Men, Women, and the Posthumous Papers of Seventeenth-Century Naturalists

Men, Women, and the Posthumous Papers of Seventeenth-Century Naturalists

I propose to consider the posthumous handling of the papers of seventeenth-century British naturalists and medical practitioners. As is well known from the work of Richard Yeo, Ann Blair, Lauren Kassell, Michael Hunter, and others, these figures built up massive stocks of papers—including notebooks, correspondence, unfinished treatises, and loose notes. Following naturalists’ deaths, wives, daughters, sons, husbands, friends, amanuenses, colleagues, printers, and booksellers all played a role in the care and management of such papers, valuing them in different ways and subjecting them to a range of treatments. This project will consider in particular the case of the papers of naturalist John Ray. In the negotiations over Ray’s papers, gender intersected with social class and education as factors shaping the role individuals played in relation to posthumous papers.

Following Ray’s death in 1705, his colleagues Hans Sloane, Samuel Dale, and William Derham sought to honor him and burnish their own reputations by publishing and preserving his letters and papers. His widow Margaret Ray, facing straitened economic circumstances following her husband’s death, bartered the papers for economic assistance and support from Dale, Derham, and especially Sloane. The case was complicated by the fact that some of the papers in Ray’s possession at his death belonged the family of his deceased friend and collaborator Francis Willughby, an annual stipend from whose estate had been the Ray family’s primary source of financial support. This bequest was cut off at Ray’s death. Extracting Willughby’s papers from amongst Ray’s and returning them to the Willughby family proved to be a delicate matter, one that Sloane negotiated through relationships he had previously established with Willughby’s children Cassandra and Thomas.

Attention to the gendered dimensions of posthumous negotiations over Ray’s papers reveals his surviving contemporaries using his papers as tools for getting by; as conduits for building relationships with each other; and as means for establishing reputations and careers. It also highlights the role of family relationships and masculine sociability in generating and maintaining a naturalist’s posthumous reputation, showing how both men and women, working with paper, shaped the material record of the history of science.