The Scientific Contribution of Peter Collinson
Fellow of the Royal Society
The Royal Society was established in 1660 “for the promotion of Physio-Mathematicall experimentall learning”. The membership was a mixture of scientists and amateurs, which was seen as both a strength and a weakness. It’s activities were wide-ranging and Raymond Stearns wrote in Science in the British Colonies of America - “Of the 9,876 papers read to the Society during its first century, 2174 dealt with natural history, and 2,171 related to medicine. Physics ran third with 1,560 papers, astronomy was fourth with 1,134 papers and antiquities and meteorology almost tied for fifth place with 471 and 470 papers respectively.”
Peter Collinson’s first recorded contact with the Royal Society was a letter containing reports of strange events witnessed in Kent by one of his correspondents – in this case a burning brook and a sudden land movement. Two weeks later he was proposed for membership. (1)
However, it was largely due to the patronage of Sir Hans Sloane that Peter Collinson flourished as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Sloane was the secretary from 1692 until 1712. When Sloane became President upon the death of Sir Isaac Newton in 1727, the way was clear for Sloane to promote the election of Peter Collinson. He was proposed as a Fellow by Mr Bevan, and recommended by the President and Dr Scheu(ch)zer, (who was Sloane’s librarian), 7th November 1728 and admitted to the Royal Society 28th December 1728. He was promoted to the Council in 1732 and served intermittently for 37 years (1732-1768).
As a Fellow of the Royal Society, Collinson presented some eighty papers including letters sent to him by friends and colleagues and those that were recorded in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Some of these are listed below:
Letters from John Bartram describing swarms of locusts (1737), and “account of very curious wasps’ nests and made of clay found in Pennsylvania” (1737).
Account of the American Ginseng (1738).
Letters written by Bartram – notably one on the rattlesnake mentioning a cluster of small teeth at the root of each fang, another on a salt-marsh mussel found in the oyster beds of Pennsylvania (1744).
Observations on the hardness of the shells and on the food of the sole fish (1744).
Note on the infection of the distemper among cows.
Observations on a sort of Lisella or Ephemeron (1744/45).
Observations on Cancer Major (1745/6).
Observations on the Balluga Stone (1746/7).
Observations on an uncommon gleam of light proceeding from the Sun (1746/47).
Letter from Bartram concerning observations on the Dragon-Fly or Libella of Pennsylvania (1749)
Cancer Major communicated to Mr Klein Secretary of Dantzick (1750).
The question of Electrical research and Franklin’s efforts in that direction.
Letter from Franklin explaining the effect of lightning on Captain Waddell’s ship.
Letter from Franklin describing his success in using a kite and key to draw electricity from the clouds (1752).
Observations on three fossil vertebrae of an elephant or hippopotamus discovered in a quarry at Woodstock.
A letter written by William Shervington to Franklin describing the transit of Venus as observed in Antigua (published in the Philosophical Transactions 1753).
Letters J Ellis wrote to Collinson about corals especially in the East Indies.
Letter from Revd W Gostling, Canon and Historian of Canterbury, with a description of a meteor.
Letter from G Edwards sent particulars of the Pennsylvanian Pheasant.
Paper on the Migration of Swallows communicated to Mr Klein Secretary of Dantzick (1758).
Observations made by Mr Bartram at Pennsylvania on the Yellowish Wasp of that country (1763).
Observations on the “Cyada” of North America (1764).
Observations on large fossil teeth discovered in North America (1767).
Peter Collinson came into contact with like-minded people through the Royal Society – many of whom exerted considerable influence at that time. This list is not meant to be exhaustive – just the names of a few to give a flavour of the circles in which he moved:
Sir Hans Sloane (physician), John Fothergill (physician), John Bartram (farmer & plant collector), William Byrd II (plantation owner - America), Mark Catesby (naturalist), Joannes Jacob Dillenius (professor of botany), George Ehret (botanist), George Edwards (ornithologist), Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father of the United States) , Johannes Fredericus Gronovious (physician), Emanuel Mendes da Costa (conchologist), Carolus Linnaeus (botanist), Philip Miller (chief gardener), Martin Folkes (antiquary), George Parker (2nd Earl of Macclesfield), Robert James Petre (8th Baron Petre – botanist), James Douglas (14th Earl of Morton), Cromwell Mortimer (physician), Thomas Birch (antiquary), William Watson (physician), Daniel Charles Solander (naturalist), John Coakley Lettsom (physician), Alexander Russell (natural historian),
During his time on the Council, Peter Collinson sponsored some seventy-seven candidates for election – some of whom are included above.
