The foundation and history of the Society for the History of Natural History

The Society was founded in 1936 by a small group of librarians, bibliographers and naturalists who mostly worked in the London area either at or near the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The Museum contains the national collection of natural history specimens representing all disciplines and is of international standing.

The staff of the Museum included scientists working in all aspects of the life and earth sciences and librarians who cared for the collections of books and manuscripts in the six major libraries within the Museum. The prime role of the scientists working in the science departments was concerned with the identification and the correct naming of the specimens in the collections, or being added to the collections. Such identification demanded the use of some of the many thousands of books, and sometimes manuscripts and original artwork, in the libraries to allow comparisons between published descriptions and newly acquired specimens.

In the 1930s the Museum’s staff contained a number of distinguished naturalists whose experience made them authorities in their respective fields, as well as librarians and bibliographers who were international figures. The members of these groups had been schooled in the disciplines of taxonomy (the correct naming of organisms) and an appreciation of published literature. The fortunate association of bibliographers and librarians such as C. Davis Sherborn, B.B. Woodward, and B.H. Soulsby with distinguished naturalists like John Ramsbottom, W.N. Edwards and N.D. Riley who all brought an appreciation and love of books inspired the formation of the Society as The Society for the Bibliography of Natural History.

The professional interest of the naturalists was mainly concerned with the issue of dating publications because both botanists and zoologists are governed by the publication of scientific names in a valid latinized form with a description of the organism. The names of plants date from the first edition of the Species Plantarum (1753) by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, and for animals Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (tenth edition) of 1758. These two fundamental works are the starting points of biological nomenclature. These requirements lead to one of the early interests of the Society, namely the establishment of the date of publication of published works in which new scientific names were proposed. This topic was central to the interests of Sherborn whose Index animalium …, published between 1902 and 1932 comprised an index to all the names of animals published between 1758 and 1850 and consisted of ten volumes comprising 9,500 octavo pages. Sherborn deservedly was elected as the first President of the Society.

At the establishment of the Society the emphasis on the dating of books which contained scientific names set one of the interests of the Society and its members which has continued until the present, although with decreasing emphasis. Another topic was defining the issue of what constitutes publication and this has recurred as a point for discussion over the years until very recently with development of modern technology enabling the replication of multiple identical copies both quickly and cheaply. Establishing the dates of publication of books in natural history in which scientific names were published still continues to be of interest partly because so many books in natural history were published in parts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (with the title page issued with the last part to be printed and thus possibly bearing a date some time after the date when the names were actually available). Also in this period many natural history books were published with very small print runs and were genuinely very rare books. In response to this rarity the Society in its early days published a number of facsimile reprints of rare books so that naturalists and librarians were able to purchase copies of these papers and consult the original texts in facsimile.

However, the principal object of the Society was the establishment of a serial publication which would publish papers devoted to natural history bibliography in its widest sense. In the early days the first part of each volume was devoted in whole or in part to a catalogue of papers concerning the dates of publication of natural history books, which was the result of a planned series arising from a “card index” of such papers which would be submitted by members for publication. The timing of the first publication of The Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History in October 1936 was unfortunate, because within three years, much of the world was plunged into war and shortages of paper amongst other commodities posed a threat to its survival. Despite this the production of 12 parts of the Journal totalling 504 pages completing the first volume was a remarkable achievement by February 1943 (although the publication rate was much less in the next few years).

During the post-war period the Society’s activities continued at a low level but by the 1970s there were a number of new members in the Society and a general eagerness to regenerate its activities. The Society had always been active in producing facsimiles of rare works which were published in the Journal and this activity on a larger scale seemed to offer an under-exploited field and it was resolved to produce larger works by facsimile. The first free-standing facsimile produced was the Essai sur la geographie des plantes by Alexander von Humboldt (1807) reproduced in 1959 which was unfortunately issued without the introductory essay by W.T. Stearn which appeared in the Journal of October 1960. This facsimile was produced partly using a small sum of money left to the Society by C.D. Sherborn, its first President. For this reason the series of facsimiles were named the Sherborn Fund Facsimiles. Subsequent facsimiles in the series were the Zoological researches, and illustrations; or natural history of nondescript or imperfectly known animals by John Vaughan Thompson (1828-1834) in 1968, and Questions about the breeding of animals by Charles Darwin (1840) and Brief instructions for making observations in all parts of the world by John Woodward (1696) both published in 1973. No further facsimiles were published and the series is now discontinued. Between the initial planning to publish facsimile reproductions in 1936 and their production by the Society, the world of facsimile publication had totally changed and the Society lacked the financial resources to tackle the rarer and larger works which were mostly what remained to be reproduced.

The name both of the Society and its journal came under scrutiny on the grounds that both names were inconveniently long and unwieldy in a period when a more modern image was sought for the purposes of publishing the Society’s objects. This difficulty was discussed informally and formally and, in October 1979, it was decided to rename the Society The Society for the History of Natural History and to adopt a new title for the journal – the Archives of natural history. At first the newly titled journal was published as two parts a year, but later it became a regular three parts* with about 424 pages annually.

Papers published in the Archives cover all disciplines in the earth and life sciences and are concerned with the publishing history of many well-known books and the lives of naturalists and their books. Historical studies have largely replaced bibliography, although some papers still concentrate on the date of publication of scarce books. All papers are refereed.

The Society has an international membership and regularly arranges meetings and conferences. Where there are sufficient members to attract an audience, informal local meetings are held. International conferences are arranged every two years on a particular theme; they have mostly been held in the United Kingdom and the annual business meeting is part of the agenda. 

Alwyne Wheeler



* Archives of natural history has been issued in two parts since October 2003

Further accounts of the Society's past can be found in the following articles:

  • Alwyne Wheeler, The Society for the Bibliography of Natural History. An Account of its Formation and Activities. Citation Information. Archives of Natural History . Volume 33, Page 365-367. DOI 10.3366/anh.2006.33.2.365
  • William T. Stearn, Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, later the Society for the History of Natural History, 1936–1985. A quinquagenary record. Citation Information. Archives of natural history. Volume 34, Page 379-396. DOI 10.3366/anh.2007.34.2.379

For more information on the Society's publications, click here.

The Society for the History of Natural History (Registered Charity No.2103555 in England and Wales)