By Raleigh McElvery
Last week, the MBLWHOI Library opened wide the doors to its trove of ancient artifacts, composed of scientific works dating as far back as the 16th century. This Rare Books and Archives exhibition occurred in conjunction with the annual MBL Society Meeting.
“It’s possible to access our Rare Books and Archives Collection as a researcher or as part of a tour group,” said MBL Library Director Jen Walton. “We thought an open house would be a good way to get more of the community excited about the MBL’s history.”
Walton and MBL Serials Librarian Matt Person selected a myriad of pieces to present, including the two oldest books in the Collection written, respectively, by Guillaume Rondelet in 1558 and Konrad Gesner in 1560. A sixth edition of The Origin of Species—given to the MBL’s first director, Charles Otis Whitman, by Charles Darwin himself—was also on display, accompanied by the first science journal published by the Royal Society (Philosophical Transactions); early issues of the MBL’s weekly newspaper (The Collecting Net); and more. Enhanced by woodcut, copperplate, and hand-colored illustrations, these relics served to chronicle the world as science saw it centuries ago and continue to inform research today.
Yet the exhibition’s true pièces de résistance were the two Nobel Prizes: the diploma awarded to Albert Szent-Györgyi in 1937 for his work on biological oxidation and Vitamin C, and Thomas Hunt Morgan’s diploma and medal (awarded in 1933) for determining that hereditary material is located on chromosomes. During their lifetimes, both scientists maintained enduring connections to the MBL.
Szent-Györgyi was the MBL’s first year-round scientist, establishing a lab in 1950 and working through the late 1980s. Morgan, an embryologist who studied regeneration as well as development and heredity, spent more than 50 summers in Woods Hole examining an array of invertebrates. “It’s always such a wonderful thing for students to come in and see the Nobel Prizes,” said Walton. “We tell them, ‘Until you get your own Nobel Prize.’”
But students weren’t the only ones floored by the chance to glimpse Nobel Prizes. “I was thrilled today to see Morgan’s Prize,” said Anne Macaulay, science editor at The Biological Bulletin. “Our journal has been in print since 1899 and it published Morgan’s articles decades prior to his win.”
In order to preserve and share the holy grail of scientific culture that is the MBL Archives, individuals like Willa Green of Barnard College aim to digitize these documents as part of the MBL History Project. “The digitization process requires scanning and entering in metadata, like dates, materials, and descriptions of each document,” said Green, as she browsed the items on display. “As an art history minor, I’m really interested in how the scientists incorporated art into their work,” she added.
Digitization is central to a decades-long collaboration between the MBL and 30 other libraries to contribute to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. “At this point, our library has scanned over 5,000 volumes, including journals, books, and rare books,” Person said. “We’re now part of an online library of legacy scientific literature that has about 180,000 volumes.” These artifacts provided the basis for modern science, and thanks to digitization efforts at MBL and elsewhere, they will certainly not be lost to history.
Top photo: MBL Library Director Jen Walton (right) and Serials Librarian Matt Person (at rear) explain the Rare Books and Archives on display at the open house.