(b. Borden, Kent, England, 13 December 1640; d. Borden, 30 April 1696)
natural history, archaeology, chemistry.
Of all the British naturalists of the late seventeenth century, few represent the omnivorous curiosity of the Baconian tradition and its passion for collecting specimens and observations for their own sake so well as Robert Plot. The son of Robert Plot and Elisabeth Patenden, he was educated at the Wye Free School and at Oxford, which he entered in 1658, graduating B.A. in 1661, M.A. in 1664, and LL.D. in 1671. For many years he served as a college tutor. About 1674 he drew up an itinerary patterned on those of earlier English antiquaries; but whereas they had been concerned with books and buildings to the exclusion of natural history and technology, Plot intended to tour England and Wales in search of “all curiosities both of Art and Nature such . . . as transcend the ordinary performances of the one and are out of the ordinary Road of the other.“He began with the county in which he was then living, starting work on his Natural History of Oxfordshire in June 1674; by November 1675 he had a fine collection of minerals to exhibit to the Royal Society, and the book appeared in 1677. On the strength of the Natural History, Plot was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1677. He was secretary in 1682–1684 and thus joint editor of the Philosophical Transactions, most of which were printed at Oxford during his term of office; he was elected secretary again in 1692. His success as a collector of rarities must also have helped when, in March 1683, the University of Oxford appointed him first keeper of the newly acquired Ashmolean Museum.
At the same time there was to be an Ashmolean professor of chemistry, with a laboratory in the museum, equipped at great expense; Plot was chosen for this post too. In this field his researches were dominated by the hunt for a wonderful menstruum, to be extracted from spirits of wine, which could act as a general solvent. Since no adequate funds had been set aside to pay salaries, the professor and his assistant supplemented their incomes by making up iatrochemical drugs. Although Plot did not believe in transmutation in the old sense—it was “but a kind of dying“and it would be sufficient to achieve “a fixt penetrating color“—he held that the methods of alchemy were essential for true medicine. The medicinal springs of Oxfordshire were subjected to analysis by methods taken from the work of Boyle and Thomas Willis.
With his new dual position at Oxford, Plot had to give up his offices in the Royal Society, although he continued to supply it with specimens from his travels. In 1684 he helped to revive the Oxford Philosophical Society and became its director of experiments. Meanwhile, although he had abandoned his plan to survey the whole country, Plot was invited to resume his explorations, this time in Staffordshire, the natural history of which he published in 1686. He subsequently concentrated more on archaeology, searching in particular for Roman remains. In 1690 he resigned all his Oxford posts, married Rebecca Burman of London, and settled on his ancestral estate, Sutton Baron. Two more natural histories, of Kent and Middlesex, were never completed. In the summer of 1695 he began to suffer severely from calculi; by September he was sufficiently recovered to go on an archaeological tour of East Anglia. The disease returned, however, and he died of it in April 1696.
Plot’s stress on the unusual and anomalous, and his expectation that more can be learned from exceptions than from the general rule, apparently stemmed from his interpretation of the Baconian inheritance; this approach gives his natural histories a rather bizarre and curious flavor—his zoology tends to be teratology. He started with the heavens—curious meteorological phenomena observed in the county—then its airs (acoustic researches into sites famous for their echoes), waters—especially mineral and medicinal—and earths. The phenomena of erosion, which he called “deterration,” are discussed. He had some notion of stratigraphy, observing that “the Earth is here [Shotover Hill], as at most other places, I think I may say of a bulbous nature, several folds of diverse colour and consistencies still including one another,” and listed those observed at localities where their disposition was of economic interest.
Plot also made an extensive study of “formed stones” or fossils, without appreciating that they could be used to identify strata. The controversy on the origin of fossils was then at its height. Plot argued, from the differences between fossil shells and any known specimens of the living shellfish they were thought to represent, that fossil shells were crystallizations of mineral salts; their zoomorphic appearance was as coincidental as the regular shapes of stalactites or snowflakes. Large quadruped fossils he considered the remains of giants, except for one identified as that of an elephant through comparison with an elephant skull in the Ashmolean Museum.
In 1684 Plot produced a treatise on the origin of springs; the bulk of it was reprinted in the natural history of Staffordshire. Here he marshaled evidence, from his own observations and from contemporary geographers, purporting to show that it is quantitatively impossible for all springs to be supplied entirely from rainfall, so that most must come through underground channels from the sea. In investigating such wonders as fairy rings or rains of frogs he tried to offer naturalistic explanations.
In archaeology Plot failed to allow enough for pre-Roman structures: he usually ascribed barrows and henges to Saxons or Danes. One of his main objectives was to describe local crafts and farming techniques, in the hope of diffusing successful practices or new inventions throughout the country. Thus technological information is scattered through both his works on natural history, providing useful evidence on contemporary agriculture, mines, and such industries as the Staffordshire potteries. Whatever the shortcomings of Plot’s works, in their time they fulfilled a need. Plot had many imitators, for the books proved to be a useful means of assembling data on the distribution of rocks, fossils, minerals, flora, and fauna.
I. Original Works. Plot’s books are The Natural History of Oxfordshire (Oxford, 1677); De origine fontium (Oxford, 1684); and The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686). Papers on various curiosities of nature were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, esp. 12–20 (1682–1686).
II. Secondary Literature. R. T. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, XII, Dr, Plot and the Correspondence of the Philosophical Society of Oxford (Oxford, 1939); E. Lhwyd, “A Short Account of the Author,” prefixed to Natural History of Oxfordshire, 2nd ed. (London, 1705); Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, P. Bliss, ed., IV (London, 1820), 772–776; and see also F. Sherwood Taylor, “Alchemical Papers of Robert Plot,” in Ambix, 4 (1949), 67–76.
A. G. Keller