Lister, Martin

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Lister, Martin

(christened Radclive, Buckinghamshire, England, 11 April 1639;d. Epsom, England, 2 February 1712)

zoology, geology.

Born into a landed family with estates in the North and Midlands, Lister was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge (B.A. 1658, M.A. 1662), becoming a fellow, at the Restoration, by royal mandate; his uncle, Sir Matthew Lister, had been physician to the new king’s mother. He studied medicine at Montpellier from 1663 to 1666 but did not graduate. He resigned his fellowship in 1669 and began to practice medicine in York, where, in comparative isolation, he carried out and published pioneer studies in several fields of invertebrate zoology.

Lister’s work on mollusks was at first confined to natural history and taxonomy. The latter, although conventionally artificial, attempted to be comprehensive; his spider classification was, for its date, masterly, and agrees remarkably well with a modern system. Based ex moribus et vita and on a wide range of characteristics, it includes, for example, exemplary descriptions of the eye arrangement in each group. He was aware of intraspecific variation and came close to a biological definition of the species. Lister’s systematic attention to field observation is noteworthy; some of his notes on courtship behavior and on the early stages of some species have never been repeated. This work was not appreciated fully at the time, even by other zoologists; and Thomas Shadwell clearly had Lister in mind when he created Sir Nicholas Gimcrack.

This early enthusiasm is also seen in Lister’s work on the life histories of several parasites—gall wasps, ichneumons, gut worms, and horsehair worms—which had been used by others as evidence of spontaneous generation. Lister was very close to giving a complete account of the life histories of these animals, but his enthusiasm declined about 1676. It revived in the early 1680’s, but in a different direction. In 1684, after receiving an Oxford M.D.—largely because of his donations to the Ashmolean Museum—he moved to London. A fellow of the Royal Society since 1671, he now regularly attended its meetings and was vice-president from January 1685. Two years later, however, he was involved in some personal controversy at the Society and ceased attending. He became a fellow of the College of Physicians in 1687.

Lister’s work was now concentrated on mollusk anatomy and taxonomy. His best-known work, the Historia … conchyliorum of 1685-1692, consists entirely of engravings by his wife and daughter, with no real text or even titles. Because of the popularity of conchology, the work became well-known; but the three illustrated anatomical supplements were of greater scientific value. These were the first attempt to cover the morphology of a whole invertebrate group in detail. Each contained detailed descriptions of a small number of types, with briefer notes on the structure of a number of other species. Although not of Swammerdam’s standard. Lister’s dissections were reasonably competent. Not surprisingly, he had difficulty with the complex mollusk reproductive system, and he suffered from the contemporary tendency to overanalogize; thus, he assumed that the “gill” of a snail must receive blood directly from the heart, as in the fish, and thus believed the blood to circulate in what is in fact the wrong direction. On the other hand, he used sound comparative methods to show the true nature of the mollusk “liver.”

His concern with mollusk classification brought Lister into the controversy on the nature of fossils. Many ideas on the origin of these “shell stones” had been suggested, ranging from the supernatural theories of Paracelsus to those of writers such as Palissy and Leonardo da Vinci, who accepted their animal origin. The problem could not become of fundamental importance, however, until the second half of the seventeenth century, when the rejection of the idea of spontaneous generation caused a clear distinction to be made between the living and the nonliving. The controversy was centered in England, where the interest in natural theology made important any evidence for the Noachian flood and the interest in natural history encouraged the collection of fossils and the gathering of reliable information on them. In the period 1660-1690 an animal origin was generally accepted in England for formed stones; but those natural philosophers accepting this idea, such as Robert Hooke and John Ray were not themselves collectors and systematizers of fossils. The men with greatest firsthand knowledge of the subject—Martin Lister, Edward Lhwyd, Robert Plot, John Beaumont, and William Coles—found the difficulties of explaining the distribution of fossils too great for them to accept their dispersal by a universal flood; and, having a nonevolutionary outlook, they were convinced by the differences in detail between extant and fossil shells that there could be no direct link between them. It is likely that Lister’s criticism of his ideas encouraged Hooke’s suggestions on the mutability of these specific characteristics. Lister was in fact the center of this group of collectors, and his arguments were worked out in most detail. He noticed that the distribution of fossil shells is correlated with the distribution of rocks, and he believed that this was an argument for their geological origin. In tracing the distribution of one particular fossil through a certain rock formation across half of England, he came close to a stratigraphical use for these formed stones (being interested in the classification and distribution of rock types, Lister in 1684 made the first suggestions for the compilation of geological maps). He explained the growth of fossils in rock as a complex crystallization from lapidifying juices found naturally in the earth. Living mollusks were also able to secrete such juices, from which, by a nonvital process, their shells crystallized; in fact he tried to grow such shells from the body juices of mollusks.

