The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America

The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America

The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America

The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

After rising to fashion during the 1820s, botany rapidly became the most popular science in America for recreational and pedagogical purposes, and it remained tremendously popular throughout the century. Tens of thousands of enthusiasts, calling themselves "botanizers", embraced the pastime by collecting, identifying, and preserving specimens. Elizabeth Keeney examines the role of botany in the lives of these amateur scientists and establishes the role that they in turn played in the botanical community. Using popular magazines, textbooks, letters, diaries, fiction, and autobiographies of the day, The Botanizers explores the popular culture of this avocation, which attracted both men and women. According to Keeney, amateur botanizers and trained professionals managed to maintain a spirit of cooperation and collegiality throughout most of the century. Amateurs were usually less interested in contributing to science than they were in self-improvement, religious expression, and other aspects of botanizing that,were of little importance to professionals. As botany became increasingly professionalized, the goals of professionals and amateurs diverged even further, and by late century, the botanizers had rejected the new biological focus because it ignored their motivations for botanizing.

Excerpt

After rising to fashion during the 1820s, botany rapidly became the most popular science in America for recreational and pedagogical purposes, and it remained such throughout the century. Tens of thousands of enthusiasts embraced botanizing by collecting, identifying, and preserving specimens. Clubs, correspondence networks, specimen exchanges, and specialized publications arose to meet the demand for botanical culture. Young and old, rural and urban, male and female, joined together in pursuit of the natural history of plants.

The pathways through which specimens and information flowed included beginner and expert alike. While an increasingly influential few made science a lifework, the vast majority of members of the botanical community used science as a pastime. Without formal scientific training or employment, and with a deeper commitment to self-improvement than to the advancement of science, these botanizers, as they called themselves, had priorities and interests that differed from those of the nascent professionals. Yet while these differences led to disagreements over systems of classification and scientific standards, the botanical community managed to maintain a spirit of cooperation and collegiality for most of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the botanizers' focus on self-improvement had become incompatible with the professionals' interest in advancing science and their desire or need to seize autonomy and authority. Botanizers and professionals had drifted so far apart that neither group any longer considered botanizers to be members of the scientific community.

Despite the obvious importance of these changes, we know very little about the process of professionalization in general, and we know far less about the case of botany in particular, or the individuals involved in it. The accounts we do have view the change from the perspective of those who remained within the fold--that is, the professionals. This study takes a different frame of reference, that of those who do not fit today's conception of scientists: namely, the amateurs. The change can be readily illustrated by contrasting two . . .

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