The Wonderful Mr Willughby is for readers who enjoy watching bumblebees bounce from bloom to bloom or delight in the courtship songs of love-seeking birds.
The Wonderful Mr Willughby is a book for readers who enjoy watching bumblebees bounce from bloom to bloom in forests full of spring wildflowers or delight in the earnest courtship songs of desperate love-seeking birds. For such folks, Willughby is something of a patron saint, as Tim Birkhead’s biographical treatment of him attests. The Wonderful Mr Willughby makes important arguments regarding the history of science, but for entertainment purposes, the target audience is the naturalist.
Willughby should be properly credited as a key originator of naturalism and the current paradigm for classifying species. He lived and worked in the mid-seventeenth century, in the period where what is today called science was being invented and slowly systemized and made more rigorous. It was a pregnant moment for those with the curiosity and financial means to pursue knowledge. Descartes was theorizing dualism, Newton formulating calculus and Harvey revolutionizing the study of human anatomy, while at universities across Europe scholars were beginning to move beyond the centuries-long reliance on the writings of Aristotle and Plato.
This was Willughby’s milieu. As Birkhead makes clear, Willughby’s appetite for understanding how things worked was insatiable; he spent his entire adult life in study and in conversation with others participating in the systemization of the “new science” of the day. Francis Willughby’s chief contributions to human knowledge lie in the field of natural history, particularly in ornithology. He fanatically sought out bird specimens to dissert, describe and categorize, hoping to formulate a way to organize the naming and classification of all bird species on the planet. He did similar work, but with less notoriety, for fish and insects. He also loved mathematics and helped pioneer the study of probability. What Birkhead demonstrates is that Willughby was a brilliant intellectual who laid the foundation for the biologists of the next several generations; it was these subsequent researchers, not Willughby, who made the major discoveries and became famous. But without the groundwork Willughby doggedly completed in his short life—he died quite young—their work would not have been possible.
The Wonderful Mr Willughby is not a monograph about the history of early modern science, however; it is a biography of an early modern scientist. As such, Birkhead’s book discusses the political, social and everyday material cultural history of Europe—especially the English Midlands—in this tumultuous period. For lay readers, this deep dive into daily life in the British countryside is every bit as enjoyable as the descriptions of Willughby’s scientific work. The book gives a sense of what people ate, how they lived, the topics over which they argued, what they did for fun and how they wrote (their English language was not the same as ours).
Additionally, England in the 1640s-1680s was in the midst of political cataclysm and the subsequent uneasy transition back to peace and stability. The English Civil War, combined with mainland Europe’s wars of religion, set quite a dramatic context for the adolescence and schooling of Willughby and his new science peers. The rise of the nation-state, the beginnings of movements for secularization and the efflorescence of European imperial ambition are all concurrent with the brief life of Willughby. This was a truly exciting (and dangerous!) time to be alive. The Wonderful Mr Willughby skillfully inhabits this time period, bringing it to life for the reader in brief expositions scattered throughout its more extensive writings about Willughby and his work.
The Wonderful Mr Willughby avoids being merely an academic tome. Its vivid descriptions of early scientific methodology, forays into 17th-century daily life and generous introduction to the broad debates in research on the history of science give general readers much to be interested in and a strong basis in the context of the book’s arguments and ideas. For anyone who ever finds herself bent over a butterfly in a meadow with a field guide open in hopes of identifying which species she is staring at, this book should be particularly welcoming. It was Willughby, after all, who theorized the basis for the field guide in the first place.