The platypus in Edinburgh: Robert Jameson, Robert Knox and the place of the Ornithorhynchus in nature, 1821-24

Bill Jenkins*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

The duck-billed platypus, or Ornithorhynchus, was the subject of an intense debate among natural historians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its paradoxical mixture of mammalian, avian and reptilian characteristics made it something of a taxonomic conundrum. In the early 1820s Robert Jameson (1774-1854), the professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh and the curator of the University's natural history museum, was able to acquire three valuable specimens of this species. He passed one of these on to the anatomist Robert Knox (1791-1862), who dissected the animal and presented his results in a series of papers to the Wernerian Natural History Society, which later published them in its Memoirs. This paper takes Jameson's platypus as a case study on how natural history specimens were used to create and contest knowledge of the natural world in the early nineteenth century, at a time when interpretations of the relationships between animal taxa were in a state of flux. It shows how Jameson used his possession of this interesting specimen to provide a valuable opportunity for his protege Knox while also helping to consolidate his own position as a key figure in early nineteenth-century natural history.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)425-441
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of Science
Volume73
Issue number4
Early online date27 Sept 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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