Collection of Specimens and Fossils
As one of the “curious” men exchanging fragments of knowledge about the natural world, Peter Collinson was an influential figure in what is now recognised as the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment.(1) Because of his worldwide trading operations there existed significant opportunities for friends and colleagues to send every imaginable item by way of seeds, plants, fossils, shells and even on occasions, live animals, to his business in Gracechurch Street.
John Bartram was initially engaged in the collection of plants and seeds, although at the request of Peter Collinson he supplied information on reptiles, animals and birds. Drawings of the small and great mud tortoise from Pennsylvania were sent by him, along with an engraving of the Cicadia of North America and a box of curiosities including a musk rat skin. Peter Collinson had in his collection of prints and drawings a coloured drawing of the Rattlesnake painted by William Bartram – taken upon the banks of Great Egg Harbor River. Mr J. A. Beurer sent Collinson a box of fossils that he recognised as ferns. As well as having an almost complete collection of shells, Peter Collinson had an extensive collection of moths and butterflies.
His thirst for knowledge was further stimulated by the exchange of letters with correspondents overseas. Matters of mutual concern ranged through insects, animals, shells and fossils as well as plants, seeds and un-explained events. Letters exchanged with George Croghan (deputy to Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the northern American provinces) led to one of Peter Collinson’s most important papers. The letters described the findings of skeletons of what appeared to be about thirty elephants. Ivory tusks were found and large, prolonged teeth unlike any that Collinson had ever seen before. He concluded that the teeth were from animals that must have been vegetarian and browsed on trees and shrubs. His assumptions proved correct, for the specimens turned out to be the bones of mastodons.
Patronage of Sir Hans Sloane FRS (1660 - 1753) and the British Museum
Sloane went to Jamaica in 1688 as physician to the Governor, the Duke of Albermarle. Although the Duke died within a year, Sloane remained in Jamaica to study the flora and fauna and on his return to England in1689, published a catalogue of Jamaican plants. Sloane also brought back many specimens, which formed the foundation of his vast herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. (1)
When Collinson first knew him, Sloane lived on Bloomsbury Square, where he had a highly successful medical practice. In 1712 he purchased the estate of the manor of Chelsea which included the site of the Society of Apothecaries’ garden – the Chelsea Physic garden, founded in 1673. Sloane also used his influence to ensure that Philip Miller was appointed curator of the garden. From correspondence it is clear that Sloane used to visit Collinson at Gracechurch Street where he would have been shown his “cabinet of curiosities”. Conversely, through frequent visits to Sloane’s house in Bloomsbury Square, Collinson was familiar with his ‘museum’ and knew precisely where each object might be found.
Peter Collinson’s interest in specimens and fossils was closely bound up with his relationship with Sir Hans Sloane. The collections of Sir Hans Sloane had so marked an influence on scientific progress in England that it is understandable that Peter Collinson was proud to be his close friend.
There was a lot of exchange of specimens and fossils – rarities from America were passed to Sloane, who in turn ensured that Collinson had his ‘spare duplicate examples’ for his own collection. Rarities of all shapes and sizes reached Peter Collinson and were handed over to Sloane: examples include - a curious hermaphrodite goat discovered on a West Indian Ship sent to Collinson by Captain Tanner; a living creature of species being between a rat and a squirrel called a ‘monac’ (woodchuck); a live possum with three young and later a male possum; a well preserved sloth sent from Jamaica (but not native to that island);
Failing health caused Sloane to retire from the Presidency of the Royal Society in 1741. He died in 1753 at the age of ninety-three. In the provisions of his will, of which Collinson was one of the trustees, Sloane directed that his personal museum should be offered to the government for half the sum he had spent on purchasing the contents. The government of the day agreed to his wishes, and in this way the British Museum came into being, based in part, on the collections of Sloane. The list of items he left in his museum – recorded by Collinson - was as follows:
Volumes of Drawings (347) & Illuminated Books the whole library 50,000 volumes
Volumes of Manuscripts & books of prints (3516)
Volumes in Folio being the Catalogue of his Cabinet (38)
Medals, Coins etc 32,000
Seals etc 268
Cameos, Intaglios 700
