Born in the mid-17th century, Martin Lister arguably founded two fields of natural history. One was arachnology (the study of spiders), which is horrifying. The other was conchology (the study of shells), which is admirable. Along the way, he authored more than 60 papers in the Royal Society of London's Philosophical Transactions, published multiple volumes on natural history, pondered the puzzling nature of fossils, and gained wealth and admiration as a physician.
Never wanting for money, Lister was born in 1639 in Radcliffe Manor in Buckinghamshire, the fourth child of Sir Martin Lister and Susanna Temple. He suffered from asthma all his life, but otherwise enjoyed pretty good health. He learned Latin in grammar school, and employed it expertly decades later. Decades later, he also referred to ancient authors in their original Greek. He was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1655. He studied medicine, and continued his medical studies in Montpellier, France, though he never formally earned a degree from that university. In Montpellier, he focused on the study of medicinal botany, and rounded out his accomplishments — the social niceties expected of gentlemen. Montpellier was useful to his later career, but also tricky. Catholics dominated there, and Lister was Protestant. The religious differences limited what he could participate in, but he soaked up knowledge on the Continent, studying botany with John Ray, and learning anatomy from Niels Stensen (Steno). The well-off Lister spent multiples of the annual income a typical academic earned in this period.
Back in England, Lister returned to Cambridge, but he left by 1668, probably because a longer stay would require adopting the lifestyle of a celibate don. Lister wanted female company, and he started wanting it more than ever as he realized his mother was dying. Around the time his mother passed away, Lister started courting Hannah Parkinson. Hannah came from a family intensely interested in natural history, so she was probably an excellent fit for her new husband.
Before long, the Listers moved to York. At first, the couple lived in a modest neighborhood as Lister built a medical practice. Most of his patients paid him between 5 and 10 shillings, the equivalent of 40 to 60 pounds today. For his patients' servants, he charged a lower fee, about 1 shilling, and often treated children and the poor free of charge. His treatments generally consisted of herbal remedies, purgatives, and emetics. Sometimes he administered horns of "sea unicorns" (narwhal horns). Soon, he attracted higher-paying patients, and the Lister family could afford to move to a posh York neighborhood. In 1683, they moved to London.
In his spare time, Lister followed his interests in natural history. Curious about geology, he studied the Craven Fault along the southern and western margins of the Yorkshire Dales. Composed of limestone, the fault was rich in fossil echinoderms, specifically crinoids, or sea lilies. Lister used acid to dissolve the limestone away from these fossils to get a better look at the individual bits of crinoid stems. Legends had long described the pieces of crinoid stems as Saint Cuthbert's beads, fashioned by Cuthbert for his followers to string into rosaries. Lister noticed the sea lilies' resemblance to plants, though he mistook their limbs for roots. But he was more inclined to think they only looked like plants, and had been spontaneously generated by the surrounding rocks. Fellow naturalist John Ray tried to dissuade Lister from this belief, pointing out reasons why the fossils could really be old animals. (They really were.) Lister did argue for the biological origin of some fossil echinoderms, and he is credited with "the earliest known example of taphonomic reasoning in a scientific paper." Taphonomy, the study of how organisms die and get buried by sediments, attracted truly serious study among paleontologists in the 20th century.
With his interest in fossils ignited by crinoids, Lister moved on to other fossils, especially mollusks.
Living mollusks interested Lister, too. He cast his fossil-collecting net wide, picking up snails from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, but also relying on friends and correspondents in the Republic of Letters to send him fossils from the Indian Ocean and the New World. He studied mollusks carefully enough to notice handedness in shells. Hold a shell with the spire pointing up and the opening toward you. In most cases, the opening will be on your right. Those shells are known as dextral. In the rare cases when the opening is on your left, the shells are sinistral. The same terminology, with the "sinister" hint about left-handedness, is used for humans.
