This month marks the publication of Opulent Oceans: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (Sterling Signature, 2014), the third in a series showcasing the spectacular holdings of the Rare Book Collection in the Museum Library.
Written by Curator Melanie L. J. Stiassny, the book includes essays about pioneering biologists who studied marine life, and showcases a variety of scientific illustrations that brought new discoveries to a growing audience of experts and laypeople alike.
We recently spoke with Dr. Stiassny, who is Axelrod Research Curator in the Department of Ichthyology, about her experiences researching the book.
Q: Are there any particular favorites among the scientists you feature?
A: One of my favorites is Johann David Schöpf (1752–1800) who was an iconic example of a polymath, adventurer, and humanitarian. He was a medical doctor, as so many of them were, fascinated by natural history, paleontology, weather patterns, botany, geology—everything. His travels through post-Revolutionary America were an amazing feat of courage and discovery.
Q: What surprised you in preparing the book?
A: I could not find a single volume in the Museum’s Rare Book Collection containing the work of a female marine naturalist. I did manage to find a few women doing great stuff but unacknowledged by the scientific community of their time. There was one botanist, William Henry Harvey (1811–1866), who went to great pains to single out and thank the women who had contributed to his work. He is a favorite too!
Q: What was your personal take-away?
A: Tremendous respect for the extraordinary courage and commitment of these early marine explorers. When I am in the Congo, we have satellite phones. We go to a cybercafe once a month. They were out there for years with no communications, suffering diseases, shipwrecks—and think what they did. They traveled, wrote, did so much, and then died at 30 or 40. Schöpf was 48! I’m in awe of what they accomplished. I also felt a camaraderie with their excitement in discovery and drive to understand the natural world. That mission and excitement is very much the same for curators today. The great majority were with big museums. Their names are on the specimen jars; our names are on the jars. There’s remarkable continuity, despite our advanced technology. They had the same driving force. The same camping out under the stars.
Read the full Q&A on the Museum blog, and pick up your own copy of Opulent Oceans!