Visualising Data: Taxonomy, Gender and Botanic Connections in the Long Eighteenth Century

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.

In this blog, I write from the perspective of an artist and historian who is using data visualisation to support and reinforce a primarily practice based PhD thesis. My argument is that the Linnaean system of botanical taxonomy, which favoured the male stamen over the female stigma, reinforced a social system in which a woman’s position was essentially passive and centred in a domestic environment while a man’s was active and public facing. In documenting the societal expectations that were imposed on the eighteenth-century elite, I demonstrate how women were constrained in their scientific endeavours and pushed to the margins of botanical networks. In ‘unbinding’ information gathered from both contemporary and eighteenth-century sources, I have classified each person, publication, or place as a separate ‘node’ while relationships between these nodes are known as ‘edges’. This can then be used to visually reveal connections in graphical and interactive presentations. This project builds on a tradition of imagery which historically served to both complement and replace verbal or written descriptions and to convey complex or multiple ideas.

Today, documentaries, docudramas, biographies, and novels engage the public in stories of the past with varying degrees of perspective and accuracy; similarly, I recognise that my dataset is slanted towards those players with the most extant archive. It is not designed to present statistics. Instead, it exemplifies the networks and opportunities open to those eighteenth-century elite keen to further their botanical study. Here, I will concentrate on one player, John Petiver (c.1665-1718), a wealthy English apothecary by trade. While Petiver’s business gave him a particular curiosity into the study of plants he also accumulated one of the most important and well documented natural history collections of the early eighteenth-century which, on his death, was bought for a nominal sum by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) and, combined with Sloane’s own collection, went on to found what is today’s British Museum.

Figure 1 (below) begins by visualising Petiver’s notable outputs and achievements, including his professional positions as Director of Chelsea Physic Garden and Apothecary to Charterhouse; his publications Musei Petiveriani centuriae (1695-1703) and Gazophylacium naturae et artis (1702–1709), essentially catalogues of his museum and herbarium which stretched to over one-hundred volumes and three of the notable societies of which Petiver was a member. Whilst not a data analyst, I am building these graphs in Neo4j, adding additional graphics and stylising the graphs in Photoshop. Meanwhile I am investigating the visualisation library vis.js which may allow such sophisticated enhancements to be programmed. While as a static visualisation limited information can be displayed, in an interactive environment, interrogating each ‘node’; book, institution, or society, will show publication information, links to online copies where applicable, and other members, employees etc. Each connection or ‘edge’  holds reference material. It should be recognised at this point that while similar visualisations can be applied to other elite, professional, or academic men, a similar chart recognising a woman’s achievements and opportunities does not exist. Their opportunity for either reading or writing academic publications was limited by their lack of education in Latin, the universal language of scholars, their access to societies, and the culture of the coffee club was prohibited as was the opportunity to take up ‘business’ positions.

Image of chart featuring network of notable works and professional relationships of James Petiver
Figure 1: James Petiver – Notable Works and Professional Relationships

In Figure 2 (below) I delve deeper into the membership of one of these societies, the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club, an exclusively male group (denoted by the ‘Person’ nodes coloured blue) which met each Friday evening to “mix social intercourse with the exchange of botanical information.”1 This provides a starting point in documenting just a few of the vast network of contacts Petiver relied upon to supply his personal museum and how plants were circulated, not just to Petiver but within the group. In order to accommodate future visualisations, I have included one edge for each location a supplier was sending from. 

Chart of plant exchange featuring the names of plant collectors in circles.
Figure 2: Plant exchange within the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club.

It is not until the net is cast wider than the Botanic Club and interrogate Petiver’s catalogue of suppliers that we find one female, Hannah English Williams, who is shown in pink (see Figure 3 below). While Hannah English Williams is noted amongst the hundreds who supplied Petiver, no information other than the date of her death is available. Of course this chart does not indicate that women were not collecting, merely that they were not considered significant to be mentioned in any documentation. What this chart also displays is the multiple range of professions of Petiver’s collectors: those working for trading companies such as the East India or Royal Africa Company, those travelling in the employ of the army or navy often as surgeons, the missionaries or clergy sent in the name of the Church and those who supplied plants from academic, professional or personal collections. I have chosen to include the Duchess of Beaufort on this chart as a recipient of plants from Petiver. This relationship reveals a female collector whose collections can potentially be used as a comparison with the almost exclusively male plant collectors of the period.