Extinct and extant mollusks share broad similarities, but the differences nag someone with an eye for detail matching Lister's. In organizing the shells he collected, he organized them by form, which allowed him to see the similarities between living and fossil mollusks. But he also noticed differences. Ammonites, with their complex suture lines, look sort of like modern nautiluses. And yet they don't. Trilobites look like bugs, but they don't look like anything still living today. Why? Trying to understand fossilization, he even tried to grow pearls from "snail juices."
The same questions that puzzled his contemporaries puzzled Lister. He pondered the same conclusions: Fossils might be spontaneously formed by rocks, or fossils might be the remains of organisms long vanished from the Earth. In the 17th century, that was a big deal. If meant God could let an entire kind of plant or animal die off completely. Lister didn't know what the truth was, but he was at least willing to consider extinction.
Between his medical practice, his collection building, and his history-of-life contemplation, Lister started publishing books. His multi-volume Historiæ Animalium started with spiders, and moved on to mollusks. Publishing illustrated books was difficult business in those days, in part because getting the work published often entailed working with more than one printer. Printers didn't much like publishing these books because the production was costly, and the market was small. And there were the complications of finding a qualified artist. For Lister, the artist at first was William Lodge, who produced excellent work — when he was productive. His output was uneven and his address was remote, even more so after Lister moved to London. The next artist was Francis Place, and he did a fine job until he inherited a lot of money and didn't need to work for Lister anymore.
Fresh out of artists, Lister turned to a novel source. Or maybe not so novel. Women likely participated in natural history more than historians have appreciated. Natural history, publishing, and other businesses often happened at home, and Lister's children included two talented artists: his daughters.
Susanna (Susan) was baptized on June 9, 1670, shortly before the Listers moved to York. Anna (Nancy) was born October 13, 1671. A surviving letter from Lister to his wife, written around 1680, asks if she received the "box of colors" he sent for their daughters. The colors included watercolor cakes in shells — appropriate since shells would comprise so much of what the girls would illustrate. The "pencils" included in the box were actually small brushes. Lister wanted them to learn limning, or illumination. Limning and shell collecting were both considered suitably genteel occupations for girls. Lister, a pretty talented illustrator himself, oversaw his daughters' training, and he probably also taught them how to etch and engrave when they were teenagers. The Lister sisters often surrounded the shell illustrations with fancy, feminine borders, causing some science historians to question the pictures' scientific merit. But the pictures inside the borders are remarkably accurate, science historian Anna Marie Roos documents.
The Lister family published Historiæ Conchyliorum between 1685 and 1692. Book I covered exotic land snails and slugs. Book II covered freshwater shells, snails and bivalves. Book III covered marine bivalves. Book IV covered marine mollusks, marine snails and mollusk anatomy. Three separately published appendixes covered fossil bivalves, fossil snails, and text tweaks. Susanna and Anna's names appear on Historiæ Conchyliorum's title page.
Susanna Lister and Anna Lister may have counted among the first women to use microscopes in scientific illustration, and they were certainly among the youngest. They were probably engraving as teenagers. They were accomplished at the start of the project, but in the more than 1,000 plates published in Historiæ Conchyliorum, a careful observer can see their skills refined, such as three-dimensional perspectives and exacting suture lines in ammonites, and multiple perspectives for the same picture of Melo æthiopica.
By the 1690s, Martin Lister enjoyed considerable success as a physician and a natural historian, but success doesn't guarantee good luck. His wife Hannah died in 1695. Looking after Martin likely fell to Anna and (especially) Susanna, but Martin remarried in 1698, partnering with his solicitor's sister, Jane Cullen. After he remarried, Susanna herself married, tying the knot with the widower Sir Gilbert Knowler. Anna's fate is not known, and she doesn't appear in her father's will, made out in 1704. Maybe Anna married a man her father disliked. Martin died in 1712, leaving behind a remarkable natural history legacy. Besides published books, some shells in the Lister family collection survive, many of them now housed at the Natural History Museum, London. Comparing the shells from the Lister family collection to the illustrations the Lister family published show the dedication of accuracy and beauty.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated November 7, 2021