Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Object 7. Biblical Herbarium

What: Public Lecture, part of History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects

When: Tuesday 27th September, 6:15 – 7:15pm

Where: Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds


Victorian Britain has often been characterized as an age in which science and religion were at war.  Using a rare biblical herbarium, Dr Jon Topham will explore these themes in lecture 7 of our HPS in 20 Objects series. We invite you to discover some of the surprising and thought-provoking ways in which scientific and religious beliefs and practices were interconnected in the lives of our great-grandparents.

All are welcome, this lecture assumes no prior knowledge. Tea and coffee will be provided from 6pm outside the lecture theatre.


Lecture Video:

The following blog post was written by PhD Student, Clare O’Reilly:


A large late nineteenth century mahogany box with a collection of dried plants inside – a herbarium – is not the most obvious object that we today would associate with science. More surprising still, this single object unifies science with religion.

Dr Jon Topham began by explaining how important herbaria were in the practice of Victorian science by describing the contents of the box and its 38-page descriptive pamphlet. It was produced, at considerable expense, by Southhall Brothers, druggist and medical suppliers, in 1897. Herbaria like this were used as educational tools. Botany had a long association with medical studies, and students learnt plant identification and their medicinal uses from dried specimens. In schools, herbaria were used to illustrate God’s creation through the study of the natural world and ultimately brought biblical stories – of the reeds surrounding the hidden baby Moses, of the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion, – to  life.

A now-familiar and pervasive view is that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection marked a turning point in the history of science, and was a major cause of conflict between science and religion. Evolution is often cited as the best example of the irreconcilability of science and religion, for example, by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Blind Watchmaker (1986).   Jon argued that Victorian science and religion were not so in conflict as we are led to believe by those who use this historical myth to suit their own agenda in the present.


Perhaps the most famous historical clash between science and religion was the 1860 debate over evolution in Oxford, between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and public intellectual, Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Jon dramatically challenged our popular understanding of this event, showing how it has been told and re-told to emphasise far more of an intense spectacle than actually took place, and that it was portrayed as establishing a straight choice between science or religion as polar opposites. Nineteenth century historians started this rhetoric and histories of this sort have been debunked by recent scholarship. The dispute was actually part of a wider struggle over who should ultimately be *the* authority on the natural world: the scientists or the clergy. At stake, for the new men of science like Huxley, was the professional status of scientists, who got to be professors, and how to free science from the influence of the Churches. Huxley himself was agnostic – he coined the phrase  –  and many scientists at the time took intermediate positions on evolution, reconciling their Christian faith with evolution by God acting through natural laws like Darwin’s natural selection.

The lecture then moved on to far less-familiar people and more unexpected stories connected with the biblical herbarium, to show how religious belief has long been part of scientific practices, and scientific practices – specifically an interest in natural history and botany – was part of a good Christian lifestyle.picture1

Science and religion was particularly intertwined in education, with educational organisations, like Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, producing scientific publications with a religious tone. Even at the end of the century, many of the most successful popular science books were produced for a Christian audience. Jon used the story of Ellen Parry, daughter of a fashionable Bath physician, to show how science, “rational accomplishment”, was used by people to enhance their faith.

thumbnail_220px-hbtristram1908Jon then masterfully brought the lecture to its finale, by linking back to the biblical herbarium itself. The author of the pamphlet accompanying the box, Henry Baker Tristram, was a Fellow of the Royal Society but also a clergyman and Church Missionary Society activist. He was, perhaps most surprisingly, the first naturalist to apply Darwin’s theory in print. He embodied how, for many Victorians, the practice of religion and the practice of science were mutually supportive. He later opposed the Darwinians, but largely because of how they behaved, sneering and putting down their opponents, and because natural selection was inadequately supported, rather than because he regarded Darwin’s theory as atheistic.

This lecture was a fantastic demonstration of what professional historians do in challenging misinterpretations by those unwittingly back shadowing today’s debates on to the past. The history of science and religion is far more rich and complex than the popular polarising myth suggests.

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