Thirty early modern women in science

For Women’s History month, I tweeted about a different early modern woman in science every day. Here’s a storify of those tweets. I thought it might be useful, in the longer format of a blog post, to provide some references for those wishing to find out more about these women. This is not intended as an exhaustive bibliography, but just a starting point. For some of these women, there are very useful books and/or articles and/or websites. For others, there are only brief mentions in primary or secondary sources. This is perhaps idiosyncratic, as I frequently list the book or article in which I first encountered an early modern woman scientist. This is also my opportunity to acknowledge many of my wonderful women (and some men) colleagues who have uncovered the lives of these early modern women, and provided me with material for teaching more inclusive courses on the history of science and medicine. On the subject of inclusivity, I note that I included only two women of color, and that’s something I’d like to do better next time I try to compose a list of women scientists in the past.

1. Maria Cunitz (1610-64)
Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century (2000).

Robert Hatch, The Cunitz Page

Maria Cunitz, Kepler’s Defender

2. Sophie Brahe (1556-1643)

John Christianson, On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 258-264.

3. Caterina Sforza (1463-1509)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 1.

4. Teodora Danti (c 1498–c 1573)

Lione Pascoli’s Vite de Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Perugini (Lives of Perugian Painters, Sculptors and Architects) (1732), pp. 75-79. This has been translated in Julia K. Dabbs (ed.), Life stories of women artists, 1550–1800: an anthology (Burlington, 2009), pp. 209-12, with introductory material by Dabbs on pp. 205-8.

5. Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway and Killultagh (1631-79)

Project Vox: Conway

6. Maria Sybilla Merian

Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), ch. 5.

The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful

7. Anna Zieglerin (c. 1550–75)

Tara E. Nummedal,  “Alchemical Reproduction and the Career of Anna Maria Zieglerin” Ambix, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Jul. 2001) Pp. 56-68.

Tara Nummedal, “Anna Zieglerin’s Alchemical Revelations” in Alisha Rankin and Elaine Leong (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science (Ashgate, 2011).

[Also Nummedal’s forthcoming book on Anna Zieglerin]

8. Jane Sharp (17th century)

Jane Sharp; Elaine Hobby, The Midwives Book: or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (Oxford, 1999)

Elaine Hobby, “Secrets of the Female Sex: Jane Sharp, the female reproductive body, and early modern midwifery manuals” Women’s Writing 8.2 (2001): 201-12.

Katharine Phelps Walsh, “Marketing Midwives in Seventeenth-Century London: A Re-examination of Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book,Gender & History Vol. 26 No. 2 August 2014, pp. 223-241. (With thanks to Helen King for sending me this reference.)

9. Margaret Cavendish (1623-73)

Project Vox

10. Anna of Saxony (1532-85)

Alisha Rankin, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), ch. 4.

11. Susanna Wright (1697–1784)

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale, 2016), pp. 158-9, 161, 308.

12. Sor Maria de Jesus de Agreda (1602-65)

13. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-99) 

Massimo Mazzotti, The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

14. Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615-91)

Michelle Marie DiMeo, Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615-91): science and medicine in a seventeenth-century Englishwoman’s writing. (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2009).

15. Denise Cavellat

Cavellat printing family

16. Ellen Cotes

17. Maria Winkelmann Kirch (1670-1720)

Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was

18. Rachel Ruysch (1664-1740)

Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, 2000

19. Grand Duchess Christina

Michael H. Shank, “Setting the Stage: Galileo in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Rome”  in Ernan McMullin (ed.), The Church and Galileo, pp. 57-87.

Shank notes: “Although historians of science pay little attention to her, she helped set the stage for at least three turning points in [Galileo’s] life” (p. 63)

20. Margherita Sarrocchi (1560-1617)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 4.

21. Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49)

Project Vox

22. Paula de Eguiluz (16th century)

Pablo F. Gómez, “Incommensurable Epistemologies? The Atlantic Geography of Healing in the Early Modern Caribbean” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 44 (2014), 95-107.

Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

23. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) 

Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey

24. Laura Bassi (1711 –78)

Paula Findlen, “Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The strategies of Laura Bassi” in History of Women In the Sciences: Readings from Isis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

25. Camilla Erculiani (c.1540-c. 1590)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 4.

26. Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714 –74)

Rebecca Messbarger, The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Morandi and Manzolini’s Anatomical Waxworks

27. Elisabeth Paulsdatter (16th century)

John Christianson, On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 330-332.

