Dec 132018

On this date in 1640 Robert Plot FRS was baptized. His date of birth is not recorder. He was an English naturalist, first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. He also hold the unique distinction of being the only seventeenth century English scientist who was wrong about absolutely every theory he proposed. I happen to know about him because he wrote about a strange English traditional custom, and his description is the oldest description of traditional dance we have.

Plot was born in Borden in Kent and educated at the Wye Free School. He entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1658 where he received his BA in 1661 and an MA in 1664. He subsequently taught and served as dean and vice principal at Magdalen Hall while preparing for his BCL and DCL, which he received in 1671 before moving to University College in 1676. By this time, Plot had already developed an interest in the systematic study of natural history and antiquities. In June 1674, with patronage from John Fell, the bishop of Oxford, and Ralph Bathhurst, vice-chancellor of the university, Plot began studying and collecting artefacts throughout the nearby countryside, publishing his findings three years later in The Natural History of Oxford-shire. In this work, he described and illustrated various rocks, minerals and fossils, including the first known illustration of a dinosaur bone which he attributed to a giant (later recognized as the femur of a Megalosaurus), but believed that most fossils were not remains of living organisms but rather crystallizations of mineral salts with a coincidental zoological form.

The favorable reception of his findings not only earned him the nickname of the “learned Dr. Plot,” but also led to his election into the Royal Society of London on 6th December 1677, where he served as the society’s secretary and joint editor of the Philosophical Transactions (144–178) from 1682 through 1684. Another consequence of his success was his appointment as the first keeper of the newly established Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683, as well as his simultaneous appointment as the first professor of chemistry in the new well-equipped laboratory housed within the museum.

In the field of chemistry he searched for a universal solvent that could be obtained from wine spirits, and believed that alchemy was necessary for medicine. In 1684, Plot published De origine fontium, a treatise on the source of springs, which he attributed to underground channels originating from the sea. Plot shifted his focus towards archaeology in the 1686 publication of his second book, The Natural History of Staffordshire, but misinterpreted Roman remains as Saxon. He also describes a double sunset viewable from Leek, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, and, for the first time, the Polish swan, a pale morph of the Mute swan.

Here is his description of the horn dance:

  1. At Abbots, or now rather Pagets Bromley, they had al∣so within memory, a sort of sport, which they celebrated at Christmas (on New-year, and Twelft-day) call’d the Hobby-horse dance, from a person that carryed the image of a horse between his leggs, made of thin boards, and in his hand a bow and arrow, which passing through a hole in the bow, and stopping upon a sholder it had in it, he made a snapping noise as he drew it to and fro, keeping time with the Musick: with this Man danced 6 others, carrying on their shoulders as many Rain deers heads, 3 of them painted white, and 3 red, with the Armes of the cheif families (viz. of Paget, Bagot, and Wells) to whom the revenews of the Town cheifly belonged, depicted on the palms of them, with which they danced the Hays, and other Country dances. To this Hobby-horse dance there also belong’d a pot, which was kept by turnes, by 4 or 5 of the cheif of the Town, whom they call’d Reeves, who provided Cakes and Ale to put in this pot; all people who had any kindness for the good in∣tent of the Institution of the sport, giving pence a piece for themselves and families; and so forraigners too, that came to see it: with which Mony (the charge of the Cakes and Ale be∣ing defrayed) they not only repaired their Church but kept their poore too: which charges are not now perhaps so cheer∣fully boarn.

There is no telling how accurate this description is, but it is unusually detailed for the era. You can find more on the dance in this post:  It contains a full appraisal of historical sources.

In 1687, Plot was made a notary public by the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as appointed the registrar to the Norfolk Court of Chivalry. Plot resigned from his posts at Oxford in 1690, thereafter marrying Rebecca Burman of London and retiring to his property of Sutton Barne in his hometown of Borden, where he worked on The Natural History of Middlesex and Kent but never completed. The office of Mowbray Herald Extraordinary was created in January 1695 for Plot, who was made registrar of the College of Heralds just two days later. Although able to go on an archaeological tour of Anglia in September 1695, Plot was greatly suffering from urinary calculi, and succumbed to his illness on 30th April 1696. He was buried at Borden Church, where a plaque memorializes him.

