Monday, December 07, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I want to talk to you this morning about an incredibly ambitious book that sets out to tell the reader the history of botany, and especially of pharmaceuticals from the early 1800s to the 1900s. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s, The Signature of All Things. It is also the story of Alma Whittaker and of her father, Henry Whittaker, born in 1760 to a poor orchardist, and who “grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.”

Young Henry is sent to sea at a young age to sail with Captain Cook on a botanical expedition, one that sets the course of his future life and that of his not yet born daughter, Alma. After four months at sea, Henry arrives in Lima, and there he begins to ship the bark from the cinchona tree back to England.

It turned out that cinchona bark did indeed interrupt the path of malaria’s ravages, for reasons nobody could understand. Whatever the cause, the bark appeared to cure malaria entirely, with no side effects except lingering deafness—a small price to pay to live. 
By the early eighteenth century, Peruvian bark, or Jesuits’ bark was the most valuable export from the New World to the Old. A gram of pure Jesuit’s bark was now equal in value to a gram of silver.
Henry gathered hundreds of botanical samples on his years long expedition, and although he did not automatically become a gentleman (which was his aim), via his botanical investigations, he did become a very rich man. Not content with simply shipping the bark, he started his own cinchona plantation in the Dutch colonial outpost of Java. He married a plain but brilliant Dutch woman, and with her moved to America, created a garden modeled after the Kew gardens where his father had been an orchardist, and very soon was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. However, it was their daughter, Alma, who was the truly brilliant botanist, and it is her story and her research into mosses that becomes the central theme of the book. Alma is a rigorous scientist who refuses to yield to anything less than genuine understanding. She comes to understand that it is the quinine in cinchona bark that remedies malaria, and unlike her father who is interested in botanicals only as a way to fortune, Alma desires to understand the natural world as an end in itself.

Like her mother, Alma is a large, plain woman who never finds romantic love, but instead pours all of her substantial energy into botanical investigations. In particular, she becomes fascinated, even obsessed with mosses and with what she calls transmutation. “In essence, she apprehended, mosses did not merely resemble algae that had crawled up on dry land; mosses were algae that had crawled up on dry land.” She also decides that “Whatever is true for mosses must  be true for all living things.”

Of course Alma is not alone in discovering the transmutability of organisms; like Darwin and other scientists of the time Alma witnesses that “The beauty and variety of the natural world are merely the visible legacies of an endless war.”

There is so much of interest in this sprawling novel, not the least of which is the story of Alma’s life and her courage. She, herself, eventually sails to the South Seas, always with the botanist’s eye turned to the life forms about her. She becomes the world’s foremost expert in the life and transformation of mosses.

My first intellectual love was botany, and this book recalled and reinforced that fascination. I think it will also appeal to those who love historical fiction, for this book was meticulously researched, and it is written with clarity and passion.

I recommend the book to all who love science and discovery, and even to those who simply like a good story and who want to see the huge role of women in botanical research.

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