28. Nurbanu Sultan (ca 1525 – 83)

29. Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578) 

Alisha Rankin, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), ch. 3.

Writing Recipes Down

30. Lady Frances Catchmay (d. 1629)

The Catchmay Project


The Astrolabe


Guest Post by HSCI 3013.002 students Bryce Bonnet, Lynn Bui and Cera Vu

What is an Astrolabe?

The astrolabe is a complex inclinometer with several functions. With a history that dates back more than two thousand years, the astrolabe has been utilized consistently by astronomers and navigators since antiquity. There are several types of astrolabe with varying levels of complexity, including the Mariner’s Astrolabe, the Quadrant Astrolabe, and the Planispheric Astrolabe.

The functions of the astrolabe (depending on which variation is being used) are:

  • Identify stars or planets
  • Calculate the position of celestial objects 
  • Determine local latitude given the local time and vice versa
  • Measure the time of the year
  • Compute what part of the sky is visible
  • Predict celestial events such as eclipses
  • Triangulate current location
  • Be used at night or day

Brief History of the Astrolabe

Astronomy and astrology were popular historical pastimes for all social classes. Without smart phones, social media, or computers to pass the time, looking up to the heavens proved to be common social activity. The astrolabe was initially designed to satisfy this demand; in the right hands, any star visible to the naked eye could be examined and analyzed.

A scientific breakthrough from the Islamic scientific world to the Europeans, the astrolabe was seen in the hands of scientists, elites, and monarchs alike from the Byzantine Empire to Muslim Spain. First used in ancient Greece before being extensively developed during the Islamic Golden Age by Arabian astronomers, the astrolabe became the key astronomical instrument of the western middle ages.

No one is sure who invented the astrolabe. A likely candidate is the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who worked on the Isle of Rhodes around 150 BCE, but it evolved in complexity and usefulness over many centuries. We do know that the mathematical theory which serves as the foundation for the stereographic projection used in the planispheric astrolabe was provided in the second century CE, by Ptolemy, in his “Planisphaerium“(celestial plane).


Early History

  • Hipparchus first described the stereographic projection used for an astrolabe around 150 BCE
  • Around 150 CE Ptolemy described an instrument very similar to an astrolabe
  • By the 9th century, the Islamic world was producing exceptionally designed astrolabes and sophisticated texts over their functions.

Medieval History

  • Hermann Contractus of Reichenau’s De utilitatibus astrolabii was one of the first texts on the astrolabe composed in Latin
  • Between the 11th and 13th centuries, most astrolabes in Europe were imported from Muslim Spain
  • In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Treatise on the astrolabe that became the first ‘technical manual’ of its kind to be written in English (instead of Latin, Greek or Arabic); based off of Masha’allah’s Compositio et operatio astrolabii (The construction and use of the astrolabe).

Early Modern History

  • George Hartmann established a workshop in Nuremberg and quickly became one of the most important makers in early 16th century
  • By the end of the 16th century, astrolabes were made for emperors, monarchs, and princes, becoming a symbol of status and power
  • In the 17th century, production of astrolabes rapidly declined as it was replaced by other instruments, such as the sextant.

Properties of the Astrolabe

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There are many components of an astrolabe. This instrument is suspended by a cord that is connected to a protruding part, called a throne. The throne’s aesthetic variety reflects the time and location of its maker. Connected to the throne is a large circular body, called the mater. This body has a raised outer rim, called the limb, which commonly indicates the hours of the day and a degree scale. The front of the mater has a hollowed depression (womb) that is used to hold the plate, which is engraved with several circles and lines that specify a particular location. Sitting on top of the plate is a skeletal disc that symbolizes the ecliptic ring as well as several prominent starts. There are two pointers, one in the front (rule), and one in the back (alidade). The rule facilitates the reading of the astrolabe. The alidade is a measuring tool that measures the angle and altitude of buildings, stars, and the sun.

How to use the Astrolabe


AstroCrafts: How to Make An Astrolabe

Using An Astrolabe to Tell the Time

The Way to the Stars: Build Your Own Astrolabe

J.D. North, “The Astrolabe” Scientific American (1973)

Darin Hayton, ePamphlet Guide to the Astrolabe

Armillary Sphere


A guest post by HSCI 3013.002 students Danya Majeed, James Reeves and Crystal Neill.