Here is a 17th century recipe for an apple paste from A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617) used to make fake plums. It reminds me a little of marzipan fruits, and also makes a sardonic comment on Plot who appeared unable to see things for what they really were. The recipe is vague as to the temperature you have to achieve with the apple and sugar mix. I’m thinking around 250°F/120°C.

To make Paste of Pippins, after the Genua fashion, some like leaves, some like Plums, with stalkes and stones.

 Take and pare faire yellow Pippins, cut them in small pieces, stew them betwixt two dishes with two or three spoonefuls of Rosewater, and when they be boiled very tender, straine them then boile the weight of the pulp in double refined Sugar vnto a Candie height, and if you please put in a graine of Muske, and a quarter of an ounce of fine white ginger searced, and so let it boile vntill you see it come from the bottome of the Posnet, then fashion it on a sheete of glasse in some prettie forme as you thinke best, and stoue it either in a Stoue, or in a warme Ouen. If you desire to haue any of it red, colour it with a spoonefull of Conserue of Damsons, before you fashion it vpon your glasse or plate, and that will make shew as though it were made of red Plums. If you put a stone betwixt two halfes, will shew like a Plum, you may keepe Cherrie stalkes drie for the same purpose.

Apr 112018

Today is the birthday (1755) of James Parkinson FGS, an English surgeon, apothecary, geologist, paleontologist, and political activist, who is best known for his 1817 work, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in which he was the first to describe “paralysis agitans,” a condition that would later be renamed Parkinson’s disease by Jean-Martin Charcot. World Parkinson’s Day is held each year on this date.

James Parkinson was born in Shoreditch, London, England. He was the son of John Parkinson, an apothecary and surgeon practicing in Hoxton Square in London. He was the eldest of five siblings. In 1784 Parkinson was approved by the City of London Corporation as a surgeon. On 21 May 1783, he married Mary Dale, with whom he subsequently had eight children, two of whom did not survive past childhood. Soon after he was married, Parkinson succeeded his father in his practice in 1 Hoxton Square. He believed that any worthwhile surgeon should know shorthand, at which he was adept.

In addition to his flourishing medical practice, Parkinson had an avid interest in geology and paleontology, as well as the politics of the day. Parkinson was a strong advocate for the under-privileged, and an outspoken critic of the Pitt government. His early career was marked by his being involved in a variety of social and revolutionary causes, and some historians think it most likely that he was a strong proponent for the French Revolution. He published nearly twenty political pamphlets in the post-French Revolution period, while Britain was in political chaos. Writing under his own name and his pseudonym “Old Hubert,” he called for radical social reforms and universal suffrage.

Parkinson called for representation of the people in the House of Commons, the institution of annual parliaments, and universal suffrage. He was a member of several secret political societies, including the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information. In 1794 his membership in the organization led to his being examined under oath before William Pitt and the Privy Council to give evidence about a trumped-up plot to assassinate King George III. He refused to testify regarding his part in the Popgun Plot, until he was certain he would not be forced to incriminate himself. The plan was to use a poisoned dart fired from a pop-gun to bring the king’s reign to a premature conclusion. No charges were ever brought against Parkinson but several of his friends languished in prison for many months before being acquitted.

Parkinson gave up his tumultuous political career, and between 1799 and 1807 published several medical works, including a work on gout in 1805. He was also responsible for early writings on ruptured appendix. He was interested in improving the general health and well-being of the population. He wrote several medical doctrines that exposed a similar zeal for the health and welfare of the people that was expressed by his political activism. He was a crusader for legal protection for the mentally ill, as well as their doctors and families.

