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Friday, October 12, 2012

An Unusual Book

Don't judge me by my cover
Not all old books are valuable, any more than all old violins with the name Stradivarius were made by the master, and while some old, valuable books wear their worth on their covers, others lie quietly in nondescript bindings, awaiting discovery. Would this book catch your eye? Something about its size made me pick it up. I looked at the title, laid it down, picked it up again, and finally, thought, Botany--well, that's always interesting--without ever looking inside. It was a sale. The books were cheap. What could I lose? And so I came to own The Evolution and Distribution of Flowering Plants, by John Muirhead MacFarlane, published in Philadelphia in 1933.

Days later, unloading my box of "new" old books, I opened this unprepossessing volume and, to my delight, found an inscription by the author:

Author's inscription
An author's signature always makes a book more interesting. Looking further, I found two foldout sheets showing (separately--one shown below) the branching evolution of the plant families treated in the work. 

Diagram of plant family
More and more intrigued, I poked around on the Internet for information about MacFarlane. According to a source lacking citations or references. he was born in 1855 in Scotland, near the Firth of Forth, educated in Scotland, and taught at the University of Edinburgh before emigrating in 1893. At the University of Pennsylvania he taught botany and played a key role in establishing the botanical garden. He died in 1943. About Mr. Katsumi I have been able thus far to learn nothing, having little to go on beyond his family name. Presumably he was at least interested in botany. 

But here is the icing on the bibliocake, as it were:

Author's hope

On the book's title page, in the same ink and same hand as the inscription, the author added a note of clarification. The present volume covers only two families in the plant kingdom, and thus MacFarlane calls it "Volume I." He was 78 years of age when this volume was published. Did he hope to complete the work or that other botanists would take it up and pursue it to conclusion? In his preface, he calls this book a "set of preliminary studies."

The fashion for tracing evolution of species from sample plants had its heyday in the nineteenth century. (Another of MacFarlane's works in evolution and distribution has to do with "fishes" and is much easier to find than this book on plants.) In our own time, interest has shifted to the cellular level and below, with scientists relying on DNA samples to pinpoint biological origins and migratory paths around the globe. And yet, how painstaking and laborious must have been this author's work, how passionate his devotion, and how fond the hopes he cherished!


Gerry said...

This was, of course, captivating, and I set out to find Citations and References for you. I am sending you under separate [e-]cover John Muirland Macfarlane's Declaration of Intention (to become a citizen of the U.S.) filed on November 3, 1909. It covers all the particulars.

I was particularly taken with this section: "It is my bona fide intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Edward VII, King of Great Britain [&] Ireland, of which I am now a subject . . . I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein." Five years later, his residency requirement completed, he filed his Petition for Naturalization, affirming among other things that he was renouncing allegiance to George V, too. Clearly it was nothing personal.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, you are a marvel! Thank you so much for the fascinating glimpse into the immigration of a botanist! As for migrations of plants, MacFarlane was convinced that “fairly definite lines of travel” could be traced for the pathways of species distribution and development, and I was especially interested to read his explanation of common ancestors for species that took different paths of development as continents moved apart and separated the evolving populations. He may have been “born yesterday,” but clearly he stayed up working all night.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry indeed sent along copies of MacFarlane's naturalization papers (she e-mailed what looked like scanned documents), and in her P.S. she said, "There is apparently a John Macfarlane Hall of Botany at the University of Pennsylvania. I expect many of his fond hopes were, in fact, realized. It’s a fine thing to leave a legacy of students to carry on." It's a fine thing to have a reader who is not only a researcher but also a generous contributor. Now, about Mr. Katsumi....

Dawn said...

Wow! Gerry is a master at finding interesting information! And I think the author would be thrilled that his book has caught your attention.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Dawn. You don't think Dr. MacFarlane would be disappointed that his book didn't fall into the hands of a botanist in the year 2012? That chance still exists, although the botanist will not get it cheap!

Dawn said...

PJ: You might not be certified as a botanist but you love the book as if you were one...which I think he'd appreciate!

Anonymous said...

Do you think the University of Pennsylvania might be interested in this? It seems to me they might. Possibly you could contact with the curators of the arboretum and have some questions answered.