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Agnes Arber, historian of botany and Darwinian sceptic

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AgnesArber, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912. Pp. 408. ISBN 978-1-1080-1671-1. £45.99 (paperback).

AgnesArber, The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954. Pp. xi + 146. ISBN 978-0-5213-1331-5. £14.99 (paperback).

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 September 2019

Vittoria Feola*
University of Padova


This essay aims to reappraise Agnes Arber's contribution to the history of science with reference to her work in the history of botany and biology. Both her first and her last books (Herbals, 1912; The Mind and the Eye, 1954) are classics: the former in the history of botany, the latter in that of biology. As such, they are still cited today, albeit with increasing criticism. Her very last book was rejected by Cambridge University Press because it did not meet the publisher's academic standards – we shall return to it in due course. Despite Kathryn Packer's two essays about Arber's life in context, much remains to be done toward a just appreciation of her research. We need such a reappraisal in order to avoid anachronistic criticisms of her contributions to the historiography of botany, or, on the other hand, uncritical applause for her studies in plant morphology.

Essay Review
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2019 

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1 Mason, Joan, ‘The women fellows’ jubilee’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1995) 49(1), pp. 125140, 129Google Scholar.

2 Packer, Kathryn, ‘A laboratory of one's own: the life and work of Agnes Arber, F.R.S. (1879–1960)’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1997) 51(1), pp. 87104CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Packer, ‘Arber, Agnes’, ODNB, at accessed 16 November 2018.

3 J.M.C., review of Arber, Agnes's Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670, Botanical Gazette (1913) 56(3), p. 232Google Scholar. The author pointed out the usefulness of the text, and, above all, of its pictures. Smith, P.M., review of Agnes Arber's Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670, New Phytologist (1987) 107(2), p. 486Google Scholar. Smith stated: ‘The strength of the work arose from a happy integration of the many kinds of insight possessed by this author’.

4 Laroche, Rebecca, review of Leah Knight's Of Books of Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture, Renaissance Quarterly (2009) 62(4), pp. 13471348CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Laroche calls Knight's book ‘an admirable accomplishment that brings Adrian Johns in dialog with Agnes Arber with wit and seeming ease’ (p. 1348), pointing to Herbals being the book on botanical history in the same way as Adrian John's The Coming of the Book is the bible of book history.

5 Vega, Fernando E., review of Stephen Harris's The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden, Quarterly Review of Biology (2008) 83(3), pp. 319320CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Herbals is quoted on p. 319.

6 Ruane, Christine, ‘Eighteenth-century botanical literature and the origins of an elite Russian gardening community’, in Di Salvo, Maria, Kaiser, Daniel H. and Kivelson, Valerie A. (eds.), Word and Image in Russian History: Essays in Honor of Gary Marker, Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2015, pp. 5570CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Ruane cites Agnes Arber's Herbals on p. 69.

7 Winkler, Mary G. and van Helden, Albert, ‘Representing the heavens and visual astronomy’, Isis (1992) 83(2), pp. 195217CrossRefGoogle Scholar, they cite Arber on p. 202. On the pre-Kempian nature of Arber's Herbals see Kemp, Martin, The Science of Art, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990Google Scholar.

8 Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., ‘The advent of printing and the problem of the Renaissance’, Past & Present (1969) 45, pp. 1989CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On pp. 71, 73 Arber's, Eisenstein citesFrom medieval herbalism to the birth of modern botany’, in Ashworth, E. (ed.), Science, Medicine, and History: Essays … in Honor of Charles Singer, vol. 1, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 317336Google Scholar, as a source on the technical advances by new illustrations in printed herbals.

9 Kusukawa thinks Arber's point unimportant on account of the peculiar kind of argument which Fuchs made about the proper academic study of plants. Kusukawa, Sachiko, ‘Leonhart Fuchs on the importance of pictures’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1997) 58(3), pp. 403427CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; criticism of Arber's Herbals on p. 404.

10 Arber, Agnes, ‘The botanical philosophy of Guy de la Brosse: a study in seventeenth-century thought’, Isis (1913) 1(3), pp. 359369CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arber, , ‘A seventeenth-century naturalist: John Ray’, Isis (1943) 34(4), pp. 319324CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arber, , ‘Robert Sharrock (1630–1684): a precursor of Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712) and exponent of “natural law” in the plant world’, Isis (1960) 51(1), pp. 38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Shapiro, Barbara J., ‘The universities and science in seventeenth century England’, Journal of British Studies (1971) 10(2), pp. 4782CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Shapiro cites Arber on p. 70 for her article on Robert Sharrock as the only source about him, so superseding the DNB and preceding the new ODNB. Hunter, Michael, ‘Early problems in professionalizing scientific research: Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712) and the Royal Society, with an unpublished letter to Henry Oldenburg’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1982) 36(2), pp. 189209Google ScholarPubMed. Hunter cites Arber's work on Grew on p. 204.

