UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Lines of sight : the hand, the eye, the microscope and the knife in Nehemiah Grew's The anatomy of plants (1682) Mackenzie, Pamela


We are come ashore into a new World,” declared seventeenth-century naturalist Nehemiah Grew in the dedication to his 17th century publication ordered by the Royal Society. The world he went on to describe, however, did not include any of the typical features one might expect from a treatise on the exploration of new territory. There were no coastlines there – no mountainous regions, no lakes or valleys. Instead, the place he described consisted of roots, seeds, vessels and membranes. Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants, published in 1682, was one of the first systematic studies of plants using microscopic evidence to observe the biological structure and function of plants. Employing the method of comparative anatomy, not just among species but across taxonomic kingdoms, Grew dissected and investigated the fibrous interiors of trees and flowers and described the movement of fluids through different plants by using models typically reserved for humans and other animals. Accompanying this groundbreaking study was an illustrated program of 83 printed pages of etches and engravings, capturing some of the earliest visualizations and interpretations of the biological functioning of plants, and of the microscopic inner world underlying their growth and reproduction. This dissertation will examine the visual construction of Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants and discuss the relationship between images and knowledge-making in the context of Grew’s natural history investigations at the Royal Society in the late seventeenth century. Given that what Grew was observing through his experiments, dissections, and use of lenses had never been described or represented in detail before, he had to operate with a previously unarticulated conceptual apparatus and visual language in order to make sense of what he saw and to then communicate his findings to others through image and text.

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