Imagine you are an astronomer in medieval times.  You have studied Aristotelian physics.  You wholeheartedly agree with Ptolemy’s description of the universe and have thoroughly digested the precepts laid out in his book, Almagest, detailing the position of the earth and the celestial bodies in the cosmos.  But you, as an astronomer and aspiring astrologer, would like to use this knowledge for practical benefit.  You want to devise a practical model of the theories laid forth by Ptolemy and therefore have decided to build a model of the universe based on his precise mathematical calculations.

This is how the Armillary Sphere was born.

Ptolemy himself provides instructions on how to build this model of the cosmos in Chapter 1, Book 5 of his opus magnum, Almagest.  Who, among astronomers, was known to have actually built and used this instrument?

We know of three observatories in the Islamic world which used the armillary sphere.  In the 13th century, the Maragha Observatory (modern-day Iran) used an armillary sphere.  In the 15th century, the Samarkand Observatory (modern-day Uzbekistand) used an armillary sphere.  In the 16th century, the Istanbul Observatory (modern-day Turkey) used an armillary sphere.

In the European world, the construction of the armillary sphere was taken from models found in Andalus (modern-day Spain).  In the 16th century, well-known European astronomer Tycho Brahe constructed and used several armillary spheres.  He built them of steel, brass, and wood held together by screws, in order to avoid warping materials which would render the instrument inaccurate.  His armillary spheres were quite large, over 1.5 meters in diameter, and very accurate in their readings.  Our good friend Copernicus also constructed armillary spheres in this time period, and gave rise to ideas which would lead to a different take on the instrument altogether.

In the 17th century, Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the cosmos had gained enough traction for armillary spheres to be constructed with the sun in the center instead of the Earth.  These spheres also became more complex and astronomically accurate with the addition of rings for newly discovered planets, including Uranus and Neptune.


Francesco de Mura, “Allegory of Arts (painted between circa 1747 and circa 1750). Wikimedia Commons.

In the 18th century, the armillary sphere became a symbol of the well-read scholar.  It can be found in paintings, manuscripts, and sculptures, representing the highly regarded and sought after science of astronomy as well as hinting at the polished and intellectual inclinations of the subject of the artwork.  Books such as ‘The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Astronomy’ were published, describing the function of the armillary sphere as part of a leisurely educational curriculum for the upper class.  The paintings “Allegory of the Arts” by Franscesco de Mura and A Young Princess by Jan Gossaert feature an armillary sphere, with the latter painting simply depicting a young girl holding the device in her hands.

The armillary sphere remains an emblem of scientific thought and an intellectual  milestones in the history of science.  In many ways, it represents the ingenuity and remarkably unmatched intelligence and perseverance of scientists throughout the centuries.  Today, the Oxford Museum of Natural History holds an impressive statute of 13th century scientist Roger Bacon holding an armillary sphere in his hands, our own University of Oklahoma has two armillary spheres in its special History of Science collections, and Dr. Crowther even has a picture of one on the desk in her office.

How It Works: 

This video describes the different parts:

This video describes how to use it:


This Armillary Sphere was made of laser cut particle board.  We debated whether we should build the model out of wood, metal, or 3D print it, but we settled on cutting it from wood.  Once we settled on a material and method of building, we then went through several different images and models to decide how to build it.  The design we went with worked best with a solid stand that would allow the meridian to rotate between the horizon.  Next, we used Adobe Illustrator to create the rings and print the cardinal directions and degrees, which was then cut or etched into the wood by the laser cutter.  The pieces were fit together, and two nails were used to allow the globe and its parts to rotate.  The Earth is a Styrofoam ball suspended by a wooden dowel.  Once the pieces were cut, it was a matter of putting them together and making sure that the zodiac was in the correct orientation.


Further reading:

The Armillary Sphere

Aristotle in Hypertext

One of my favorite moments in teaching the history of science are the days when we discuss an assigned reading by Aristotle, and half the students are looking through the text on their phones. I love the juxtaposition of ancient text and modern technology.