Precious Stones & Agates & (obscure) 2,225
Vessells of agates & Jaspers 542
Chrystalls & Sparrs 1,864
Fossells, flints & Stones 1,275
Mettals, Minerals, Ores 2,725
Earths, Loads & Salts 1,035
Bitumens, Sulphurs & Ambers 399
Talcs, Mica etc 388
Testaccea or Shells (obscure) 5,843
Corals, Sponges 1,421
Echine, Echinites (obscure) 695
Assena, Troche, Eabroche etc (obscure) 245
Crustacia, or Crabs 363
Stella Marine (illegible) (sea stars) 273
Fishes & their parts 1,555
Birds, Eggs, Nests etc 1,172
Vipers & Serpents 521
Vegitable, Seeds, Grains, Roots etc 12,506
Hortus Siccus 334
Miscellaneas Natural things 2,098
In framed pictures, Drawings Framed 365
(Schedule taken from letter to John Frederick Gronovius 24th March 1753) (2)
Relationship with The Library Company of Philadelphia
The Library really originated in a small club founded by Benjamin Franklin for ‘literary and scientific discussion’. Initially the Philadelphia Subscription Library started in the home of Robert Grace, but grew to having some “50 members all subscribing forty shillings a year to begin with and ten shillings a year for 50 years.” The Instrument of Association is dated 1st July 1731. Peter Collinson was always ready to lend a hand to any good cause, particularly when it involved the increase of knowledge, and so in 1732, when asked to become the London Agent for the newly founded library, he accepted.
The first list of required books sent to Peter Collinson included books on history, philosophy, science and the classics. Not all the books requested were available so Collinson made suitable substitutions. The box of required books was dispatched in October 1732, Collinson making his own contribution to the list by including Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy and Philip Miller’s Gardening Dictionary. From that time until 1761 Collinson continued to be their agent accepting no remuneration whatever. The letter of thanks was composed by Benjamin Franklin.
Over the years Peter Collinson took a real interest in the Library and from time to time sent over contributions for its shelves. He also passed on to the Directors news of scientific and agricultural improvements and called to their attention discoveries that he thought might interest them. The Library still exists today with many thousands of volumes, and is proud of its early connections with Franklin and Hopkinson, Bartram and Pemberton and many other worthies of the revolutionary era. It possesses many curios dating from various periods, amongst other things the electrical machines used by Franklin in making his first experiments. In addition to his help given to the Library of Philadelphia, Peter Collinson also helped the formation of a library in Darby (a small town 7 miles south west of Philadelphia) and to the Public School of Philadelphia.
Relationship with Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)
It was in 1745 that Peter Collinson sent to the Philadelphia Subscription Library a description of new experiments made with electricity in Germany together with the equipment necessary for repeating them. Benjamin Franklin held an interest in this area and so took up the experiments, and after a few years wrote an account of his experiences and discoveries in four letters dated 1747 and 1748 to Collinson. These letters explained the thirty-nine experiments Franklin had done to discover the properties of electricity and his insistence that lightening and electricity was the same thing. Inspired by Franklin’s papers, Collinson searched the London book-sellers for ‘foreign Electrical Books’, and found two in French that he sent to Franklin. Franklin, quite rightly, obtained the credit for the electrical experiments that were first brought to his attention by Peter Collinson.
It was Collinson who brought to the notice of the Royal Society the work done by Franklin on his electrical research and related experiments and Franklin was awarded the Copley Medal in 1753 for “Curious Experiments and Observations in Electricity.” He was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1756. It was Franklin who took electricity from a parlour game to an organised science.
When Peter Collinson’s wife died in 1753 Benjamin Franklin got to hear of it and wrote a letter of condolence to his friend from America. For many years between 1757 and 1775 Benjamin Franklin spent time living in England as a kind of diplomat of the thirteen American colonies, especially of Pennsylvania, and he used to meet regularly with Collinson and Fothergill at the “Club of Honest Whigs” and at various coffee houses, where he gathered a wide collection of friends and acquaintances. In 1767 Franklin visited Collinson at his home Ridgeway House in Mill Hill in the company of Dr Solander. At the time Collinson wrote to Bartram “Think how happy I am at this present writing to have the two doctors, Franklin and Solander, my guests for a few days to enjoy the delights of Mill Hill.”