In 1812 Parkinson assisted his son with the first described case of appendicitis in English, and the first instance in which perforation was shown to be the cause of death. Parkinson was the first person to systematically describe six individuals with symptoms of the disease that bears his name. In his An Essay on the Shaking Palsy he reported on three of his own patients and three persons whom he saw in the street. He referred to the disease that would later bear his name as “paralysis agitans,” (shaking palsy). He distinguished between resting tremors and the tremors with motion. Jean-Martin Charcot coined the term “Parkinson’s disease” 60 years later. Parkinson erroneously suggested that the tremors in these patients were due to lesions in the cervical spinal cord.

Parkinson’s interest gradually turned from medicine to natural philosophy, specifically the relatively new fields of geology and paleontology. He began collecting specimens and drawings of fossils in the latter part of the 18th century. He took his children and friends on excursions to collect and observe fossil plants and animals. His attempts to learn more about fossil identification and interpretation were frustrated by a lack of available literature in English, and so he took the decision to improve matters by writing his own introduction to the study of fossils.

In 1804, the first volume of his Organic Remains of a Former World was published. Gideon Mantell praised it as “the first attempt to give a familiar and scientific account of fossils.” A second volume was published in 1808, and a third in 1811. Parkinson illustrated each volume and his daughter Emma colored some of the plates. The plates were later re-used by Gideon Mantell. In 1822 Parkinson published the shorter “Outlines of Oryctology: an Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains, especially of those found in British Strata”.

Parkinson also contributed several papers to William Nicholson’s A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, and in the first, second, and fifth volumes of the Geological Society’s Transactions. He wrote a single volume Outlines of Oryctology in 1822, a more popular work. On 13 November 1807, Parkinson and other distinguished scholars met at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London. The gathering included Sir Humphry Davy, Arthur Aikin and George Bellas Greenough. This was to be the first meeting of the Geological Society of London.

Parkinson belonged to a school of thought, catastrophism, that concerned itself with the belief that the Earth’s geology and biosphere were shaped by recent large-scale cataclysms. He cited the Noachian deluge of Genesis as an example, and he firmly believed that creation and extinction were processes guided by the hand of God. His view on Creation was that each ‘day’ was actually a much longer period than 24 hours, perhaps lasting tens of thousands of years.

Parkinson died on 21st December 1824 after a stroke that interfered with his speech. His collection of organic remains was given to his wife and much of it went on to be sold in 1827, a catalogue of the sale has never been found. He was buried at St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.

Parkinson’s life is commemorated with a stone tablet inside the church of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, where he was a member of the congregation; the exact site of his grave is not known, and his body may lie in the crypt or in the churchyard. A blue plaque at 1 Hoxton Square marks the site of his home. Several fossils were named after him. There is no known portrait of him: a photograph, sometimes published and identified as of him, is of a dentist of the same name, but this James Parkinson died before photography was invented.

I came across THE ART OF COOKERY MADE EASY AND REFINED; COMPRISING AMPLE DIRECTIONS FOR PREPARING EVERY ARTICLE REQUISITE FOR FURNISHING THE TABLES OF THE NOBLEMAN, GENTLEMAN, AND TRADESMAN. By JOHN MOLLARD, Cook (Lately one of the Proprietors of Freemasons’ Tavern, Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields) (1802). Freemasons’ Tavern was where the Geological Society of London first met, so the dishes in this collection represent ones Parkinson would have eaten. By and large they are nothing out of the ordinary until you get to Olios. He claims (in the middle) to have seen this being cooked. Unless it was cooked in a cauldron the size of a swimming pool, I doubt it. Read on – the second part is more sane.

Olios, or a Spanish Dish.

The articles that are wanted consist of the following: viz.

