The Darwin Memorial Lecture 2016

Darwin Memorial Lecture, 14th February 2016

‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and his influence on Charles Darwin’

Every year over the last eight years we have enjoyed better and better Darwin Memorial lectures with increasingly brilliant lecturers. This year’s lecture continued to raise the bar. Andrea Wulf was magnificently flawless as a lecturer and brought to us a detailed and passionate case for the recognition in Britain of Alexander von Humboldt as one of the great geniuses of human history, on a par with Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare in terms of knowledge, profound thoughts and achievements. As she pointed out he is well known and most highly regarded in the USA, the whole of Latin America and in France and German. In the nineteenth century he was equally regarded by the British but 20th century conflicts changed the way the British regarded German achievements

Andrea clearly demonstrated Humboldt’s impact on thinkers and scientists in the nineteenth century and most importantly on the young Charles Darwin. I was equally taken by Humboldt’s Naturgemalde – his explanation of the interrelationships between climate, geology, soils, altitude and latitude – when I was 18 years old. Humboldt’s drawing of the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador with these relationships clearly shown, revealed to me the interrelationships that hold nature and our Earth together – but this realisation did not, as in the case of Charles Darwin, send me on a voyage round the world. Fortunately for humankind Darwin did undertake his voyage on the Beagle and made that great leap forward in knowledge and understanding, -‘The Origin of Species – evolution through natural selection’ – which gave us the true picture of why and how we are here.

Andrea Wulf’s lecture was beautifully illustrated with visual examples of Humboldt’s work and by documents, some of them intensively annotated by the young Darwin – a conversation between two great minds frozen in time.

Rather disappointing for Darwin was his subsequent meeting with Humboldt when the older man talked non-stop for three hours and Darwin could not get a word in!

Undoubtedly, said Andrea Wulf, Alexander von Humboldt was the father of ecology and the Gaea concept, over one hundred years before its recognition by modern scientists.  Humboldt spelled out clearly the damage that man was doing and continues to do to his home, the Earth. There is no doubt that the greatest threat to man is man. Humboldt showed that even in the beginning of the 19th Century, through colonisation, exploitation, monoculture and the growth in the number of people . Man was placing in jeopardy the future environment on which future humans would have to rely in order to survive. Darwin always reminds us that as new species develop, existing species disappear.

Thank you Andrea Wulf for a stimulating and masterful lecture.

The Oculist’s Stamp

The oculist’s stamp – in the Roman Gallery at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery

This was found at Wroxeter in 1808 during ploughing on farmland not far from the Baths Basilica.
It is one of a number of similar stamps that have turned up at archaeological sites throughout Britain, including Cirencester, Colchester, Cambridge and Caistor St. Edmunds.

Eye infections appear to have been very common in Roman Britain and eye doctors were clearly prescribing treatment.These small objects, made of stone and with inscriptions engraved in reverse, were used by doctors to stamp details of the medication for their patients onto a cake of ointment.

Here we have the prescription issued by a Roman doctor, which reads as follows:
This is abbreviated and in full reads:
Tib(eri) Cl(audi) M…… dialiba(num) ad omne vit(ium) o(culorum) ex o(vo).
Translated it means:  “Tiberius Claudius M…’s frankincense for every defect of the eyes (to be used) with egg”.

The doctor’s last name is missing. The fact that he has three names shows that he is a Roman citizen, practising in Britain. His first two names are those of the Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius. One of his ancestors was probably a slave, who was freed and given citizenship in the reign of either Tiberius or Claudius.

Margaret Thorpe (extract from 2015 FSMAG Newsletter)