Lister’s energies were, from the middle 1690’s, concerned mainly with the College of Physicians, of which he was censor in 1694. In 1698 he accompanied Lord Portland as paid physician on his embassy to Paris; his account of the city, satirized at the time for its attention to detail, is now a valuable source book. In 1702 he was appointed one of Queen Anne’s physicians, apparently largely through the influence of his niece, Sarah Churchill. This influence, and his philosophical activities, appear to have helped to make Lister unpopular among his fellow physicians. He was, however, a difficult man in any case; and the only close friends he ever had appear to have been John Ray in the 1670’s and Edward Lhwyd in the 1690’s.

After 1700 Lister almost ceased scientific activity, although he did publish some medical works. His attempt at a comprehensive physiology, Dissertatio de humoribus(1709), is extremely speculative, containing little observation or experiment. It was old-fashioned in its reliance on humors, and Lister was unsympathetic to the mathematical physiologists of his day—Keill, Friend, and Pitcairne, The book completes the course of Lister’s work, from the diligent and original fieldworker of 1670, through the laboratory anatomist and systematist of 1690, to the armchair philosopher of 1709. The superficiality of much of Lister’s thought, largely concealed by his early enthusiasm, was now obvious.


I. Original Works. Historiae animalium Angliae tres tractatus (London, 1678), despite the title, has four sections, covering spiders, land snails, freshwater and saltwater mollusks, and fossil shells; the latter has a separate preface and all have individual title pages. An appendix to this work was issued in 1685, bound in with the Latin ed. by Goedart. A German trans, of the spider section by J. A. E, Goeze was published as Naturgeschichte der Spinnen (Quendlingburg-Blankenburg, 1778).

De fontibus medicatis Angliae, exercitatio nova et prior (York, 1682) is an account of medical mineral waters and includes an outline of Lister’s physiological system. Rev. and enl. eds. were published as De thermis et fontibus meicatis Angliae (London, 1684); and Exercitationes et descriptiones thermaruni et fontium medicatcrum Angliae (London, 1685; 1689).

Johannes Geodartius of Insects. Done Into English and Methodized. With the Addition of Notes (York, 1682) has Lister’s notes as a substantial part of the whole and newplates by F. Place. A Latin version was published by the Royal Society as J. Goedartius de insect is in methodum redactum (London, 1685).

Letters and Divers Other Mixt Discourses in Natural Philosophy (York, 1683) is a collection of papers, almost all of which had been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Historia sive synopsis methodica conchyliorum (London, 1685-1692; 2nd ed., London, 1692-1697) is bibliographically extremely complex. It was published in parts, and few copies appear to be identical. A number of bound sets of samples of the earlier sheets, issued with the title De cochleis, about 1685, survive; it is debatable whether they should be looked upon as a separate work. See G. L. Wilkins, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 3 , no. 4 (1957), 196-205. A 3rd ed., edited by G. Huddesford, was published at Oxford in 1770; and a 4th ed., L. W, Dillwyn, ed., at Oxford in 1823, with a correlation of Lister’s arrangement with the Linnaean system. This last ed. bears the words editio tertia.

