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Robert Morison’s Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis

By Scott Mandelbrote

On 9 November 1683, Robert Morison was knocked down by a coach in the Strand. He died the following day. At the time, Morison was both botanist to King Charles II and Professor of Botany in the University of Oxford, where he lectured regularly in the Botanic Garden. His appointment at Oxford derived from an approach that he had made to John Fell in 1669, and his activities there were always linked to efforts to publish his work as part of the revival of the University Press.

Morison issued a specimen of his herbal in 1672, with a plan of his system of classification based on seed types, and illustrated with full-page engravings. These were mostly paid for by Oxford luminaries and had been engraved on copper by David Loggan, whom Fell had hired to provide illustrations for the University Press. As work progressed in the 1670s, Morison depended more and more on migrant engravers living in London. He also sought subscribers from the members of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries, and, with strikingly little success, from the new Royal Society. Morison’s ideas about the growth and classification of plants were widely discussed: the diarist and keen horticulturalist John Evelyn, for example, wrote about Morison’s discovery of the propensity of London Rocket to germinate among the ruins caused by the Great Fire of 1666. Part two of Morison’s intended History of Plants (the first volume to be published) was fully subscribed as well as extensively illustrated when it appeared from the Oxford press in 1680.

Morison’s early death, however, posed a serious threat both to the future of his project and to the nascent University Press, whose financial investment in the herbal seemed unlikely to pay off if the book remained incomplete. Fell therefore commissioned the younger Jacob Bobart, superintendant of the Botanic Garden, to edit Morison’s work. He also oversaw the activity of the University’s engraver, Michael Burghers, in finishing off the copper plates, many of which had already been begun by Morison’s London engravers. The process was not aided by Bobart’s inability to write in Latin (the language of Morison’s learned herbal), and was held up by the ongoing quarrels between the University Press and the London Stationers’ Company, which represented the book trade in the capital. In the end, many subscribers died before they received the third part of the herbal (the second and final volume to be published) in 1699. The first part, dealing with trees, was never printed and there is little sign that Morison had progressed far with its preparation by the time of his death.

Morison’s widow (‘that sharp Gentlewoman’, as Thomas Tanner called her) kept up a running battle with the University over liabilities arising from the herbal. Their quarrel remained unsettled for more than a decade and a half after her husband’s death, and formed the background for the growing realization that the herbal represented a financial disaster for the University Press. Botanists with whom Morison had differed during his lifetime, above all John Ray, crowed about the posthumous shortcomings of his work. For the contemporary University of Oxford, Morison’s herbal appears to have been a white elephant: one of several overambitious ventures that left Fell’s press painfully licking its wounds by the 1690s.

By permission of Stephen Harris, Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford: A specimen from the Morisonian Herbarium annotated by Jacob Bobart the younger
By permission of Stephen Harris, Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford: A specimen from the Morisonian Herbarium annotated by Jacob Bobart the younger

To the historian, by contrast, Morison’s herbal is a godsend. One can trace Morison’s activity in the Botanic Garden and in the preparation of his work through specimens that Bobart helped to manage and that still remain in the Morisonian Herbarium of the Department of Plant Sciences. The publication history of Morison’s work can be reconstructed from invoices that survive in the University Archives and in the collections of papers, in Oxford and elsewhere, of the scholars who assisted Bobart in preparing part three of the herbal. Because of the financial quarrels that surrounded it, Morison’s History of Plants is one of the best-documented books produced by the University Press during the seventeenth century. Almost uniquely, the copper plates for its publication survive. They were acquired by the University as part of the negotiations with Mrs Morison, and, having survived various vicissitudes (including a period of service as lift weights), they can now be consulted in the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy.

By permission of the Codrington Library, All Souls College, Oxford: A page from part three of Morison's History of Plants, showing a plate prepared by Michael Burghers
By permission of the Codrington Library, All Souls College, Oxford: A page from part three of Morison’s History of Plants, showing a plate prepared by Michael Burghers

Without Morison’s accident and unexpected death, the early history of the University Press might have been smoother, but the opportunities for the modern historian of OUP would have been far less enticing.

Scott Mandelbrote is Fellow and Librarian of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written about Morison for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in the chapter on scientific books in the first volume of The History of Oxford University Press, and in a forthcoming special issue on scientific illustrations of The Huntington Library Quarterly.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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Recent Comments

  1. michael lamb

    I suppose someone should point out that unless “universalis” and “oxoniensis” are both wrong, “historiae” must be wrong, and this should be “Plantarum historia universalis Oxoniensis”, i.e. “a history” not “histories”.

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