A Brief History of Natural History
An introduction to the holdings of L. Tom Perry Special Collections
Today, the term “Natural History” refers to the descriptive, interpretational study of the natural world – the kind of information you might come across in a popular magazine, hobbyists’ group, or museum – as opposed to experimental disciplines like microbiology, zoology, or paleontology. Yet these and other modern scientific fields evolved from earlier centuries’ tradition of descriptive scholarship.
Some of the first natural histories were written in ancient Greece, though in the West, natural history as a discipline truly began to flourish during the Renaissance. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, European scholars attempted to describe and classify the natural world. Often, these natural historians would draw on their own observations, studying their local plants, animals, and minerals, but they also relied on hearsay and tradition, for example when describing fantastic or exotic beasts. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists adopted experimental techniques in their studies of nature, developing disciplines which today rely on scientific inquiry rather than descriptive methods.
While the History of Science collection at L. Tom Perry Special Collections primarily focuses on the work of Renaissance scholars, the collection contains a number of major scientific works of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the field of natural history, holdings include works by Carolus Linnaeus, the Comte de Buffon, and Charles Darwin (including first editions of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man). Students and faculty with demonstrated research interests may access these collections. Patrons can request reading privileges in person at the Special Collections reference desk. University faculty may also arrange for class presentations of these and any other materials in Special Collections