Frogs in the Foster Collection

Scientific instruments are not only things that we can tinker with. 'Paper tools' like books and journals are important examples of scientific instruments, though they attain that status in unfamiliar ways. How these texts were created and organised into libraries could have great consequences, and could even transform the way that their contents were perceived, interpreted, and made scientifically meaningful.

Foster collection
Image 1 The Foster Pamplet Collection in the Whipple Library. Image © the Whipple Library.

In 1882, W.T. Sedgwick published an extensive review article in a new Cambridge periodical entitled "Studies from the Biological Laboratory." In it, he described the use of frogs as objects for testing the nature and origin of reflex motion. After 'decerebrating' frogs - that is, removing their brains through vivisection - frogs would be immersed in water of varying temperatures and their responses observed. Such interest in reflexes followed closely on Galvani and Volta's experiments on stimulation. Sedgwick made careful use of work from his own Cambridge laboratory, and especially that of its founding professor, Michael Foster. He cited dozens of articles from journals printed throughout Europe and America.

The Whipple Library holds the books that served Foster's young department and supplied Sedgwick's citations. These books represent the peculiar ways that researchers here in our own university discovered general scientific meaning in the study of frogs' bodies. The Foster Collection comprises thousands of articles from scientific journals, chapters from books, dissertations, and other texts that have been removed from their original binding, rearranged, and rebound in hardback editions according to Foster's own taxonomy. It includes 5,221 pamphlets that fill around 200 volumes and cover all aspects of 19th century physiology. Rather than sorting articles according to their original journal or book of publication, Foster created a library that placed each article alongside other articles that consider the same part of the body. Physiological studies of the nervous system - whether that be human, cat, or frog nerves - are all conjoined. Investigations into the digestive system, for example, are all collected in a volume labeled "Digestion."

Printed works like these may not seem to be scientific instruments in a conventional sense. Through the content and organisation of its papers, however, the Foster Collection manifests distinctly modern ways of using frogs to produce general scientific knowledge. These books exemplify how animal diversity was useful to scientific work at a certain moment in time, but also how it could also be ignored or denied. Where zoology and some other biological sources aim to classify and distinguish animals, this library exemplifies physiologists' opposite impulse: to homogenise or assimilate the processes that make them alive.

The Whipple Library Books blog produced a brief overview of the collection that can be seen here. [https://whipplelib.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/f-is-for-foster-founder-of-the-cambridge-school-of-physiology/]

Henry Schmidt

Henry Schmidt, 'Frogs in the Foster Collection', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/frogs/frogsinthefostercollection/, accessed 25 November 2017]

 
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