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Art and science interweave in a tale of two talented sisters and their polymath father

Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters

Anna Marie Roos
Bodleian Library/University of Oxford
224 pp.
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One can’t help but feel a twinge of concern for the patients of the 17th- century physician and naturalist Martin Lister. As Anna Marie Roos, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Lincoln, makes abundantly clear in Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters, not only did he run a successful medical practice in York and later London, the man was a prodigious multitasker and intellectual omnivore.

In between blood-letting and prescribing herbal remedies, he managed to pioneer the study of arachnology (making him “the first spider man”); author 60 scientific papers and 14 books, including a well-regarded travel guide to Paris, a book on Roman cookery, and one on the chemistry of spa waters; sustain a voluminous correspondence with other prominent scientists (more than 1000 letters survive); and, with the help of his daughters, produce the four-volume, beautifully illustrated Historiae Conchyliorum (1685–1692), a seminal work on mollusks and shells, which he collected thanks to a global network of naturalists, explorers, and traders.

There didn’t seem to be a corner of the world that didn’t interest Lister or provide fodder for study. Stranded by storms on the English coast en route to France for his medical studies, he took note of the site-specific size of pebbles on the beach. Recuperating in Bordeaux after the long voyage, he sorted out the effects of soil and climate on the different wines produced in the region.

The evidence of Lister’s quicksilver mind is appropriately reflected in Roos’s own proclivity for polymathic passion in details offered the reader. A reference to limning—a type of watercolor illustration—prompts an explanation of the construction of brushes used in that art (sable or squirrel hair mounted in quills.) A discussion of copperplate engraving comes complete with the optimal metallic composition of the plates (too much zinc makes the plate difficult to engrave; pure copper, on the other hand, is so soft that it wears out easily.)

But the intriguing core of the book lies in the relationship between Lister and his young daughters, Anna and Susanna, who created more than 1000 exquisite engravings for the Historiae. Roos’s richly illustrated book illuminates the interwoven dynamic of art and science in the 17th century and teases out a hidden piece of the women-in-science story, making it tempting to suggest a transposition of the title to Anna and Susanna Lister and Their Remarkable Father.

Roos, author of a previous Lister biography, Web of Nature: Martin Lister, was able to flesh out the story of the sisters’ work thanks to her rediscovery of the Historiae copperplates, once thought to be lost. (One longs for a more expansive narrative detailing the sleuthing involved in their rediscovery.)

Publication of the Historiae Conchyliorum was literally an in-house enterprise encouraged by economic expediency. Printers were wary of taking on the costly, demanding process of printing illustrated books on natural history. By handling the production himself, Lister sidestepped the expensive commercial route and ensured his own rigorous oversight of the process.

Lister, an accomplished artist himself, taught his daughters not just how to engrave but how to see. He directed them to observe and record the subtle differences in structures, as annotations on some of the drawings affirm. Susanna and Anna, Roos posits, were among the first and youngest women to use a microscope, as evidenced by their detailed drawing of specimens. The domestic nature of the enterprise is underlined by the charming fact that sewing pins were used to affix the illustrations to decorative paper borders in the process of assembling the volumes. (Roos’s scholarship benefited from the discovery of four uncataloged boxes of Lister ephemera that included the pins.)

Martin Lister’s name endures in a genus of orchid and, fittingly, several mollusks. Not so Susanna and Anna. After their mother died in 1695, their life was put on hold as they followed convention and cared for their father until his remarriage three years later. Then, they seem to vanish, particularly Anna, who is even unmentioned in her father’s will; she may, Roos speculates, have married against his wishes. Although they may have disappeared from history, their work, fortunately, did not.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance writer and former editor at large at National Geographic based in Washington, DC.