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A Jewel of a Book

USC College historian Deborah Harkness sheds light on an exceptional coterie of unheralded naturalists in Elizabethan London — trailblazers for the Scientific Revolution.

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 1, 2008

A Jewel of a Book

 

If not for her “blissful ignorance” and dogged determination, Deborah Harkness’ book taking a unique look at the Scientific Revolution would never have been written.

After 10 years of research, writing the 349-page The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007) was the easy part.

The professor of history in USC College had just completed a book about controversial natural philosopher John Dee when she examined her list of books written by Dee’s English contemporaries.

“I looked at this list of books and I thought, ‘Who are all these people?’ ” Harkness recalled. “I had never heard of most of them and I became very interested. … As I started reading their books, I realized that they were referring to each other, referring to other books, and suddenly a whole new world started taking shape.”

She decided to go to the British Museum and libraries in London and learn more about these unknown 16th century scientists.

“In blissful ignorance, I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to go to London and start finding out about these people,’ ” she said. “People who knew London history better than I do said I was crazy. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’ ”

After her arrival in London, she quickly understood why her friends had called her crazy. To glean any knowledge about these long-dead scientists, she had to research piles and piles of barber-surgeon, ironmonger and other guild records. She had to visit various locations to track down wills that had survived, as well as tax and property records. One name led to another and another.

Her list of 300 Elizabethan Londoners who had contributed to the sciences soon grew to 1,800. Then came the painstaking task of deciding whom to leave on the cutting-room floor.

“So this book was born out of my lack of knowledge of archives,” she said with a laugh. “And my sense that I could find this information if I just looked hard enough for it — that’s what made this book possible. If I understood what I was taking on, I would never have started.”

The result of her skill and tenacity is a vivid book that closely examines colorful scientific communities whose members set the stage for the Scientific Revolution — a period during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe when modern science was born.

Early reviews have been exceptional: “[Harkness’] research is revelatory and her taste for the offbeat enthralling,” wrote The New Yorker.

“Harkness has written a truly wonderful book, deeply researched, full of original material, and exhilarating to read,” enthused The Times of London.

The Times touted the book’s “grown-up realism,” likely because Harkness wasn’t afraid to compare fathers of modern science such as Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon to unknown contemporaries and include those unknowns as key contributors.

Harkness tells the story of early modern science by first taking the reader to London’s Lime Street, an enormously diverse, square-mile community where naturalists lived and shared their discoveries.

She then tracks the stories of everyday barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, gardeners, botanists, clockmakers and alchemists who lived in London and experimented in the sciences.

In her digging, Harkness has unearthed some of Bacon’s contemporaries who were seriously interested in science, but whom historians had neglected until now. The adage “publish or perish” explains why many of these men and women became obscure, Harkness said. But publishing wasn’t a priority in this close-knit community.

“If you live in a city that is one square mile and everyone knows you’re the bug man, then whether or not you publish your manuscript is not that crucial,” Harkness said. “Nobody would have made the mistake in 1597 that the famous Elizabethan botanist John Gerard was also your go-to man for bugs.”

Harkness’ discoveries include Hugh Plat, who fought to establish a scientific basis for examining recurring social phenomena such as famine and starvation. Harkness said the Scientific Revolution isn’t only about a few enlightened and forward-thinking scientists who made the big breakthroughs.

“Newton gets huge amounts of credit for the very good reason that he made the major scientific breakthrough in universal gravitation,” Harkness said before paraphrasing a famous quote. “But Newton himself said, ‘If I have seen further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.’ ”

Newton also stood on the shoulders of largely unstudied and unknown scientists such as Plat, Harkness argues — a bold assertion that Science implied would surely spur debate.

“The myth of Baconian exceptionalism will further erode” as a result of the book, the review stated, “and perhaps most important, the importance of practices to the category of science will increasingly be subject to detailed scrutiny.”

Harkness acknowledged that her book may rankle some traditionalists.

“Showing the ways in which important little changes were taking place even before those magical moments like Newton’s development of the universal law of gravitation is going to be controversial,” she said. “Not everyone is going to like the fact that I think Hugh Plat deserves as much attention as Bacon.”

But she did not only seek to change people’s beliefs by sharing the stories of everyday scientists in Elizabethan London.

“These are stories that deserve to be told,” she said. “They shed light on how people figured out what science should be before there were any set of rules, regulations or protocols. For me, I could suddenly see the small steps that led to the big breakthroughs.”