This experience got me thinking about how students today, or maybe more specifically, the students I have in my classes who are, for the most part, science majors rather than history or history of science or philosophy majors, interact with Aristotle. As anyone who teaches Aristotle is surely aware, he’s not an easy read! Perhaps a problem particular to history of science is that Aristotle’s views of the cosmos have long since been replaced by modern scientific concepts like the periodic table of the elements, gravity, and Linnaean taxonomy. By contrast, many of Aristotle’s ideas on philosophy, politics, ethics and morality are still deemed relevant to the contemporary world. Aristotle’s “scientific work” (or less anachronistically, his natural philosophical work) can look hopelessly outdated and can be very difficult for students, especially science students, to see as rational and informed by observation and experience. My students are inclined to want to dismiss Aristotle as “superstitious” and irrational, and as basing his ideas on very limited data about the natural world. While I certainly believe in the periodic table and not in earth, air, fire and water, I need them to see Aristotle as both a rational and a quite sophisticated thinker. If they don’t, then his long influence on science is hard to explain as anything other than blind following of authority.   As a teacher, I try to help students understand Aristotle’s views of the natural world, and how they provided a very coherent and logical explanation of an extensive set of empirical data.

But I’d also like to recapture the dynamism and interactive nature of Aristotle’s own teaching. Many of the texts of Aristotle that we have today originated as teaching notes or aids for his students. Although students today often find reading Aristotle difficult – and tedious! – in his own day he was a popular teacher. He was famous for teaching outside while walking, earning him the sobriquet, “the Peripatetic.” Aristotle did not just recite his ideas to his students. He talked through his ideas with them. He paused for questions. He stopped and asked students questions to test their understanding. And with more advanced students who were beginning to develop their own ideas, he undoubtedly argued.  The dynamic and interactive character of Aristotle’s teaching is key to understanding his incredibly long influence. Aristotle’s readers in the Middle Ages and early modern period, in both Europe and the Islamic world, never saw his ideas as fixed and static. They interacted with these ideas – they clarified them, they applied them to new situations, they modified them, they expanded upon them, and sometimes they flat out contradicted them.

As an attempt to achieve both these goals (that is, to facilitate understanding of Aristotle’s natural philosophy as well as to promote an interactive engagement with his ideas), I decided to create an interactive, hypertext version of a portion of Aristotle’ book On the Heavens. I enlisted the aid of my colleague Peter Barker, who has far more expertise in ancient cosmology than I do. We used excerpts of Aristotle’s De caelo (On the Heavens) translated by J. L. Stocks. (We used portions of the text that Professor Barker has been using in his undergraduate courses on the history of science.) We used a program called Twine, which is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories” (according their website). Twine is designed to be VERY easy to use, and does not require any knowledge of coding. The Twine website has links to multiple tutorials, all of which can be completed in a matter of hours. Twine was really designed to create interactive fiction, a hypertext version of those old “choose your own adventure books” some of us may remember from childhood. It can also be used to create games, where players have to work their way through a particular quest, and can earn points and move up levels. (The Twine website has examples of stories and games built with Twine.) We decided to use this program to create an interactive, hypertext version of Aristotle for our students.

One difficulty our students frequently encounter with Aristotle is the order in which he presents his material. Rather than beginning with his own ideas, he starts with the opinions of his predecessors, and then proceeds to critique their ideas. Then he outlines his own ideas and explains why they are superior. Our Twine Aristotle can be read in this order, but if students prefer, they can read about Aristotle’s own ideas first and then go back to his criticisms of earlier work. Further, we have broken the text up into bite-size chunks, and added in some further explanation, and sometimes images, to help students grasp Aristotle’s ideas about the universe. As they read each passage, they can decide whether they need more explanation, or whether they want to move on through the text. If they want more explanation, they click on the question that begins, “Wait, please explain to us . . .” This takes them to a more extended discussion of Aristotle’s point. This explanatory text was written by us.  If they don’t need the added explanation, they just click on the question that begins, “Please continue.”

We have each tried this out in classes once, but have yet to do any kind of systematic analysis of how students use this (do they choose to read it in a different order? how many of the explanations do they read? do students who read the Twine understand Aristotle better than those who read the conventional text?). However, we’d like to make our Twine available to other users and would welcome thoughts and feedback.  You can find it here on Professor Barker’s course website for HSCI 1113.

Given the ease of using Twine, I also intend in subsequent classes to have groups of students work to create their own Twines of primary sources, complete with explanatory material like what we have created for Aristotle, and then to have other students in the class use and critique these Twine texts. I am hoping this will encourage the very close reading and discussion of primary texts that is a hallmark of historical analysis.

Indigenous Knowledge & the Scientific Revolution

In August of 2015, the Galileo’s World exhibit opened at the University of Oklahoma.  The exhibit highlights the University’s outstanding collection of rare scientific texts, including every book Galileo ever published (and two that include writing in his own hand), as well as the works of many of his predecessors, contemporaries and followers. The exhibit seeks to examine sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture more broadly and to explore connections between the music, art, literature and science of the period.