Leg of mutton of ten pounds.
Leg of veal ditto.
Chuck beef ditto.
Lean ham six pounds.
Best end of a neck of mutton.
Breast of veal, small.
Two pieces of bouillie beef of one pound each.
Two pair of pigs feet and ears.
A bologna sausage.
A fowl.
A pheasant.
Two partridges.
Two ruffs and rees.
Two quails.
Two teal.
Two pigeons.
Two rabbits.
One hare.
Two stags tongues.
One quart of burgonza peas.
Black pepper.
Haricot roots.
Fried bread.
Saffron, and

The Olio to be made as follows:

Take the beef, veal, mutton, and ham; cut them into pieces, put them into a pot, cover with water, and when it boils skim clean; then add carrots, celery, turnips, onions, leeks, garlick, parsley, and thyme, tied in a bunch; allspice, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, and a little ginger, put in a cloth. Boil all together till it becomes a strong stock, and strain it. Then cut the breast of veal into tendrons, and best end of neck of mutton into steaks, and half fry them; pigs feet and ears cleaned; hare cut into joints and daubed with bacon; bouillie beef tied round with packthread; poultry trussed very neat, with the legs drawn in close; the tongues scalded and cleaned; and the rabbits cut into pieces. When the different articles are ready, blanch and wash them, then braise each[35] in a separate stewpan, with the stock that was strained. When the different things are braised enough, pour the liquors from them into a pan, leaving a little with each to preserve from burning. When they are to be served up, skim the liquor very clean, and clear it with whites of eggs; then cut turnips and carrots into haricots, some button onions peeled, and heads of celery trimmed neat; after which blanch them, cut the bologna sausage into slices, boil the burgonza peas till three parts done, then mix all together, add some of the cleared liquor, and stew them gently till done. The remainder of the liquor to be coloured with a little saffron, and served up in a tureen with a few burgonza peas in it.

When the olio is to be served up, take a very large deep dish, make several partitions in it with slips of fried bread dipped in whites of eggs, and set it in a slow oven or before a fire; then lay the tendrons, birds, beef, mutton, fowls, &c. alternately in the partitions, and serve up with the haricot roots, &c. over. The whole of the liquor to be seasoned to the palate with cayenne pepper and lemon juice.

[This receipt for a Spanish olio is only written to shew how expensive a dish may be made, and which I saw done. As a substitute I have introduced the following english one, which has been generally approved; and I think, with particular attention, it will exceed the former in flavour.]

Hodge Podge, or English Olio.

Take four beef tails cut into joints, bouille beef two pieces about a quarter of a pound each, and two pieces of pickle pork of the same weight. Put them into a pot, cover with water, and when it boils skim clean, and add half a savoy, two ounces of champignons, some turnips, carrots, onions, leeks, celery, one bay leaf, whole black pepper, a few allspice, and a small quantity of mace. When the meats are nearly done, add two quarts of strong veal stock, and when tender take them out, put them into a deep dish, and preserve them hot till they are to be served up; then strain the liquor, skim it free from fat, season to the palate with cayenne pepper, a little salt, and lemon juice, and add a small quantity of colour; then have ready turnips and carrots cut into haricots, some celery heads trimmed three inches long, and some whole onions peeled. Let them be sweated down, till three parts tender, in separate stewpans, and strain the essences of them to the above liquor; clear it with whites of eggs, strain it through a tamis cloth, mix the vegetables, add the liquor to them, boil them gently for ten minutes, and serve them over the meats.


Jul 182013


Today is the birthday of Robert Hooke, arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century.  Unfortunately no portrait survives, and the image here is merely an attempt by a modern artist to give us some idea, although I have no idea what information the facial features are based on. Hooke’s relative obscurity is due in large part because his contemporaries, notably Sir Isaac Newton, sought to downplay his role in key areas of scientific discovery. Hooke’s interests were vast. He made contributions in fields such as physics and astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, architecture and naval technology. He collaborated or corresponded with scientists as diverse as Christian Huygens, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Among other accomplishments, he invented the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, and an early prototype of the respirator; invented the anchor escapement and the balance spring, which made more accurate clocks possible; served as Chief Surveyor and helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666; worked out the correct theory of combustion; devised an equation describing elasticity that is still used today (“Hooke’s Law”); assisted Robert Boyle in studying the physics of gases; invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer; pioneered microscopy and discovered the cell; and established an accurate understanding of the origins of fossils.

