Article ID: CBB879747957

The Platypus in Edinburgh: Robert Jameson, Robert Knox and the Place of the Ornithorhynchus in Nature, 1821–24 (2016)


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 protégé Knox while also helping to consolidate his own position as a key figure in early nineteenth-century natural history.

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Authors & Contributors
Jenkins, Bill
Swinney, Geoffrey N.
Richards, Evelleen
Swinney, G. N.
Jacyna, L. S.
Allen, David Elliston
Archives of Natural History
Journal of the History of Biology
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Journal of the History of Ideas
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Ashgate Publishing
NMS Publishing
Oxford University Press
Arizona State University
Edinburgh University Press
Natural history
Science and society
Medical education and teaching
Jameson, Robert
Knox, Robert
Audubon, John James
Bruce, William Speirs
Bennett, John Hughes
Hutton, James
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
Great Britain
British Isles
Philadelphia, PA
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh Physiological Society

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