Study of a hammerhead shark from Historia Piscium
Study of a hammerhead shark from Historia Piscium

A hammerhead shark’s baleful stare. A longnose batfish’s fierce armor and delicate fins. These masterpieces of expression and scientific detail fill the pages of the world’s first ichthyology book, De Historia Piscium, published in 1686 by the Royal Society.

Botanical study of white wheat
Botanical study of white wheat by Richard Waller, perhaps meant to illustrate a plant catalogue by John Ray, one of the authors of Historia Piscium

Then as now, it was a pricey proposition to produce an image-heavy book. Historia Piscium cleaned out the Royal Society’s coffers so thoroughly that the academy couldn’t afford to publish Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica–nowadays usually referred to as the Principia and considered the foundation of modern physics.

Luckily for modern physics, the Society’s clerk Edmond Halley (later of Comet fame) took a fancy to Newton’s treatise and financed its publication himself the following year. No doubt appreciative of his service but unable even to pay his salary, the Royal Society offered to pay Halley in copies of Historia Piscium. (So says Bill Bryson.)

It could be tempting to call the experience, as indeed the Royal Society recently did, a “fishy blunder.” Certainly it was financially untenable. But although it doesn’t share the modern fame of the Principia, Historia Piscium was a groundbreaking work in its own way.

‘Head of Otegoowgoow, Son of a New Zealand Chief...’
‘Head of Otegoowgoow, Son of a New Zealand Chief...’ from A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty's ship, The Endeavour, by Sydney Parkinson

This was fifty years before Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae and more than a hundred and fifty before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Without the former’s organized system of naming animals or the latter’s understanding of relationships between them, author-illustrators Francis Willughby and John Ray still managed to produce careful scientific classification and beautifully detailed illustrations of hundreds of fish species. Historia Piscium remained the definitive work on fish biology for over a hundred years.

Many of these fish plates can be viewed at the Royal Society’s new online picture library, which also contains botanical studies, the first drawings from a microscope, and sketches from the voyages of Captain Cook. The Society intends to continue adding images, so the library may eventually feature all of Willughby’s exquisitely rendered fish.

Unfortunately for those who want to read the text as well as look at the pictures, Historia Piscium costs $7.50 to access for 30 days. (Perhaps the publisher is still struggling to recoup its 1686 losses.) By contrast, the Principia is freely and abundantly available online, no doubt due to its famous place in the history of science. Newton’s masterpiece can hardly be overrated, but need we therefore relegate Historia Piscium to obscurity or absurdity? Let us also celebrate the work of Willughby and Ray–an ambitious project of biological classification, and a triumph of scientific aesthetics.

Longnose batfish from Historia Piscium
Longnose batfish from Historia Piscium
When Scientists Were Artists: The Royal Society’s Picture Library Goes Digital 21 June,2012Danna Staaf


Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist, science writer, novelist, artist, and educator. She holds a PhD in Squid Babies from Stanford and a BA in Biology from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and blogs at Science 2.0. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.

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