Brett-James records that…” in July, 1917, to celebrate the entry of America into the War and the 150th anniversary of Franklin’s visit to Mill Hill, a garden party was held in Collinson’s garden at which speeches were made by prominent persons from both sides of the Atlantic. Two ladies from Philadelphia and Boston spoke and a play was performed introducing Collinson to Franklin”. (2)
Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) and the Linnaean Society
The Linnean Society of London is the world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788, - some 20 years after Peter Collinson died - the Society takes its name from the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus whose botanical, zoological and library collections have been in its keeping since 1829. As it moves into its third century the Society continues to play a central role in the documentation of the world’s flora and fauna – as Linnaeus himself did – recognising the continuing importance of such work to biodiversity conservation. According to Brett-James the tradition is that Linnaeus planted two cedars standing side by side in Collinson’s garden and in 1835 to commemorate Linnaeus’ visit to England the Linnaean Society held a field outing and picnic in the grounds of Mill Hill School and examined the cedars which they regarded as the most authentic memorial in England of their great name giver. (3)
Linnaeus’ main contribution to Botany is his contribution to the plant naming expounded in his publication Systema Naturae first published in 1735. Although the system, now known as binomial nomenclature, was partially developed by the Bauhin brothers, Gaspard and Johann, 200 years earlier, Linnaeus was first to use it consistently throughout his book. Collinson wrote to Bartram…”The Systema Naturae is a curious performance for a young man, but his coining of a new set of names for plants tends but to embarrass and perplex the study of Botany … very few like it.” However, through his letters with Bartram he was able to inform Linnaeus that the new system had been taken up by Clayton, Colden and Mitchell in America.
Linnaeus was introduced to Peter Collinson by Boerhaave, the famous Dutch physician, and met him for the first time in 1736 when he came to England on a protracted visit. Collinson was not living at Mill Hill at the time. However, from remarks made in Peter Collinson’s letters it is likely that Linnaeus visited Ridgeway House. While in England Linnaeus visited the Botanic garden in Oxford, whose curator was Dillenius, a friend of Collinson. Linnaeus endeavoured to have Collinson compile and publish a catalogue of his plants, but Collinson argued that as a busy merchant he could not find the time to do this unless he had the help of one of Linnaeus bright young pupils to “methodise it for me”. Linnaeus was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753.
One bone of contention between Collinson and Linnaeus was one of the unexplained events that concerned many Eighteenth-century scholars, ignorant of theories of bird migration, being the commonly held belief that swallows hibernated through the winter months under water. Linnaeus, Samuel Johnson and Jacob Theodore Klien all held this view but not so Peter Collinson – who argued that the birds did not have an organ that enabled them to breath under water. Collinson took quoted evidence from sea Captains who said they had seen flocks of swallows settle on the rigging of their ships. It took until sometime after his death that it generally became accepted…”the swallow leaves England in September”.
Collinson’s friendship with Linnaeus lasted at least twenty-five years and numerous letters passed between them (2). As both had an interest in botany, the subject of the numerous exotics that Collinson received from John Bartram and which he passed on to Linnaeus with much generosity, was discussed in their correspondence. And Collinson passed on thanks for giving him “botanically speaking, a species of eternity” by naming a plant after him – Collinsonia Canadensis. However Collinson’s generosity to Linnaeus was not reciprocated and Collinson observed in one of his letter of 1748… “You have been in my museum and seen my little collection and yet you have sent me nothing.” In spite of requests for Swedish trees, fish, insects and shells no specimens were sent despite 15 years of correspondence.
Society of Antiquaries
Founded in 1707 the Society of Antiquaries shared a number of members with the Royal Society. Collinson’s interests went beyond his love of natural history, and his examination of fossils led him to an early understanding of extinction, while his interest in archaeological remains won him election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1737. He was instrumental in having edited versions of papers of the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries sent to Edward Cave, who was editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine - a monthly paper that concentrated on reprinting news from weekly journals. Collinson also made his own contributions to Archaeologica, the Society’s journal – the best know is his “An extract Relating to the Round Tower at Ardmore, in Ireland.”
Collinson received from his cousin Benjamin Cooke, several axes and a spearhead found at Arreton Down on the Isle of Wight (1736/7). At the time they were thought to have belonged to Roman auxiliaries, but 20th cen technology correctly identified them as early Bronze Age ca 1500 B.C. William Stukeley, a founding member of the Society of Antiquaries, was a scholar whom Collinson admired and shared an interest in Druids and Stonehenge. Collinson wrote his memorial for the Gentleman’s Magazine.
1. 'Peter Collinson and the 18th Century Natural History Exchange' by O’Neill & McLean
2. 'Forget not Mee & My Garden…' by Alan W Armstrong
3. 'The Life of Peter Collinson' by Brett-James