Professor Martyn Writes to Dr Pulteney

historia_plantarum_rariorum-jmOne of my current voluntary activities consists in part of thumbing through an elderly card index, which reposes in an elderly and beautiful wooden card index case. In the course of this rummaging, I have noticed with alarm the increasing fumble-fistedness of my digits, which makes the whole process long-drawn-out and frustrating; but I have also lit upon several individual cards which have led to documents which make riveting reading and have demanded further investigation.

I occasionally strike the odd nugget of pure gold: a 1965 letter from Joseph Needham on the subject of sub-classification of plant names in Chinese; a copy of Dr Ducarel’s 1773 pamphlet ‘Letter … to William Watson’; a bizarre further appearance of the ingenious Mr Chitqua which I haven’t quite got to the bottom of, and – best of all, so far – an original letter from Thomas Martyn to Richard Pulteney.

The address on the letter. (Credit: CUBG Cory Library @CoryLibrary)

The address on the letter. (Credit: CUBG Cory Library @CoryLibrary)

This is my transcription:

(address) July 30. 1783

To Dr Pulteney



(sealed with a black wax seal depicting a woman in classical robes, standing by a square pillar and spinning with a spindle; franked)

The seal of the letter. (Credit: CUBG Cory Library @CoryLibrary)

The seal of the letter. (Credit: CUBG Cory Library @CoryLibrary)


Little Marlow

July 30. 1783

Dear Sir,

I should have acknowledged your kind letter of May 20. and the very agreeable present which accompanied it, long since; but during my stay at Cambridge I read a lecture every day, and that took up my whole time. Since my return hither, whether from the heat of the weather, or the fatigue of the lectures, I have been much out of order, & unable to set about any business.

To the hurry of lectures, this year I had besides, that of being obliged to catalogue, arrange & pack up all my Museum; on account of the University pulling down my house. I mention this as an apology for not sending you a few Fossils, as I intended; for I really had not time to look them out for you.

However next season, I shall make a point of looking you out something, tho’ I cannot promise much, beside a few volcanic fossils from Vesuvius, & the north of Italy. I presume you know that Da Costa is about a work which he calls a Synopsis of British Fossils; but he is a mineralogist of the last age. I have not seen the treatise you mention De Origine Mundi by Wallerius.

You are in correspondence with Mr Relhan, and therefore I have no occasion to recommend him to your notice, either to procure him subscriptions, or to communicate to him hints & observations. His knowledge and diligence is such, that I hope he will give us a Flora which will do us credit. I exhort him to print somewhat in the form of Scopoli; & to give a neat description of each plant, or at least of one in each genus, pointing out the more striking distinctions of the rest. Will it not be remarkable, if Cambridgeshire should have four floras published, before Oxfordshire has one? Is it not also remarkable that when Mr Hasted designed to give a catalogue of the wild plants of Kent, he should be wholly unacquainted with Hudson’s Flora & even Ray’s Synopsis. And that to the last he should be ignorant of Johnson’s Itinera? It is not necessary that every Antiquary should be a Naturalist; but if he steps aside into the flowery path, he might at least procure a friend to direct his steps.

I am here ’till the winter; then whether I shall be here or in London is yet uncertain: wherever I may be, depend upon it Dear Sir I am with the most perfect respect & esteem

Your faithful humble servant

Tho. Martyn

Most of the dramatis personae are fairly readily identifiable. Thomas Martyn (1735–1825) had been, at the time he wrote this letter, university professor of botany at Cambridge for 21 years, and he continued in the post until his death.

Rev. Professor Thomas Martyn,by Giovanni Vendramini, published by R.J. Thornton, 1799. (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery)

Rev. Professor Thomas Martyn,by Giovanni Vendramini, published by R.J. Thornton, 1799. (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery)

A student at Emmanuel College, and later a fellow of Sidney Sussex, where he was ordained deacon in 1758 and priest the following year, he had effectively inherited the professorship from his father, John Martyn (1699­–1768), who gained the chair in 1733.