Exercitatio anatomica in qua de cochleis maxime terrestribus et limacibus agitur(London, 1694)

Exercitatio anatomica altera de buccinis fluviatilibus et marinis(London, 1695) was issued bound with Exercitatio medicinalis de variolis. Some copies of pt. I were issued separately as Dissertatio anatomica altera … (London, 1695), and pt. II was issued as Disquisitio medicinalis de variolis(London, 1696).

Conchyliorunn bivalvhun utriusque aquae exercitatio anatomica tertia huic accedit dissertatio medicinalis de calculo humano(London, 1696), with the two Exercitatio anatomica, was intended as an anatomical supplement to theHistoria conchyliorumg.

Sex exercitationes medicinales de quibusdam morbis chronicis … (London, 1694; a rev. and enl. ed. published as Octo exercitationes medicinales, 1697).

A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698 (London, 1699) had 2 further eds. in the same year. Repr. in Pinkerton’sGeneral Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels … (London, 1809); and there is a rev. ed. by George Henning,An Account of Pans at the Close of the Seventeenth Century … (London, 1823). Henning’s ed. was trans. into French as Voyage de Lister à Paris… (Paris, 1873), and there is a facs. repr. of the 3rd ed. with notes by R. P. Stearns (Urbana, III., 1967).

Other works are S. sanctorii de statica medicina … cum commentario (London, 1701; new ed., 1728); Comnentariolus in Hippocratem (London, 1702), repub. as part of Hippocratis aphorismi cum commentariolo (London, 1703); De opsoniis et condimentis sive arte coquininaria(London, 1705; 2nd ed., 1709), Lister’s ed. of Apicius Caelius’ work; and Dissertatio de humoribus in qua veterum ac recentiorum medicorum ac philosophorum opiniones et sententiae examinantur (London, 1709; new ed., Amsterdam, 1711)—“As full and compleat a system of the animal oeconomie … as I could contrive.”

Lister’s De scarabaeis Britanrnicus was printed as part of John Ray’s publication of Francis Willughby’s Historia insectorum (London, 1710).

Lister was a frequent contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society submitting papers on insects, spiders, parasites, mollusks, birds, plants, physiology (particularly on the lymphatics), medicine, geology, meteorology and archaeology. There are in all 51 papers by Lister, from vol.4 (1669) to vol. 22 (1701). In addition, 31 letters sent to Lister were passed on by him for publication in the Transactions in the same period.

The Lister MSS at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, form a set of 40 vols, of mixed letters and papers. The letters, although from a large number of correspondents, are incomplete—containing, for example, not a single letter from John Ray. In general, they are of slight scientific interest. The other papers include drafts of parts of his published works; sketches for unfinished geological works; papers on fossils, geology, and barnacles; diaries and account books; and so on. Letters to or from Lister can be found in MSS Ashmole 1816, 1829, and 1830 (particularly concerning Lhwyd) and in MSS Smith 51 and 52 (Thomas Smith, the Cotton librarian, was arranging Lister’s papers but died with the work incomplete). There area few letters in the British Museum, MSS Sloane and Stowe. The correspondence between Lister and Ray has been published in E. R. Lankester, ed., The Correspondence of John Ray (London, 1848); and R. T. Gunther, ed., The Further Correspondence of John Ray (London, 1928). Letters to and from Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd have been published by Gunther in Early Science in Oxford, vols. XII and XIV (Oxford, 1939 and 1945).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full-length study of Lister’s life or works. Of several articles in English local journals, the only one which can be recommended is Davies, in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal,2 (1873), 297-320. The eds. of A Journey to Paris by Henning and Stearns (see above) both contain a biographical introduction. The author of this article has a thesis on Lister in progress at the University of Leeds.

Jeffrey Carr