12 Goode, Jeanne, review of Agnes Arber's Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670, Brittonia (1988) 40(1), p. 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Goode praised Arber's style above all: ‘her elegant prose demonstrates that precision of thought can result in beauty of language, and that science need not preclude literature’. Tansley, A.G., review of The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form, by Arber, Agnes, New Phytologist (1952) 50(3), pp. 400403, 400Google Scholar: ‘Dr. Agnes Arber is the most distinguished as well as the most erudite contemporary British plant morphologist … a lucid and graceful English which few scientific writers can rival’, indeed her way of weaving her narrative like a literary piece is distinctive, and makes one wonder how much her not possessing an academic post might have freed her style thus.

13 Agnes Arber, ‘The botanical philosophy of Guy de la Brosse’, op. cit. (10), p. 363, on souls. On p. 362 she cites from Wordsworth's Lines Written in Early Spring, April 1798: ‘The budding twigs spread out their fan, To catch the breezy air; And I must think, do all I can, That there was pleasure there’. Earlier in the same poem, Wordsworth had been even more explicit about his Neoplatonic views: ‘To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran’. On p. 363 Arber cites Thomas Carew along similar lines.

14 Ray refused to subscribe to the Act of 1662 that declared the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant to have been an unlawful oath. See as accessed on 5 March 2019. Arber, ‘A seventeenth-century naturalist’, op. cit. (10).

15 Arber, ‘A seventeenth-century naturalist’, op. cit. (10), p. 324.

16 Arber, Agnes, review of B. Hryniewcki's Anton Schneeberger (1530–1581) ein Schüler Konrad Gesners in Polen, New Phytologist (1938) 37(5), p. 480Google Scholar.

17 Smith, Jonathan Z., ‘Morphology and history in Mircea Eliade's “Patterns in Comparative Religion” (1949–1999)’, History of Religions (2000) 1(4), pp. 315331CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The author implies that Arber wrote about Goethe as an intellectual historian would (p. 319). As Peter Gordon has pointed out, ‘perhaps the most classic example (of early intellectual history) is the book by Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (originally given as the William James Lectures at Harvard University in the mid 1930s)’. Peter E. Gordon, ‘What is intellectual history? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field’, at, p. 2, accessed 22 November 2018. Larson, James L., ‘Goethe and Linnaeus’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1967) 28(4), pp. 590596CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On p. 591 Larson cites Arber for her work ‘Goethe's botany’, Chronica Botanica (1946), 10(2), p. 70, in which Arber used the expression ‘intellectual history’ to describe the context of Goethe's early interest in botany from the point of view of his past readings up to the point when he discovered Linnaeus. To infer from such usage in Arber's writings that she was herself an intellectual historian is misleading.

18 Riddle, John M., review of Arber, Agnes and Stearn, William T.'s edition of Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670, Systematic Botany (1988) 13(3), p. 473CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Arber, ‘A seventeenth-century naturalist’, op. cit. (10), p. 324.

20 Packer, ‘Arber, Agnes’, op. cit. (2).

21 Packer, ‘A laboratory of one's own’, op. cit. (2), p. 86.

22 Smith, ‘Morphology and history’, op. cit. (17), p. 319; Arber is cited again on pp. 320, 327.

23 Not all Victorians approached botany in this way; some, like Arber, did, and it is important to bear this in mind when dealing with her methodology. The literature on Victorian science is huge. I refer readers to O'Gorman, Francis (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a preliminary historiographical overview.

24 Bowler, Peter J., El eclipse del darwinismo: Teorías evolucionistas antidarwinistas en las décadas en torno a 1900 (transl. of The Eclipse of Darwinism, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), Barcelona: Editorial Laba, 1985, p. 128Google Scholar.

25 Packer, ‘A laboratory of one's own’, op. cit. (2), p. 88.

26 Whitehead, Raymond, ‘A biologist's philosophy: review of The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint by Agnes Arber’, British Medical Journal (1954) 1(4863), p. 689CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Stiernotte, Alfred P., ‘Scientists as philosophers’, American Scientist (1954) 42(4), pp. 650657Google Scholar. On pp. 652–655 the author discusses Arber in relation to Schrödinger.

28 Whitehead, op. cit. (26), p. 689.

29 Agnes Arber, ‘Spinoza and Boethius’, Isis (1943) 34(5), pp. 399–403.

30 Arber, op. cit. (29), p. 400.

31 Newnham women students could, by this date, obtain a certificate of attendance with course name and final results, which was not yet, however, a proper degree certificate. See, accessed 5 March 2019.

32 Tansley, op. cit. (12).

33 Tansley, op. cit. (12), p. 403.

34 Boulter, Michael, Bloomsbury Scientists: Science and Art in the Wake of Darwin, London: UCL Press, 2017, pp. 8182CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Packer, ‘A laboratory of one's own’, op. cit. (2), pp. 91–98.