John Martyn, by an unknown artist, 1720s–1730s. (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery)

John Martyn, by an unknown artist, 1720s–1730s. (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery)

History has not been kind to the father-and-son team, who are generally regarded as having for the best part of a century done virtually nothing to advance the cause of botany in Cambridge. They suffer, of course, by contrast with the talented and energetic John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s mentor, and founder of the Botanic Garden we know today.

A sheet from the Martyns' hortus siccus in the Cambridge University Herbarium.

A sheet from the Martyns’ hortus siccus in the Cambridge University Herbarium.

However, both struggled with the lack of a stipend for the post, and John with the lack even of a garden for specimens (the original botanic garden having been founded only in 1761). Their joint biography (available online), published in 1830 by George Cornelius Gorham, the son-in-law of Thomas’s son John King Martyn, and curate to Thomas himself, consists of Thomas’s 1770 account of his father, with additional material mostly drawn from correspondence; and Gorham’s life of Thomas, which draws on the latter’s manuscript autobiography and also quotes at length from his 36-year exchange of letters with Richard Pulteney (1730-1801), physician and author of A General View of the Writings of Linnaeus (1782), and Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England (1790).

Richard Pulteney, engraving by P. Roberts. (Credit: The Wellcome LIbrary)

Richard Pulteney, engraving by P. Roberts. (Credit: The Wellcome Library)

Our letter features, but, infuriatingly, the extract begins at ‘I presume you know that Da Costa …’, and the most (to me) intriguing detail – ‘the University pulling down my house’ – therefore does not appear.

The Da Costa referred to is Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-91), naturalist and conchologist from a wealthy merchant family, who had a scandalous history of embezzlement from the Royal Society (while he was its clerk and librarian), imprisonment and poverty. Wallerius may be Johan Gottschalk Wallerius (1709-85) Swedish chemist and mineralogist, though a quick search doesn’t produce this title among his writings.

Richard Relhan (1754-1823) was fellow and chaplain of King’s College: Martyn gave him manuscript notes with the aid of which he published Flora Cantabrigiensis (1785) with 7 plates by the great botanical illustrator James Sowerby. (I owe this identification to Christine Bartram, until recently of the Cambridge University Herbarium, and custodian of the Martyn hortus siccus.) Relhan was also a talented water-colourist, and several of his pictures of local scenes have survived.

The now demolished house in the centre of Wandlebury Ring, the Iron-Age hillfort just outside Cambridge.

Relhan’s picture of the now demolished mansion in the centre of Wandlebury Ring, the Iron-Age hill-fort just outside Cambridge.

The Scopoli whom Relhan was urged to emulate is Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723–88), Italian physician and naturalist who worked on the flora and fauna of northern Italy and the Tyrol, and whose works are cited by Gilbert White.

Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, and the title page of one of his books.

Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, and the title page of one of his books.


Hasted must be Edward Hasted (1732–1812), author of The History and Topographical Survey of Kent: sadly, like da Costa, he had money problems, and was imprisoned for seven years for debt, after fleeing abroad with a mistress …).

The title page of Hasted's work.

The title page of Hasted’s work.

Hudson is William Hudson (?1730–93), author of Flora Anglica and praefectus horti at the Chelsea Physic Garden, who named (inter alia) the bee orchid. John Ray, the father of English botany needs, I hope, no introduction! Johnson is likely to be Thomas Johnson, whose Latin accounts of his botanical journeys in Kent and Hampstead (1629 and 1632) were translated and published by J.S.L. Gilmour, then Director of CUBG, in 1972.

This one letter, then, shows Thomas Martyn’s wide understanding of the work going on in his field, and the biography as a whole demonstrates the unflagging enthusiasm (as well as the frustrations) for botany, and for natural history in general, of both father and son. Time for a rethink of their contribution? And I must try and find out why the university was demolishing Thomas’s house.


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