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Marginalia in the 'bible' of pollen analysis

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The annotation of texts and their study has a long history in literature and the humanities, but less so in science. This talk examines the marginalia within a copy of the first edition of Text-book of modern pollen analysis – the ‘bible’ of the discipline of pollen analysis (palynology), published in 1950 by two botanists, Knut Fægri (professor of botany in Bergen) and Johannes Iversen (palaeoecologist with the Danish Geological Survey).

Pollen analysis – the study of pollen grains incorporated in accumulating sediments – is the single most widely used technique in environmental reconstruction. The annotations are the work of ‘Mr Pollen Analysis’, palynology’s evangelist Gunnar Erdtman, a former schoolteacher who went on to develop one of the major research centres for palynology in Stockholm. A further ingredient in a sometimes toxic mix is the ‘founder’ of palynology, the Swedish geologist Lennart von Post, who had approved of an introductory book by Erdtman and then went on to lavish considerable praise on Fægri and Iversen’s volume.

The marginalia display strong feelings, even anger, concerning the contents of the book. They are pedantic, yet can often be shown to confront sloppy writing if not sloppy thinking. They certainly permit an insight into the perspectives of a pioneering scientist as well as revealing a lack of inhibition which might otherwise be hidden. They also reflect an adherence to traditional palaeontological approaches to plant systematics at a time when palynology was being becoming more statistically and conceptually rigorous, addressing ecological problems at scales from the local to the global.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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