Relatively little is known about Robert Hooke’s life. He was born on July 18, 1635, at Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, the son of a clergyman. He was educated at home by his father until he died when Hooke was 13.  His father left him an inheritance of 40 pounds, intended for Hooke to use to buy an apprenticeship as a watchmaker (because he had shown extraordinary skill at an early age with mechanical things).  Although he did travel to London to start an apprenticeship he wound up at Westminster School where he studied the classics and Euclid. Subsequently he entered Oxford as a choir scholar in 1653.

At Oxford he was employed as a “chemical assistant” to Dr Thomas Willis, for whom Hooke developed a great admiration. There he met the natural philosopher Robert Boyle, and gained employment as his assistant from about 1655 to 1662, constructing, operating, and demonstrating Boyle’s “machina Boyleana” or air pump. It is known that Hooke had a particularly keen eye, and was an adept mathematician, neither of which applied to Boyle. It has been suggested that Hooke probably made the observations and may well have developed the mathematics of Boyle’s law (concerning the pressure and volume of gases). Regardless, it is clear that Hooke was a valued assistant to Boyle, and the two retained a mutual high regard. Hooke himself characterized his Oxford days as the foundation of his lifelong passion for science, and the friends he made there were of paramount importance to him throughout his career, particularly Christopher Wren.

It is impossible to examine all of the areas of inquiry in which Hooke excelled and made major contributions.  The lead paragraph here will have to suffice. Instead I will focus on two subjects simply because they are of professional interest to me: microscopy and paleontology.

Hooke’s reputation in the history of biology largely rests on his book Micrographia, published in 1665. Hooke devised the compound microscope and illumination system and with it he observed organisms as diverse as insects, sponges, bryozoans, foraminifera, and bird feathers. Micrographia was an accurate and detailed record of his observations, illustrated with magnificent drawings, such as the flea (pictured), which Hooke described as “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed. . .” It was a best-seller of its day.



Perhaps his most famous microscopical observation was his study of thin slices of cork, (pictured). In “Observation XVIII” of the Micrographia, he wrote:

I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular. . . . these pores, or cells, . . . were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this. . .

Hooke had discovered plant cells — more precisely, what Hooke saw were the cell walls in cork tissue. In fact, it was Hooke who coined the term “cells”: the boxlike cells of cork reminded him of the cells of a monastery.

Hooke was also a keen observer of fossils and geology. While some fossils closely resemble living animals or plants, others do not — because of their mode of preservation, because they are extinct, or because they represent living taxa which are undiscovered or poorly known. In the seventeenth century, a number of hypotheses had been proposed for the origin of fossils. One widely accepted theory, going back to Aristotle, stated that fossils were formed and grew within the Earth. A shaping force, or “extraordinary Plastick virtue,” could thus create stones that looked like living beings but were not.

Hooke examined fossils with a microscope — the first person to do so — and noted close similarities between the structures of petrified wood and fossil shells on the one hand, and living wood and living mollusc shells on the other. In Micrographia he compared a piece of petrified wood with a piece of rotten oak wood, and concluded that,

“this petrify’d Wood having lain in some place where it was well soak’d with petrifying water (that is, such water as is well impregnated with stony and earthy particles) did by degrees separate abundance of stony particles from the permeating water, which stony particles, being by means of the fluid vehicle convey’d, not onely into the Microscopical pores. . . but also into the pores or Interstitia. . . of that part of the Wood, which through the Microscope, appears most solid.”

He is spot on: dead wood can be turned to stone over time by the action of water rich in dissolved minerals, depositing those minerals throughout the wood. Hooke also concluded in Micrographia that the shell-like fossils that he examined really were,

“the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance. . . ”

Hooke had grasped the cardinal principle of paleontology — that fossils are not “sports of Nature,” but remains of once-living organisms that can be used to help us understand the history of life. Hooke realized, two and a half centuries before Darwin, that the fossil record documents changes among the organisms on the planet, and that species have both appeared and gone extinct throughout the history of life on Earth.