Galileo’s signature on OU History of Science Collection’s copy of Sidereus Nuncius (1610).

While the main exhibition is located in Bizzell Library, where the rare book collection is housed, there are several satellite exhibits. One of them, at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, centers on the Spanish physician and explorer, Francisco Hernández (1514 – 1587). Hernández was commissioned by the King of Spain, Philip II, to prepare an account of the plants and animals of Spain’s newly conquered territories in what is today Mexico. Hernández spent seven years in Mexico (1571-77) and prepared an extensive series of notes on the flora and fauna of the region. These notes remained in manuscript form until the Italian nobleman, Federico Cesi (1585–1630), saw them and determined to have them published. Cesi was a friend and supporter of Galileo, and the founder of one of the earliest scientific academies, the Academy of the Lynx (Accademia dei Lincei), of which Galileo was a member. Hernández’s account of the natural resources of Mexico was finally published in 1651 by the Academy of the Lynx, under the auspices of Cesi’s successors. This particular portion of the Galileo’s World exhibit seeks to connect Galileo and his scientific contemporaries to what Europeans regarded as the “New World.”


Title page of Francisco Hernández, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651). Image Courtesy of the OU History of Science Collections.

The guiding question of the exhibit is: How did the natural knowledge of Native Americans shape European science in the age of Galileo? A blog post on the exhibit by the curators claims: “Through [Hernandez’s] work, Native American knowledge of plants and animals became part of mainstream European biology.”  The visitor is presented with a spectacular array of books on natural history (and other subjects) written by European naturalists and published in various European languages. The exhibit amply demonstrates that Europeans were fascinated by the strange flora and fauna they saw in the Americas, and that they sought to describe the plants, animals, minerals and peoples they encountered. But the guiding question is never actually addressed. That is, we learn much about what Europeans thought of the “New World,” but nothing about what the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought about the plants and animals of the region. And other than the vague statement that Hernández “worked closely with Aztec artists and physicians in central Mexico,” we learn nothing about how and what Europeans learned (or didn’t learn) from native inhabitants. The statement itself is deeply problematic as “worked closely with” suggests respectful and harmonious scientific collaboration. We need to recognize that Hernández came to Mexico in the wake of an extremely violent conflict and a massive disruption of the existing social structures in the Americas. He was part of a occupying force, not a sympathetic or even a neutral observer of native inhabitants. His mandate was to learn about the flora and fauna of the Americas so that the King of Spain would be in a better position to exploit them.

Can we use Hernández’s work to explore the interactions of European and indigenous knowledge systems? Perhaps, but the challenge is much greater than the exhibit acknowledges. Miruna Achim, discussing precisely this problem of incorporating nuanced accounts of indigenous knowledge into the history of (western) science, writes:

Most accounts of how things and people travelled across the Atlantic downplay the obvious power plays and exploitation attaching to colonized subjects and their intellectual common [?], or, on the other extreme, grant indigenous informers little or no agency – they are, instead, the dubious recipients of the honour of being “discovered,” with discovery, here, standing in for a politico-epistemological moment reproducing the European-indigenous first encounter, this time in the domain of science. (277)

One graphic from the exhibit powerfully illustrates this erasure of indigenous knowledge and indigenous peoples. On one wall the visitor is presented with a “tree of knowledge” showing the progress of biological knowledge from its “primitive roots” to its full flowering into sophisticated (European) scientific knowledge.

gw-sn-3Take a closer look at the “roots” of this tree.


“Native American natural knowledge” is vaguely linked with shamans, healers and artists.  But we learn nothing of any of these native men and women from the exhibit.  They are relegated to a generalized “pre-scientific” past from which Europeans drew to create modern science. The placard for Hernàndez’s book Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia asserts: “In Galileo’s time, European progress in the life sciences depended on the natural knowledge of central Mexico’s native inhabitants.”  A clear separation is drawn between “natural knowledge” which is primitive, mixed up with religion, and generally unworthy of serious discussion, and the “life sciences,” which are systematic, rational and progressive.  So the curators take a dim view of indigenous knowledge, but what about Hernández?

