In a classic example of the human tendency to weave everything we see into our own narrative, I recently found myself looking at the 18th century research data of botanist John Sibthorp, embodied in his Flora Graeca.

Hellebores officinalis

It all came about through a visit to Oxford, organised as part of the CPD programme organised by the M25 group of libraries. We first had a tour of the famous Bodleian Library’s reading rooms — quite a revelation for a very STEM-focussed non-librarian like me!

After finishing at the Bodleian, we dutifully trooped up Parks Road to the Department of Botany and its pride and joy the Sherardian Library and Herbaria. The Sherardian includes, alongside many classic botanical reference books, an impressive collection of original botanical sketches and specimens dating back centuries (and still used by researchers today).

John Sibthorp was a English botanist, and was Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford, a chair he inherited from his father Dr Humphry Sibthorp in 1784. In the late 1780’s he took a botanical tour of Greece and Cyprus to collect material for a flora of the region, eventually published as the Flora Graeca Sibthorpiana.

The lovely staff at the Sherardian had laid out several original volumes of Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca to inspect, alongside the various source materials:

  • Sibthorp’s diary of his trip to the Mediterranean
  • Original pencil sketches of the flora, painstakingly labelled by Sibthorp’s artist, Ferdinand Bauer, to indicate the precise shade of each part (he used only graphite pencil in the field)
  • The actual specimens collected by Sibthorp, carefully pressed and preserved with mercury
  • The watercolours developed by Bauer on their return to Oxford, based only on the sketches, the fast-fading specimens and his memory (he produced around 900 of these at a rate of roughly one every 1 1/4 days!)

What’s interesting about all this is that Sibthorp was, in reality, a lousy field biologist. His diary, while beginning fairly well, became less and less legible as the trip went on. Most of the specimens, along with Bauer’s sketches, were unlabelled. In fact, the vast majority of the material collected by Sibthorp remained only in his head.

Before publishing, Sibthorp felt he had to return to the Mediterranean for a second time to collect more material, which he duly did. He never returned to Oxford: instead he died of consumption in Bath in 1796, and his work was published posthumously by the University of Oxford only because of some clever manoeuvring by his lawyer and a close friend.

Of course, all of that knowledge, much of his “research data” died with him. The Flora Graeca Sibthorpiana was eventually published, but only after a lot of work to decode his diary and figure out which specimens, sketches and watercolours went together.

There are a number of errors in the final version which would easily have been caught had Sibthorp been alive to edit it. A spider’s web on one of the specimens, lovingly reproduced by Bauer in his watercolour, was misinterpreted by one of the artists producing the plates for printing, and was rendered as fine, downy hairs on the leaf; of course, the actual plant has no such hairs. Reading between the lines, I suspect that the final published work is much poorer for the loss of the information locked up in Sibthorp’s brain.

Would he have been allowed to get away with this in the modern world? Today his trip would have been funded not by the university at the insistence of his professor father, but probably by the BBSRC. That funding would come with a number of conditions, including an expectation that the work be documented, preserved and made available to other researchers to study. Now, though, we’ll never know what we lost when John Sibthorp died.

The Flora Graeca and its associated material still provide valuable information to this day. New analytical techniques allow us to obtain new data from the specimens, many of which are type specimens for their species. All of the associated artwork has been digitised, and low-resolution versions of the watercolours and colour plates are available to use under a Creative Commons license. Although the physical books are no longer routinely used for reference, the high-resolution scans are consulted quite regularly by modern researchers, and work is currently in progress to link together all of the digitised material so it can be searched by species, family, geographical area or a number of other aspects.

It was fascinating to see such rare materials first-hand, and to have them brought to life by such a knowledgeable speaker, and I feel privileged to have had the chance. For anyone interested, you can browse a digital version of the Flora Graeca online.