Papier-mâché Botanical Models of Dr Auzoux

A review of Designer Nature: The Papier-mâché Botanical Teaching Models of Dr Auzoux in Nineteenth-Century France, Great Britain and America, by Margaret Olszewski.

Margaret Olszewski’s dissertation investigates the career of the French Dr Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux (1797-1880), a pioneer of three-dimensional teaching models. As a medical student, around 1820 Auzoux developed an anatomical model of a life-sized male human. The artificial body was made from a paper paste which could be “dissected” into pieces — the forerunner of today’s classroom models in plastic. This development had important implications for model production, distribution, and use. For the first time, anatomical models could be moulded and produced in series, they became affordable for a wide range of users, and their robust material allowed for hands-on interaction and global travel. The various marketing strategies of the tireless Auzoux made his models a world-wide success. They captured the imagination of diverse audiences in the nineteenth century, and even today, these models could still be found in collections from Cairo to Tokyo.

After an initial focus on models of normal human anatomy, Auzoux branched out into the production of models of animals and plants, often at an extremely large scale. In her dissertation, Olszewski focuses on Auzoux’s botanical models of flowers, fruits and seeds, and their uses in different teaching institutions in France, Scotland, England, and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to this transnational comparison, the author compares model use at a variety of different kinds of institutional contexts, from medical schools to agricultural colleges and lycées.

The dissertation sets the scene with a brief introduction to the development and commercial production of the models, highlighting how Auzoux instrumentalized institutional networks.  The physician-turned-model-maker frequently solicited appraisals from eminent national institutions such as the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medicine to support his models’ claims to accuracy and utility. The two introductory chapters further provide a detailed description and analysis of the physical features of Auzoux’s botanical collection, situated in the context of an overview of the state of botany in nineteenth-century France, from  the symbolic functions of flowers in popular culture to botanical curricula introduced to secondary schools, colleges and medical schools.

The main part of the dissertation, then, investigates the models’ receptions and uses abroad, in Scotland, England, and the United States. The third chapter, “Keeping up with Dr. Jones: The Auzoux botanical collection in Scotland” posits the presence of two very different approaches to university botany — “offensive” botany at the University of Glasgow, where natural history was considered a crucial element of modern medical education, and “defensive” botany at the University of Aberdeen where the sciences, and especially botany, were threatened by more traditional subjects as well as a more narrowly-defined medical curriculum. Olszewski shows how the Auzoux models, despite their standardized nature, performed very different functions in the two Scottish universities: At Glasgow, they were emblematic of the “new botany” which embraced experimentation. At Aberdeen, the models supported the continuation of older botanical traditions of taxonomy and collection, and they preserved representations of local flora which became increasingly rare in the wake of urbanization and industrialization

The fourth chapter contrasts the various uses of botanical models in Scotland with the resistance they encountered at the traditional universities of England. Both at Cambridge and at Oxford, Auzoux’s botanical models were adopted late (if at all) for teaching collections. While contemporary commentators lamented the perceived stagnation of the British march of progress, the  institutionalization of science at English universities lagged behind Germany and France. Olszewski illustrates this problem by highlighting the “laissez-faire attitude” to science and science education of Cambridge professor of botany Charles Cardale Babington. Babington resisted the idea of creating a collection of models. Olszewski shows that the botanist may have been constrained in part by the institutional particularities of Cambridge University given that most of its funding was held by the colleges rather than the university. However, his attitudes to different teaching aids were at stake here as well. Babington was highly critical of the utility of images and models, and insisted on teaching with original specimens. Both he and his Oxford counterpart Daubeny thus preferred their herbaria to colorful models, and generally supported a “bare” aesthetic of science which distanced their enterprise from popular scientific entertainments of the nineteenth century. The author then contrasts this image of botany in the English universities with the very different fate of Auzoux models in the Department of Science and Art, a new institution which promoted public science education, and which acquired three sets of Auzoux plants to do so. Thus, Olszewski claims, the identity of teaching institutions can be “read” through their collections.

In the United States, colleges used Auzoux models and other state-of-the-art scientific and didactic equipment to attract students and investors, and to demonstrate academic prestige.

In the final chapter, Olszewski highlights the joys of conspicuous consumption exemplified by Andrew Dixon White’s three-month shopping trip to Europe to equip Cornell University with the latest scientific apparatus. In this chapter, the author also draws on a number of class notes to give readers a rare insight into botanical teaching practice in the late nineteenth century. Mount Holyoke, an all-female college, further serves to investigate the gendered nature of botany and botany teaching in the period, with a focus on the activities of pioneering botany teachers Lydia Shattuck and Henrietta Hooker. Botany was considered a science which supported the development of ideal feminine accomplishments, but fieldwork was frequently difficult to reconcile with demands for modesty. Auzoux models seemed suitable to address this issue — however, Olszewski indicates that in practice the models were possibly more important as markers of prestige than as actual teaching tools.

An extensive appendix provides a useful overview and illustrated descriptions of Auzoux’s botanical models. Overall, the dissertation offers insights into the business of scientific models and into practices of botanical teaching within various national and institutional contexts in the second half of the nineteenth century. As such, it will be of interest to historians of science, historians of education, business historians, and curators of museum and university collections.

Anna Maerker
Department of History
King’s College London

Primary Sources

Aberdeen University Archives: papers of J.W.H. Trail
Archives Nationales, Paris: papers of Dr. Auzoux
Cambridge University Archives: Financial Board Minutes
Cornell University Archives: papers of A.D. White, Ezra Cornell, lecture notes by I.P. Church, C.H. Kendall
Department of Plants Sciences, Oxford University: Sherard papers
Glasgow University Archives: papers of Gertrude Cormac, Inventory of Botanical Models
Mount Holyoke College Archives: journal of A. Bushee, papers of Henrietta Hooker,  Lydia Shattuck, Department of Zoology

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2009. 330pp. Primary Advisor: Liba Taub.

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