The art in science

How important were scientific illustrations?
22 January 2019

Interview with 

Katie Reinhart, Sietske Fransen, Making Visible Project, CRASSH


Scientific Illustrations have always been vital to science’s history: Charles Darwin was a scientific illustrator, and so was author Beatrix Potter. Adam Murphy took a trip to the Whipple Library in Cambridge to speak to Katie Reinhart and Sietske Fransen from the Making Visible project, to learn about this kind of science...

Adam - Today we have photos, films, and even virtual reality to show us our science. But these things weren't always about before then. Scientists had to use incredibly, perfectly detailed drawings of the things they wanted to discuss. I took a trip to the Whipple Library in Cambridge to learn about this from Katie Reinhart and Sietske Fransen. First, Katie told me about the overlap between science and art.

Katie - I can't give you sort of exact numbers but there are instances of both. So some of the fellows like Robert Hooke were themselves made many images. We know that Robert Hooke apprenticed with Peter Lely the painter. So many of the things in the archives he, made himself, many of the drawings, he did. But many fellows didn't. We also know that they worked with craftsmen and artists who made images for them, particularly for their published works because making wood blocks or making engraved images, cutting a copper plate for an engraved image was a specialised skill so there you'd need to go to someone who had the training to do that.

Adam - But how important was art to these scientists? Sietske Fransen told me more.

Sietske - It was part of a gentleman's education to learn to draw and that is not only for science but also to understanding art. So we know from handbooks in the 17th century that people were told to look at engravings of famous portraits or other paintings and copy them to learn to see, and that is of course a very important skill also within science.

Adam - Then we dived into the library archive, starting with a book by Robert Hooke contemporary, and rival of Isaac Newton. And the book of his that I was shown was very, very interesting to this history lover.

Katie - This is a first edition from 1665 of the Micrographia, which was Hooke's book about the things he saw through the microscope.

Adam - And one of the things you see is this. Is this a flea, a giant image of a flea?

Katie - Absolutely. It's exactly as you say it's a giant flea.

Adam - How did this image come about? How did he actually get this?

Sietske - So we know that Robert Hooke was a draughtsman, as we already said so he probably drew the image himself and then had copper plate cutters, or copper plate engravers to make the actual image for the publication. And one really important thing to realise is, looking at this image which is almost two A4 pages in current size, it is a compound image. So if you look through a microscope, through a 17th century microscope you can never see an entire flea like this. So it means you had to look several times, he had to move the flea, and see through the lens and then all these things that he saw then connect into one image.

Adam - Images today are commonplace in science. What was so revolutionary about these ones?

Sietske - I think the revolutionary thing that everyone has seen a flea before because they were really more common than now. So they were jumping on us and on the animals around. But no one had ever seen them so close by. So they didn't realise that there were hairs on the legs, for example.

Adam - Other than drawing pictures of tiny things. Where else was this so important?

Katie - One thing that we've really found in this research we've been doing, is that images were used in every discipline of science. So we see images of astronomical observations, of stars and comets, of things seen through the telescope. We see ones of human anatomy, around dissections, around kidney and bladder stones that were cut out of people, sometimes before, sometimes after they died. We see them in what we would now call physics or chemistry because we see drawings of instruments that were invented or designed, sometimes that actually were created and used, different air pumps and sometimes ones that weren't, kind of, fictional instruments or ones that never came to fruition that they didn't work, or were never created. And on top of that we also see many many mathematical diagrams, kind of, the proofs you made in geometry and algebra when you were in school those type of mathematical proofs and diagrams we see all the time.

Adam - And the time of scientific illustration was an important one for women who were often excluded from other aspects of science.

Sietske - There were women artists working and we have several examples within the royal society again. So for example the two daughters of Martin Lister, helped or made many of the images for his publications. So there are definitely women involved and we know even less about the women than we do know about than the male scientists. But it is possible that some of the artist of whom we don't know the name were actually women.

Katie - Yeah I think that's a good point about both women scientists and women image makers that in this period of time much of that labor is still uncredited.

So we don't know, just as we don't know who did the engravings for many of these images. Those unknown people could be women and women we know, kind of, disproportionately weren't given credit always for the work they did.


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