A Cute Science Book? The Natural History of the Polype by Henry Baker

August 01, 2023

A Cute Science Book? The Natural History of the Polype by Henry Baker

You wouldn’t normally think of scientific illustrations as ‘cute’, but that’s one of the reasons I bought this book, An Attempt Toward a Natural History of the Polype by Henry Baker. The adorable creatures featured in are freshwater polyps – more commonly known as hydra  tiny aquatic organisms related to the corals, anemones, and jellyfish. The hydra has an amazing ability that has fascinated scientists for nearly three hundred years: they can completely regenerate when cut into pieces.

The first person to report on this was the scientist Abraham Trembley, who presented his findings to the Royal Society in January of 1743. Shortly thereafter, his colleagues Henry Baker and Martin Folkes began their own research, culminating in this volume, which was published later in the same year.

It’s chock full of fabulous woodcut illustrations of the animals in various postures and performing different behaviours, such as feeding on small worms and reproducing by budding off clones – another ability that greatly intrigued scientists.

Photograph of an old, leather-bound book open on a small pillow. The pages display crude woodcuts of hydra, small organisms with long thin bodies and waving arms, in various postures, with some text on each page.

But my favourite illustration is the one at the top of this page, which shows hydra hanging out in a glass jar, just like the ones I used to put tadpoles and fireflies in when I was a kid.

Another thing I like about this book is that it’s unusually decorative for a scientific volume, with loads of little illustrations such as historiated initials (capital letters with tiny scenes inside) and head and tail-pieces, like this one depicting two putti holding parrots.

Close-up of a page in an old book showing an elaborate but crude woodcut at the top of a page of text. Two putti (cherubs) are depicted holding parrots aloft on their hands, with an open book between them and surrounded by plants and decorative motifs.

If you'd like to see additional photos, or learn more about our copy of this book, visit its page in our shop.