One piece of evidence may have been misunderstood as suggesting that Hernández “worked closely with Aztec artists and physicians in central Mexico.”  He gives the names of plants and animals in Nahuatl as well as Latin. Nahuatl was (and is) a language spoken (and written) by various peoples in central Mexico, including the Aztecs.  But today there are over 60 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. Even if Hernández attained some fluency in Nahuatl (and it is by no means clear that he did), that would not have enabled him to communicate with all indigenous groups in the region he had been sent to study. He must certainly have worked with intermediaries. More importantly, Hernández’s use of Nahuatl names reflects the contemporary European belief that there is a natural connection between a name and a thing; the name revealed essential properties of the thing to which it referred. This belief, more than any “respect” for indigenous culture and knowledge, is a more likely explanation for Hernández’s decision to use Nahuatl words.  His use of Nahuatl, alone, shows neither a respect for natives, nor scientific collaboration.

What can we actually know about indigenous knowledge and how Hernandez used it in his book? While I can’t provide a full answer for this question, I’d like to propose an interesting test case. I’m going to take a more in depth look at a Mexican plant and an animal: the Opuntia, a type of cactus also known as the Indian fig, or prickly pear, or nopal; and the cochineal insect, a parasite that lives on the opuntia. The cochineal insect was (and is) used to produce a very valuable dye, so Hernández ought to have been strongly motivated to gather accurate information about it. And in this case we can reconstruct in some detail what the indigenous people of Mexico knew about opuntia and cochineal, and contrast what Hernández and other early modern European scholars wrote about them. Was Hernández actually equipped to grasp what the indigenous peoples knew about cochineal? And were they inclined to share information with him about the production of a very valuable commodity, one that gave them a measure of power over their Spanish overlords and a connection to their pre-Conquest past? The answer to both of these questions is almost certainly no.  I think this example seriously calls into question the notion that Hernández and Native Americans freely exchanged scientific information about plants and animals.


Opuntia ficus. Wikimedia Commons.


Dactylopius coccus (cochineal) growing in Barlovento, La Palma, Canary Islands. Photo by Frank Vincentz (14. March 2008). Wikimedia Commons.

The native peoples of Mexico used the cochineal insect to produce both dyes and medicines. The cochineal insect lives on the opuntia cactus. Females attach themselves permanently to the opuntia and spend their whole lives sucking out the juice of the cactus and laying eggs. Males fly around and fertilize the eggs. They are fewer in number than the females and live for half as long. The female cochineal, because she can’t move, is vulnerable to predators. As a means of self-defense, cochineal insects have evolved to produce carminic acid, which makes them unpalatable to many potential predators. Carminic acid can be used as a red dye, and it produces an exceptionally vivid and long-lasting color. But cochineal insects were not simply wild animals that the indigenous people exploited. Rather, through selective breeding they had created a new species of domesticated cochineal that was larger than wild cochineal and had a higher concentration of carminic acid. This domesticated cochineal was considerably more delicate and vulnerable to changes in temperature than its wild relative. The opuntia on which it lived was also susceptible to cold and damp and would easily rot. The cochineal and the opuntia had to be carefully tended to keep them alive and productive. It was a labor-intensive form of farming, but well worth it because cochineal was a highly valuable commodity. While I have used certain modern and anachronistic terms here, like “evolved” and “carminic acid,” it is clear that indigenous people deliberately manipulated the insect and the cactus to maximize production of a desired commodity.

Now let’s turn to what Europeans knew (or thought they knew) about cochineal and opuntia.  In his Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651), Hernández describes “a certain species of cactus called Nocheznopalli, or Nopalnocheztli” (quodam genere Nocheznopalli, seu Nopalnocheztli).


“Nocheznopalli, or Nopalnocheztli” (Opuntia) from Hernández, Nova plantarum . . .

On this cactus, he reports, there are:

… round worms, white on the outside, within, however, of scarlet color, [which grow] sometimes naturally of their own accord, sometimes by the industry and diligence of men, who move the seeds from the previous year at a set time. [The Indians call these worms] Nocheztli, our men, however, are wont to call them cochinilla, perhaps from cocco [scarlet], or grain, whose appearance they have.

vermiculi rotundi, extra candidi, intra vero coccinei coloris, interdum sponte ipsius naturae, interdum hominum industria atque diligentia, semina superioris anni stato tempore Tunis admoventium, quae Indi Nocheztli, nostri vero Cochinilla, fortassis a Cocco, seu Grano cuius species sunt, appellare solent.

We might note here that in Nahuatl, the name of the plant (Nopalnocheztli) contains the name of the insects (Nocheztli). These cactuses are also called “nopals,” which is still their name in Spanish. This suggests that the two were seen as a unit.