Chart of plant exchange featuring the industries and professions of plant collectors in circles.
Figure 3. Selected Members of James Petiver’s Plant Supply Network

While Figure 3 gives no indication as to the origin of the specimens, by visualising information on a contemporary map from 1744, it is possible to show a broad range of source locations, see Figure 4 (below). 

World map from 1744 that shows locations where Petiver's plants were supplied from.
Figure 4: Petiver’s Plant Suppliers by Location. Public domain Map source: Wikimedia Commons by Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Each iteration of a graph raises new questions: while figure 4 shows the location of plant suppliers’, it does not necessarily indicate the origin of the plants. This is particularly true of those sent from France and Holland; ‘suppliers’ might either have been sending native plants, or in the case of botanic gardens and other collectors, seeds previously obtained from their own collecting networks. Furthermore, on charts where collectors were obtaining plants from nurseries, it is impossible to ascertain the original origin of the plant. However, a secondary use of information currently displayed on this graph might be to trace the journey of individual suppliers as they travelled the world. Topographical maps have been key to botanists in indicating how factors of elevation and slope affect the density of vegetation; these might be reappropriated to visualise the quantities of plants coming from a variety of locations at any one time.

While these questions blur the focus of this research, the potential of data visualisation to explore other relevant topics is extensive; as previously mentioned, academic papers were written in Latin, a language not traditionally taught to women, however as the study of plants became more popular over the course of the long eighteenth-century, this changed. In plotting not only the language used, but the sex of the author I will demonstrate women’s developing engagement with the science of botany. Compiling this information will not only inform this thesis but can be utilised to provide graphics demonstrating the custodianship of notable botanic gardens, the patronage of gardeners and botanic artists, professional, familial, and friendship relationships alongside historical timelines. I am looking forward to progressing and collaborating on this project with artists, historians and  data analysts to explore this novel way of presenting historical information.

For more information on this project, please contact me at info [@]


1 Stearns, Raymond Phineas. “James Petiver.” Seventeenth-Century Promoter of Natural Science. In: Proc. Amer. Antiquar. Soc 62 (1952): 243-365, 253.

Feature image: James Petiver by Anne Griffiths
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As an artist and historian my interest is in collections and taxonomy. These can be museum collections which cross cultural, historical and natural science boundaries or those of the individual, whether the antiquarian, lepidopterist or today’s collector of memorabilia. Historically a 'Cabinet of Curiosity' contained ambiguous objects; those which refused to fit into any recognised system of taxonomy. It was a display of the wealth and education of the collector, constantly rearranged to inspire awe and wonder in both the physical object and the imagined stories it evokes. Today, with increased mobility, technology and globalisation, the world has shrunk and we see objects as familiar; their power to seduce and amaze is diminished, yet we still seek the curious, strange and unique to build our own collections. As we tweet, post and build our Pinterest galleries, mobile phones and computer screens have become the twenty-first century vitrine where the virtual is constantly competing to take the place of the physical. As the pace of the dissemination of news quickens amid an ever increasing multitude of platforms, we struggle with what is real and what is 'fake' news and gossip, rumour and opinion abound. The same was true in the eighteenth-century; the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, as theoreticians and natural philosophers sought to categorise the world, the printing press allowed ideas and information to be disseminated both quickly and cheaply; the world was turned on its head with 'truths' questioned and information unreliable and ambiguous. In drawing parallels between the past and present I seek to ‘unbind’ traditionally perceived connections and explore taxonomical ambiguity through visual collections and juxtapositions of objects alongside the written word. My current research is for a PhD which crosses the disciplines of History and Fine Art and Computer Science. I question how, in Linnaean botanical taxonomy, the prioritisation of the male stamen over the female stigma alongside the metaphors of domesticity and marital relationships used by Linnaeus to explain his system, related to the social norms and gendered hierarchy of the English eighteenth-century elite. My thesis will consist of physical artwork alongside an interactive data visualisations, in the form of timelines, maps, family trees and the like which act as both ‘artefacts’ and curatorial prompts to my written work. For more information on my work see

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