Hooke gained a reputation (undeserved) of being anti-social, mostly gained from the fact that he spent so much time defending his scientific prowess against contemporaries, and thereby appearing to be an irascible misanthrope.  He was anything but. There is ample documentation of him enjoying evenings in the tavern or dining with Boyle.  One great tavern food is the meat pie, still very much in evidence in pubs at lunch time when I was at Oxford. Here’s a pie recipe taken from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, first printed in 1669. This is a 17th-century English cookbook and a resource of the types of food that were eaten by persons of means in the 17th century in England. It is supposedly based upon the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby, a privateer whose interests included cooking, medicine, swordplay, astrology, alchemy, literature, and natural philosophy.

First, here is the original:

My Lady Of Portland’s Minced Pyes

Take four pounds of Beef, Veal or Neats-Tongues, and eight pounds of Suet; and mince both the meat and Suet very small, befor you put them together. Then mingle them well together and mince it very small, and put to it six pounds of Currants washed and picked very clean. Then take the Peel of two Limons, and half a score of Pippins, and mince them very small. Then take above an Ounce of Nutmegs, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, some Cloves and Cinnamon, and put them together, and sweeten them with Rose-water and Sugar. And when you are ready to put them into your Paste, take Citron and Orangiadoe, and slice them very thin, and lay them upon the meat. If you please, put dates upon the top of them. And put amongst the meat an Ounce of Caraway seeds. Be sure you have very fine Paste.

My Lady of Portland told me since, that she finds Neats-tongues to be the best flesh for Pies. Parboil them first. For the proportion of the Ingredients she likes best to take equal parts of flesh, of suet, of currants and of Raisins of the Sun. The other things in proportion as is said above. You may either put the Raisins in whole, or stone the greatest part, and Mince them with the Meat. Keep some whole ones, to lay a bed of them at the top of the Pye, when all is in. You will do well to stick the Candid Orange-peel, and green Citron-peel into the meat. You may put a little Sack or Greek Muscadine into each Pye. A little Amber-sugar doth well here. A pound of flesh, and proportionably of all things else, is enough for once in a large family.

I have a hard job getting my mind around a recipe that begins with 12 lbs of meat and fat, but thankfully Sir Kenelme helps us out by saying that 1 lb of meat (plus 1 lb of fat) will serve an average family, so we can begin reconstruction on that basis.  You might also balk at a pie made with tongue.  If so I believe that veal breast would make an acceptable substitute. The reason I chose this recipe is that it is akin to meat pie recipes that were popular well into the late 19th century.  This kind of meat pie heavy with fruit and spices is, of course, the original version of the mincemeat pie. The “meat” in “mincemeat” really was meat until 100 years ago.  There is not as much sugar in this recipe as there would be in a sweeter dessert pie, though. The thing that makes this pie a little unusual is the top layer of candied citron, candied orange, and dates. It is always best if you can make the candied peel yourself, especially in this case where you need whole slices (if possible). I have not actually made this specific recipe but I have experimented a great deal with similar ones.  So here’s my interpretation.

My Lady Of Portland’s Minced Pyes


½ lb beef tongue of veal breast
½ lb ground suet
¼ lb currant
¼ lb golden raisins
1 cooking apple cored, and diced fine
1 lemon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp powdered mace
½ tsp powdered cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 tbsps brown sugar
1 tbsp rosewater
zest of 1 lemon grated
candied citron and orange
dates, pitted and halved lengthwise
1 egg, beaten


Preheat oven to 425°F

In a large mixing bowl thoroughly mix the meat, suet, currants, raisins, apples, sugar, spices, lemon zest, rosewater, and a pinch of salt. Grease a 9” pie dish and line with pastry.

Place the meat filling into the dish. Top with a single layer of candied fruits. Then top with pitted dates .

Cover with the second circle of pastry and flute the edges. Cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Brush the pastry with egg.

Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until the crust is lightly browned.

Can be served hot or cold.

Serves 4-6

As a small after note in tribute to Hooke’s work with the microscope here’s an image of the sugar in this recipe under an electron microscope.