Hernández asserts that these “worms” are a form of “excrement” secreted by the cactus. (Tamen cum vermiculu ex hoc excremento gignantur). Some people, he reports, believe it is a seed produced by the plant, but he insists that it is a worm that is spontaneously generated on this particular plant and no other. He notes that “Indians” use the worm as a wound dressing and as a purple and scarlet dye for fabrics. An additional passage in italics at the end of this entry, which may have been added by a later author, perhaps one of the members of the Academy of the Lynx reads:

Excrements are generated on many plants, which are then transmuted into various species of insects. Thus it is not only coccus that is born on a scarlet oak , but also flies grow inside the gall-nut on the oak, [and] one is able to observe the same thing in the vesicles of the elm, and on the terebinth [turpentine tree] and many other plants.

Excrementa pluribus adnascuntur plantis, quae deinde in varias insectorum species transmutantur. sic non tantum Coccus in Ilice nascitur, sed etiam quaevis Galla in Quercubus intra se Muscam gignit. idem observare licet in vesiculis Ulmi. Terebinthi aliisque plantis compluribus.

It is clear from this description that Hernández had only a limited understanding of the opuntia and the cochineal. He knew that cochineal was used as a dye and a medicine. But he was only vaguely aware of the difference between wild and domesticated cochineal, and he believed the cochineal were spontaneously generated on the opuntia, rather than placed there by their cultivators. He used a European concept – spontaneous generation – in an attempt to make sense of what he had seen or heard about the opuntia and the cochineal. The notion that certain creatures, usually insects, toads and frogs, could spontaneously generate out of rotting material was widely accepted by sixteenth-century Europeans.

Let’s look at what some other European scientists thought about the opuntia and the cochineal.  The English naturalist John Gerard (ca. 1545–1612) included the opuntia in his 1597 Great Herbal (another text that is on display in the exhibit). Here he made no mention of cochineal, but in his revised and enlarged second edition of 1633 he noted: “Upon this plant in some parts of the West Indies grow certain excrescences, which in continuance of time turn into Insects, and these out-growings are that high prized Cochenele wherewith they dye colours in graine.” (1512)

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597)

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Courtesy of the OU History of Science Collections.

The botanists Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) (whose work is displayed in the exhibit) and Matthaeus Lobelius (1538–1616) included descriptions of the opuntia in their works on plants. The information about the opuntia in these texts is almost wholly divorced from their native context. Aside from the brief mention that Indians use the plant on wounds because of its astringent properties, all sources cited are European, and all descriptions refer to opuntia cultivated in European gardens. Neither author even mentions cochineal, which, as we have seen, was inextricably linked with the opuntia in indigenous understandings of the plant.  And they transfer the healing properties of the cochineal (its use as an astringent on wounds) to the opuntia.

Another English naturalist, Thomas Moffet (1553–1604), included the cochineal in his Theater of Insects. Like Hernandez and Gerard, he thought it generated spontaneously from the opuntia.

Cochineal begins thus: When the lower stalk [of the opuntia] divides into two branches, and in the middle of these there comes forth a thing that is round, and of the colour and bigness of a Pear, they call this the Mother, because from this the other grains proceed. Besides every one of these shrubs hath commonly five Mothers, which at the beginning of Summer and in hot weather put forth a great company of little Worms, and they cleave in the top. A new off-spring of shoots growes up severally on high of a white colour, that produce living creatures. But wheresoever they meet with the hollow places of the twig budding where the Worms are, they fall down, and become as great, as Millet-seed. Then growing up more freely, the white colour changeth into ash-colour, and then they appear no more living creatures, but again like unto Pease. Then those grains being ripe gathered, now great with colour’d Worms: whilest they are carried to the Merchants, the thin skin that goes about them breaks. The price of a pound of these Worms that are come forth of the skin is a gold noble; but that part which is yet in the skin, is sold for a fourth part of it: the mean while the little Worms are as if they were dead, and move not. (1085)

Other European naturalists believed that the dye and medicine called cochineal were derived from the fruit of the opuntia itself, and still others believed the cochineal was a seed or berry of the opuntia. In the late 17th century the two most outstanding microscopists of the period, Anton van Leeuwenhook and Jan Swammerdam examined cochineal under a microscope and eventually concluded that it was an insect, not a seed. But because they were looking at dried insects imported from Mexico, their findings were not considered certain. Even in the 18th century when Europeans finally came to understand that cochineal was an insect and that it was not spontaneously generated but rather carefully cultivated, all their attempts to breed and raise cochineal in Europe or other colonies often failed.

