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January 5, 2012
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"He that enlarges his curiosity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness"

This is the opening phrase of the preface to the third, 1799, edition of The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by John Coakley Lettsom. M.D; where he defines the ultimate purpose of his book. A concise manual that has been somehow forgotten, it was a great achievement at it's time.

The first edition was published in London in 1772 by George Pearch and it seems to have sold out quickly as a second edition, corrected and enlarged followed in 1774, this time published by E & C Dilly also in London.

This is probably the first ever concise, modern, systematic and scientific manual on the preservation of natural history specimens and collections; giving advice not only on different aspects of capturing, finding, preserving, transporting and analysing plants, insects, fossils, animals and minerals but also on antiquities, religious rites, food, meteorology and even "precise directions for taking off impressions of cast from medals and coins".

The manual is also an incredibly practical, beautifully presented, well informed and advanced book that could be considered the founding publication for modern natural history preservation science. His advice on preserving natural history collections from pest attack anticipates by 200 years the groundbreaking Integrated Pest Management programs introduced in the last 20 years in Museums and Historic Houses: http://www.pestodyssey.org/

It is uncertain if the manual was used by the great explorers of the period but given how popular it was at the time, it would be expected that copies of the book were carried on the many voyages of exploration that took place after its publication. It seems certain that Charles Darwin owned and used a copy although the great man was never known for being a good caretaker of his natural history collections.
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John Coakley Lettsom was born in 1744 in Tortola, Virgin Islands. A Quaker concerned with anti-slavery, he manumitted the slaves from his two inherited plantations there; angering his plantation onwers neighbours then gaining their respect by setting up the first medical practice in the islands (with some of his former slaves trained as medical assistants) as he had become a doctor in Leiden, south Holland, in 1769.

Lettsom worked and travelled tirelessly all his life; famous for his commitment to his patients and the medical profession, he founded the Medical Society of London in 1775, the oldest in Britain and possibly in the world. In doing so, he showed great bravery and intelligence; parallel to his display of lateral thinking demonstrated in The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by joining together the four branches of the medical profession in one society where they could share knowledge and experience: http://www.medsoclondon.org/index.html
Amazingly, he still had time to cultivate a famous garden in his London home, arranged according to the Linnaean system of classification: http://lettsomgardens.org.uk/history.html

The Library at the Natural History Museum also holds the original drawings made by his friend James Sowerby of the plants in Lettsom's garden, as well as a copy of his 1799 famous work "The natural history of the tea-tree".

Chris Ledgard's BBC4 Radio program: "What's eating your collections?" aired last September began quoting paragraphs from the Travellers's companion: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013q311/Whats_Eating_the_Museum/

Bibliography:
The Golden Age of Quaker Botanists by Ann Nichols, Cumbria, 2006.

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