An image interview with Noah Moxham

Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London
Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background? 

Noah Moxham; historian of science/book historian (the proportion varies according to what precisely I happen to be working on). I’m a postdoc on Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: The social, cultural and economic history of a learned journal 1665-2015, an AHRC-funded project at the University of St Andrews, and I’m interested in the construction, communication and afterlife of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

These are the drawings – strictly speaking in an unknown hand, although we know for a virtual certainty that there are only four possible candidates including Tyson himself – accompanying Edward Tyson’s dissection and anatomical description of a rattlesnake from Virginia. They were made in February 1683 and shown to a meeting of the Royal Society that month, and subsequently published in the Philosophical Transactions (below is the engraving made for that purpose by Michael Burghers in Oxford).

Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).
Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).

Why have you chosen this image?

I like it partly for what it represents – an attempt to treat a creature with all kinds of mythic associations and which had been historically represented in fantastical ways as an anatomical subject. But at the same time the drawing isn’t purely schematic: the upside-down head with the jaws wedged open, the fangs on display, the forked tongue extended, combine – I think deliberately – into a posture of threat. I think it’s meant to open up the subject to the possibility of objective examination but to retain a hint of the dangerous and the exotic.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

It crops up at an important time in the history of the Royal Society, and of scientific publishing. It’s part of a series of anatomical dissections prepared by Tyson under the terms of his new appointment as Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. He and a colleague, the chemist Frederick Slare, were to make sure between them that the Society was to be entertained with at least one chemical or anatomical demonstration per week. The Society’s reputation depended on the interest of the meetings and on the new discoveries it broadcast, or rebroadcast, to the learned world in print, and it was in a sad way on both fronts in late 1682 (largely the fault of the overworked Robert Hooke, who was doubling up as Secretary and curator of experiments, responsible for publishing a periodical, for keeping the Fellows entertained at meetings, for the Society’s record-keeping and correspondence, and still needing to earn a living on the side). But it also signals what I think is a broader effort on the part of the Society and its Fellows to promote serial or systematic work in natural history over the next several years; during that time the Society was directly involved in the production of numerous taxonomic and descriptive works on birds, fishes, British plants, insects, and ‘animals’ (mostly quadrupeds, with the odd fish, bird or cetacean thrown in).

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

We don’t know who drew these, but we know from Tyson’s list of the people who assisted at the dissection, all of whom were known as draughtsmen and illustrators, who the candidates are. They were Henry Hunt, Robert Hooke’s former apprentice and the Society’s Operator (in effect an all-purpose technical assistant); Richard Waller, a friend of Tyson’s and Hooke’s, the son of a painter and subsequently Secretary of the Society; and William Faithorne, a London draughtsman and engraver. In fact we know that they were all involved in producing the drawings of the snake, just not which particular drawings they were responsible for. It’s useful and important to know that this was a collaborative effort; to note Tyson’s determination to thank, and thus make public, the technical skills and assistance that were a necessary part of the process of making scientific knowledge in the early modern period; and to realise that this represents the beginning of a fairly long and productive research collaboration between Tyson and Waller in particular, working together over the next several years to produce a series of illustrated dissections – some published and some not. They worked together on the anatomies of small reptiles, insects and annelids – a green lizard, a caterpillar, and a tapeworm, among others. Their collaboration focussed especially on small creatures, some of which had only been opened up to detailed anatomical study by the advent of the microscope and which called for skilled, fiddly work in dissecting and examining.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

Some of that significance is fairly specific – it comes from the fact that this was intended to be the beginning of a new, sustained and systematic research effort on the part of the Royal Society, one that it attempted to maintain by building it into the Society’s organisational structure. It’s part of a networked process; these drawings (and the anatomical preparations resulting from the dissection) were shown and discussed in meetings before being sent on to Oxford, where they were also examined by the emergent Oxford Philosophical Society. (This is why the drawing was engraved there and not in London). The relationship and the regular exchanges of drawings, objects and ideas between Oxford and London became an important part of the process of making natural knowledge in England during the 1680s.

It’s also worth noting that the engraving, in particular, marks the beginning of a significant upturn in both the frequency with which contributions to the Philosophical Transactions featured engraved illustrations and in their quality. The introduction of more, and better, illustrations is an important step in the development of scientific periodicals, from what were editorially compiled newssheets gathering letter-extracts, scraps of information and new discoveries into a credible site for researchers to advance fully-developed, self-sufficient claims to knowledge.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

The object – in this case the animal – behind the drawing has a history, and one that we can trace to some extent. It was brought from North America for a Virginia Merchant (it was reported to have made the Transatlantic voyage in a basket, and gone four months without eating); it was exhibited to the Royal Society alive, and then dissected once dead. It’s not only a good example of the complexity and reach of the networks that brought objects and information to the attention of the Royal Society and organisations like it, but of the sheer haphazardness of that process. Tyson had previously dissected a porpoise brought ashore by Thames fishermen; and the Royal Society negotiated the purchase of a sick ostrich for Tyson to dissect in January 1683 (possibly one of twenty in the royal menagerie, a gift from the Moroccan ambassador to Charles II).