Mann Library Exhibit Introduces Naturalist Mark Catesby

White Billed Woodpecker. Photo by Mark Catesby/History of Carolina and the Bahamas, Vol. 1.

A new exhibit at Mann Library aims to introduce Cornellians to the early 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby – a man so mysterious no picture of him exists, but who documented the interrelations between plants and animals in North America 100 years before Charles Darwin’s voyage, and whose impact on botany and horticulture was enormous.

“A visual exhibit is perfect for showing Catesby’s drawings and talking about their influence,” said Don Rakow, associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science, who collaborated with Mann Library to organize the exhibit. “This is an opportunity to increase awareness and appreciation for how botanical knowledge has been acquired and spread.”

Reproductions of Catesby’s drawings of flora and fauna of North America and the Bahamas are now hanging throughout Mann, including an interpretive display in Mann lobby. In addition to the exhibit, Leslie Overstreet of Smithsonian Libraries will give a book talk at Mann Library April 26 on “The Curious Mister Catesby,” to which she contributed; and Mark Laird of the University of Toronto, who also contributed to the book, will give a lecture on Catesby in 404 Plant Science on May 1.

On June 10, Rakow will host a special viewing in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections of the 1731 first edition of Catesby’s book, “The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.”

“This exhibit program features views of beautiful art, insights about botany’s development as a science, and the chance to explore a spectacular book treasured by scientists, artists, and historians alike,” said Mann Library Director Mary Ochs. “It captures perfectly the vibrant research and teaching mission of Cornell.”

Catesby, born in England in 1648, spent several years traveling in North America, bringing plant specimens back to England, through which he introduced England and Europe to species that were previously unknown. Many of the plants in London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew were first introduced by Catesby. He was not only a naturalist and an artist but an explorer, navigating through undeveloped and largely unknown lands.

Parrot of Carolina. Photo by Mark Catesby/History of Carolina and the Bahamas, Vol. 1.

He was one of the first to draw plants and animals in a natural, lifelike way, and his drawings and findings influenced John James Audubon, Carl Linnaeus, and many others.

“Based on at least one account in ‘The Curious Mister Catesby,’ he wasn’t the warmest or friendliest of individuals, and yet he had such an outsized influence,” said Rakow. Rakow teaches a course, Coffee, Cloves, and Chocolate, tracing those crops from indigenous to industrialized uses, which touches on themes highly relevant to Catesby’s story. “He faced hardships and had to determine his own path, and he did it all for the furtherance of scientific and botanical knowledge.”

Though the methods of transporting and analyzing specimens is different, plant exploration continues today, Rakow added.

The exhibit in Mann will be on display through June.

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.