural History;.....

And referring to Aristotle

 It is chiefly remarkable as being the first recorded attempt at system among the Gentiles; and thus, its merit would seem to consist in its originality, unless we take heed to the affirmation of some ancient Jews, that Aristotle had derived his knowledge of Natural History from Solomon, having seen some of that monarch's treatises, and which some Jewish writers of antiquity maintained to be extant in their time under an Arabic translation.

Denham summarizes thusly and fairly:

“It is, perhaps, impossible, at the present day, when the investigation of nature is so much facilitated, by the accumulation of the knowledge of ages in every department of physical science—by the commercial relations existing in all parts of the globe—by a tried method of observation, experiment, and induction—and, finally, by the possession of the most ingenious instruments,—to form any adequate idea of the numerous difficulties under which
...[the] ancient naturalist laboured.”

And we arrive at Willughby:

.....Francis Willughby was born at Middleton, in Warwickshire, in the year 1635. He was descended from two ancient families, each of the name of Willughby; namely, from that of Willughby de Eresby in Lincolnshire, a baronial family of high antiquity and historic renown, on his grandfather's side; and from the family of Willughby... of Wollaton in Nottinghamshire, which derived its name from one of its earliest possessions, Willughby on 
the Wolds, in that county, on his grandmother's side. His grandmother's family derived its first prominence from the career of Sir Richard de Willughby, Knight...

Here is some of the outline Willughby made for ornithology.

LAND Fowl [are divided into]

Rapacious diurnal birds. 
Rapacious nocturnal birds. 
Crow kind. 
Woodpecker kind. 
Poultry kind. 
Pigeon kind. 


Small birds with slender bills. 
Small birds with thick and short bills. 


Cloven-footed, such as live about waters and marshes.
The greater kind,
Middle and lesser kinds, with very long bills.
2. With middle sized bills.
3. With short bills.

WATER Fowl that swim.

I. Cloven-footed, some of which may be called fin-toed, because they have lateral appendant membranes on each side of their toes.

II. Whole-footed birds.

1. Such as swim.
2. Such as have four toes, all webbed together.
3. Such as have four toes, but the hind one separate.

And first, such as have narrow and sharp pointed bills.
Such as have narrow, serrate, or toothed bills.

4. Such as have broad bills.

This is an example of the categories Francis Willughby devised through observation and set out, in the 17th century, for others to study and enhance.  And for financial support of his family. Ray is said to have taken seriously his responsibilities to assist the wife and young children Francis Willughby left alone after his early death. 

We cannot be reminded often enough of that “insatiable variety of nature.” 

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