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The World in a Book: Robert John Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1799–1812)

Miranda Mollendorf, Harvard University, Summer Fellow 2012

This summer, I continued to revise and expand a third chapter of my dissertation. I also completed a draft of a fourth, introductory chapter, which provides the historical and biographical context for Robert John Thornton and his Temple of Flora. In this chapter, I describe Thornton’s sociocultural world—his life and work, his classical, botanical, medical, and artistic knowledge. I give a synopsis of the plates and publishing history, as well as setting out my historiography and methodology. While Thornton’s biography and the material history of his book’s production have been discussed as a series of factual details, no critical interpretations of his life and work exist. I situate Thornton within an intellectual network of friends and colleagues who influenced his book, including famous figures such as Erasmus Darwin, William and Samuel Curtis, William Aiton, and Ferdinand Bauer. The Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection holds many primary texts by these leading botanical figures.  I further investigated locations where Thornton worked as part of his biography, such as the Kew Gardens. My work is premised on the concept that sites of scientific knowledge have a biographical history that informs their inhabitants. This is an offshoot of Janet Browne’s work on Charles Darwin and the way that his sites of knowledge shaped his biography. I am also very pleased to participate in an upcoming conference about botany and empire at Dumbarton Oaks, in which I will speak about the intersections between medicine, botany, and visual culture in Thornton’s Temple of Flora