Despite the haziness of their understanding of opuntia and cochineal, Europeans eagerly consumed the substance throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was one of the most valuable New World commodities. The dye produced spectacular and vivid shades of red and purple and was widely sought after. Artists used cochineal to make red paint. And Europeans rapidly incorporated cochineal into medical practice and experimented with new and different uses for cochineal as a medicine. For example, in Isaac Newton’s alchemical manuscripts there is a recipe for fevers that uses cochineal:

Extract a tincture from 2 drachms of opium, 1 drachm of crocus, 1 drachm of cochineal, 1 drachm of Spanish contrayerva, 1 drachm of Virginia snakeroot, using spirit of elderberries. It is an anodyne elixir by which sleep and sweat are induced at the same time. The dose is from 20 to 30 drops. If the same tincture is extracted using spirit of sal armoniac, the same dose produces the same effect in the fevered after which the disease comes to its crisis and begins to weaken.

Cum spiritu Baccharum Sambuchi extrahe tincturam ex Opio ʒii Croco ʒi Cochinelia ʒ1 Contra-earva Hispanica ʒ1 Serpentaria Virgineana ʒ1. Est Elixir anodinum quo Somnum et sudor simul inducuntur.  Dosis a 20 ad 30 guttas. Si eadem tinctura extrahatur cum spiritu salis armoniacai, dosis eadem eundem producit effectum in Febrilitantibus postquam morbus ad ἀκμὴν venit et incipit mitescere.ailed

Such experiments on the medicinal properties of cochineal were conducted on dried and prepared cochineal imported from Mexico, not on the living insect. And they were based on European understandings of physiology (primarily the theory of the four humors) and European disease categories.

I raised the question above of whether Hernandez and his contemporaries had the conceptual tools to grasp what the indigenous people knew about cochineal. His understanding of cochineal, and those of other early modern Europeans, takes place wholly within received Western categories. He failed to learn what we would today consider the most basic facts about the opuntia and cochineal from native informants.  In fact  “Western” scientists lacked the conceptual tools to understand the native knowledge of opuntia and conchineal until the twentieth century and the development of the sciences of biochemistry and genetics.

Primary sources:

Francisco Hernández, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651)

John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes ( London : [Edm. Bollifant for [Bonham Norton and] Iohn Norton, 1597).

John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Iohnson citizen and apothecarye of London (London: Printed by Adam Islip Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1633).

Thomas Moffet, Theater of insects, in Edward Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents. . . ; whereunto is now added, The theater of insects, or, Lesser living creatures . . . by T. Muffet . . . (London: Printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge … T. Williams … and T. Johnson …, 1658).

Isaac Newton, Portsmouth Collection Add. MS. 3975, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge University, 134 verso (transcription and translation from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton)

Secondary sources:

Miruna Achim, “From rustics to savants: Indigenous material medica in eighteenth-century Mexico” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2011) 275-284.

Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006).

Jordan Kellman, , “Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal” Atlantic Studies 7.4 (2010) 373-395

Henry M. Reeves, “Sahagún’s “Florentine Codex”, a little known Aztecan natural history of the Valley of Mexico” Archives of natural history 33.2 (2006) 302-321.

Neil Safier, “Global Knowledge on the Move: Itineraries, Amerindian Narratives, and Deep Histories of ScienceIsis 101.1 (2010) 133-145.

Simon Varey (ed.), The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Galileo’s World writing assignment

OU Lynx

by Dr. Kathleen Crowther

Gw logoAssignment: Visit the Galileo’s World exhibit on the 5th floor of Bizzell Memorial Library. You will note that the exhibit is divided into the following galleries:

  1. Music of the Spheres
  2. Galileo, Engineer
  3. Galileo and China
  4. Controversy over the Comets
  5. A New Physics
  6. The Galileo Affair

Each of these six galleries begins with a question to prompt reflection. The question is painted on the wall at the beginning of the gallery. For example:

“What would it be like to be a mathematician in an era when music and astronomy were sister sciences?”

Pick one of the galleries of the exhibit and answer its guiding question. You should write this essay in FIRST PERSON. Write from the perspective of a person FROM THE 17TH CENTURY answering this question. You may choose to be a real person from the 17th century or invent a fictional character (some suggestions:…

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