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Natural History and Ornithological Collection

2,000 items (dispersed).

The Library has a particularly fine collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bird books. These include the works of Thomas Pennant, Thomas Bewick, George Edwards, Georges-Louis Leclerc Compte de Buffon, Coenraad Temminck and François Le Vaillant. Among the greatest works are:

  • a first edition of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–43), the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America
  • John James Audubon’s massive elephant-folio Birds of America (1827–38)
  • a complete and uniformly-bound set of the publications of John Gould, arguably the greatest illustrator of birds in the nineteenth century
  • Daniel Giraud Elliot’s series of sumptuous ornithological monographs, from the Tetraoninae (grouse) of 1864–5 to the Pittidae (ant-thrushes) of 1893–5

Earlier works on natural history include:

  • a copy of the Aldine edition of Nicander’s Theriaca, once owned by Ulisse Aldrovandi (Venice, 1522–3)
  • Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (Zurich, 1587)
  • Marcello Malpighi’s pioneering monograph on the silk-worm (London, 1669)

Among books on fish, Markus Elieser Bloch’s beautifully illustrated Ichtyologie, ou Histoire Naturelle des Poissons (Berlin, 1785–97) merits particular notice. Other icthyological works include the 1685–6 edition of Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium Libri Quatuor, published after Willughby’s early death by fellow researcher John Ray, as well as Ray’s own Synopsis Methodica Avium & Piscium (1713).

The Library also has a substantial collection of the great herbals and botanical books, ranging from the Latin and German editions of the Herbarius of 1484 and 1485, and Leonhart Fuchs’s New Kreüterbüch (Basel, 1543), to Frederick Sander’s Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described of 1888–94, including fine editions of Carolus Clusius (Charles de l’Écluse), John Gerard, John Parkinson, William Curtis, John Sibthorp, James Sowerby, Nicolaas Jacquin, Rembert Dodoens and Nicholas Culpeper.

Mention must also be made of the sets of Pierre Joseph Redouté’s Les Roses (1817–24) and Les Liliacées (1802–10). The copy of Robert Thornton’s magnificent Temple of Flora (1799–1807), purchased in 1996, is considered to be one of the most perfect and complete in existence.

The study of natural history along modern, scientific lines began in the eighteenth century, with the classification of genera and species by Linnaeus. The Library holds the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae (1758–59), which is recognized as the foundation of all subsequent taxonomy.

The Library also possesses the first and numerous subsequent editions of the ever-popular The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) by the Reverend Gilbert White, who was much influenced by Linnaeus. These complement a small collection of Gilbert White manuscripts and letters to be found among the Grey (Stamford) of Dunham Massey Papers.

The works of Charles Darwin, who revolutionized the understanding and study of natural history in the next century, are particularly well represented.

The Library possesses three copies of the first edition of Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majestys Ships Adventure and Beagle (1839), a first edition of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839–43), and copies of the first four editions of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859–66), all in original cloth.

Finding aids

Recorded in general printed-book catalogue:

  • Audubon, James, Birds of America
  • Bloch, Marc Éliéser, Ichthyologie ou histoire naturelle des poissons, avec des figures enluminées, dessinées d'après nature
  • Darwin, Charles, The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839–43)
  • Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859–66)
  • Gesner, Konrad, Historiae Animalium
  • Gould, John, 1804-1881, The Birds of Europe
  • White, Gilbert, The natural history and antiquities of Selborne


The John Rylands Library

Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library

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