Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017

I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.

About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.

Frans Post, Landscape of Pernambuco, 1637-44, Museu nacional de Belas Artes, Rio. Wikimedia

The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.

Map of Brazil from 17th century
Map of Dutch Brazil, ca 1639

According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife.  Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands.  Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.

I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo.  I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil.  I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.

Post View of Olinda 1662
Frans Post, View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662. Rijksmuseum

Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679.  Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.

Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay.  Here is one, of a jaguar.   The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.

Post cat
Frans Post, Jaguar, ca. 1637-1644. Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.  Sorry I missed it!

Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola.  With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678).  Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna.  Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s.  Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).

L0001205 F. Hernandez, 1517-1587, Rerum Medicarum..., 1649
Hernandez, Thesaurus, 1651

Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.

Marcgraf and Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648

Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.

Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso.  I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist).  I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.


Vesalius in Wonderland

eu040001Last month, artist Lisa Temple-Cox had a residency at Oregon State for two weeks as part of the Horning Series on “The Material Body” that I organized this academic year. Among the numerous talks and demonstrations she gave was this collaborative talk with art historian Glenn Harcourt on a joint project they are calling “Vesalius in Wonderland.” During the talk, Glenn describes the project while Lisa does a life-size copy of one of Vesalius’s illustrations. A video of the talk is here.

Accompanying the talk was a copy of the new English translation of Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s landmark 1543 work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.  The translation is full, folio size, beautifully printed with detailed reproductions of the original illustrations.  You can see some samples here.  The Horning Endowment funded the purchase of this volume by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU, where the talk took place.

The biologist in the ashram (with a walk-on by Harpo Marx)

12 September 2015

A week ago I drove up to Portland with my grad student Elizabeth to interview the biologist John Tyler Bonner.

John Tyler Bonner, photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2013
John Tyler Bonner, photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2013

We were both amused, or bemused, by the declaration of the Institutional Review Board at Oregon State that the interview did not qualify as research (and therefore did not need IRB approval, a good thing) and wondered what we would learn.  As readers of this blog know, I’m a historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and my knowledge of the history of modern biology is pretty sketchy.  Elizabeth’s interest in Bonner’s work was related to her research on the British biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), who also worked in natural history, classics, and a few other things.  Bonner had abridged Thompson’s enormous 1917 study On_Growth_and_FormOn Growth and Form in the early 1960s – the abridgement is still in print – and Elizabeth wanted to ask him about that.  I knew that Bonner was an important evolutionary and developmental biologist, that he was 95, and that he lived in an ashram in Portland.  I was not sure what to expect.

The ashram is a large rambling house in Laurelhurst in Northeast Portland and offers yoga classes.  One of Bonner’s sons lives there, and he moved there from Princeton a few years ago. We made our way around the building to the entrance amid people carrying yoga mats and Dr. Bonner came down and met us.  We took off our shoes andHuxley followed him upstairs to a bright and cozy little apartment, with the Spy caricature of  Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley hanging in the bathroom and a complete set of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin novels on the bookshelves.  I relaxed.  I pointed to the O’Brien.  John (as he insisted we call him) laughed. “I’ve read them all, four times, and I want to read them again.  But the last time was only two years ago, so I’ll have to wait a bit, and I’m not sure I’ll make it.”  He is straightforward about the debilities of age, and is hard of hearing.  My experience with my equally deaf father –as well as my Italian habit of talking with my hands – helped to move our conversation along.

John made us coffee, and we sat around a coffee table scattered with issues of Science and Nature and talked with him for over an hour about his life, about Thompson, and about biology.  John has published a lot of scientific papers – he had just submitted another one when we spoke with him — but unlike most scientists he has also written close to twenty books, including an bonner autobioautobiography that gives a wonderful overview of twentieth-century biology.  His most recent book, published two years ago, was Randomness in Evolution. bonner randomness_Three themes appeared over and over in our talk: the joy of good writing; the importance of good teachers; and why biologists need to keep the “big picture” in view.

John Bonner grew up in a literary and cultivated family; his father aspired to be an opera singer and later wrote for the New Yorker, and family friends included Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kauffmann, as well as Harpo Marx.1376887-harpo_marx_5  I can’t help but think his appreciation and talent for writing came from this milieu; it seems much more likely that he would have become a writer, or a musician like his brother Anthony, than a biologist.  But in fact he became both a writer and a biologist.

In his autobiography, John recalled that his father gave him a copy of The Science of Life in the early 1930s to lure him away from a narrow preoccupation with bird-watching.  Written by H.G. Wells, his son G.P. Wells, and Julian Huxley, The Science of Life was an enormous (1500 pages) and enormously popular summary of all that was known about biology ca. 1930, including evolution, development, the germ theory of disease, and psychology.wells science of life  Written with H.G. Wells’s characteristic verve and clarity, it includes a chapter debunking theories of telepathy and clairvoyance that were popular in the 1920s.  It also closes with the somewhat radical view for 1930 that learning is not something that one does only as a child but something that continues throughout one’s life.

The other book that proved to be a major influence was Thompson’s On Growth and Form, which John, then a graduate student, read shortly after the appearance of a second edition in 1942.  John recalled that he was “overwhelmed” by it; all the young developmental biologists who read it in the 1940s loved it, he said, “but I loved it the most,” for its “magic combination of language and ideas.”  Another enormous book – the 1942 edition was over 1100 pages – On Growth and Form touched on a number of topics, including the relationship between development and size that John later explored in Why Size Matters.bonner size Yet it is the “beauty of his prose” that John now remembers.

slime mold
Slime mold, Wikimedia commons

Whenever I wonder (which I do, often) if my teaching makes any difference, I will now refer to John’s account – both in our interview and in his autobiography – of the immense influence on him of William “Cap” Weston, who taught botany at Harvard (John’s assessments in his autobiography of some of his other teachers at Harvard are pretty scathing).  Weston introduced John Bonner to the lower organisms with which he made his career, and supervised his Ph.D. work on slime molds.  Why slime molds?  Their unique life cycle made them ideal organisms to study development in the laboratory.  They are single-celled amoebae (his book on them is titled The Social Amoebae)  that feed first, then join together as a multicellular organism to reproduce.  John recalled that, when he was a graduate student, the eminent embryologist Ross Harrison complimented him on his choice of organism. In John Bonner’s lab, slime molds became a prime instrument to explore the science of development. (In case you still think they’re boring, look at this nifty little video).

When John Bonner came to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1947 he was the eleventh member of a department of biology (“all men,” he said with a grimace).  The molecular revolution sparked by the structure of DNA was still several years in the future.  John told us he believed something had been lost in the transition to molecular explanations, and that perhaps reductionism was reaching its limit.  “I’ve always been a big picture person,” he said, returning again to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a quintessential big picture man.  The attraction of biology, he said, is in “the ensemble of things.”  I am glad I had the chance to meet John Tyler Bonner: a delightful man, a brilliant scientist, and a great conversationalist.