'Lost' book of exquisite scientific drawings rediscovered after 190 years

Decades of searching uncovered the brilliantly illustrated plants and detailed notes made by a U.S. woman living in Cuba in the 1800s.

Photograph by Robert Clark
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Caesalpinia pulcherrima is a species of flowering shrub found in the tropics and subtropics of the Americas. This drawing of the plant, seen in the archives of the Rare and Manuscript Collections of Cornell University Library, is the work of Anne Wollstonecraft, who created volumes of detailed botany illustrations in 19th-century Cuba. Rediscovered after almost 200 years, her work includes historical facts, indigenous applications, poetry, and personal observations about more than a hundred plant types.

Photograph by Robert Clark

Lost for 190 years, a three-volume manuscript blooming with vivid color drawings of Cuban flora has resurfaced in upstate New York.

Nondescript marbled cardboard covers and a title page in cursive handwriting announce Specimens of the Plants & Fruits of the Island of Cuba by Mrs. A.K. Wollstonecraft. This simplicity belies the contents of the slim, well-worn volumes. Pages and pages contain 121 illustrated plates showing plants such as red cordia sebestena, deep purple Lagerstroemia, and white angel’s trumpet in consummate detail.

Accompanying them are 220 pages of English-language descriptions relating historical facts, indigenous applications, poetry, and personal observations. Hewing faithfully to scientific conventions, the illustrations show vegetation, life cycles, and dissections of reproductive parts. Some pressed plant material is taped in. The author writes that she did not consult botanists or receive any help with her work.

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“A jewel of botanical literature in Cuba,” is how Cuban botanist Miguel Esquivel describes the work, classifying it among the greatest discoveries of its kind in recent times. (Also find out how historians rediscovered an alchemy manuscript by Isaac Newton.)

“I think the manuscript by Anne Wollstonecraft is of great importance,” says ethnobotanist Paul Cox, executive director of Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson, Wyoming. “Although the plants that she profiles in her drawings and descriptions are generally common, the detailed notes she makes of indigenous uses add a whole new dimension to understanding their possible utility, and could be used today to guide researchers in discovering new pharmaceuticals.”

For example, she notes that roots from the soursop tree were used as a fish poisoning antidote, and its leaves as an antiparasitic and antiepileptic. She also suggests that "soursop" comes from a phonetic approximation of the island’s indigenous inhabitants’ name for the tree, suir sach, which could help explain a paradoxical moniker for a fruit described as sickly sweet.

But if not for historian Emilio Cueto, a retired attorney and self-described collector of all things Cuban, Wollstonecraft and her work may have remained in obscurity.

Word of mouth

In 1828, Cuban exiles and human rights advocates Father Félix Varela and José Antonio Saco mentioned an American woman in Cuba drawing Cuban plants in their periodical El Mansajero Semanal. Almost a century later, in 1912, Cuban scholar and thinker Carlos M. Trelles cited the work, sight unseen. The citations said that New York Horticultural Society members had likened the work to that of respected naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, whose legendary 1705 work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium is considered seminal to the field of entomology.

“That comparison triggered my belief that this was important,” Cueto says. “People exaggerate, but not that much.”

Thus began his quest.

Following Trelles’ lead, Cueto included Wollstonecraft’s work in the catalog bibliography for his own 2002 HistoryMiami Museum exhibit on Cuban flora and fauna without having laid eyes on it or knowing whether it had even survived.

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Anne Sauer, director of Cornell University's Rare and Manuscript Collections, flips through the Wollestoncraft manuscript in the library archives.

“This was the reality of scholarly networks at that time,” says Anne Sauer, director of Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. “Part of the scholarly record included a scholar saying, I haven’t seen this thing, but I have heard that it exists and that it is important. You’re sort of bleeding into the realm of oral history in some cases, even.”

Each documentation of the manuscript and historical mention of the author seemed to bring a different spelling of her last name. Some use her maiden name, Kingsbury, and her first name was alternately reported as Anne and Nancy—which Jane Austen fans will recognize as a diminutive of the former.

Cueto had searched for the manuscript perhaps a hundred times or more in online library catalogs to no avail, but in March 2018, it finally popped up. The author’s name was misspelled as “Wollstonecroft,” reflecting the ambiguous last cursive vowel on the manuscript’s title page. Still, Cueto knew what he had found.

“I said, Oh my God! This is that lady. This is what I’ve been looking for. This is what everybody has been looking for!” Cueto says. “It was covered by a series of unfortunate misspellings and access to catalogs.”

After his Archimedes moment, however, he couldn’t find the actual manuscript; the catalog didn’t show him where it was. That’s when he called on University of Florida Library Dean Judith Russell, with whom he had collaborated for Cuba exhibits. She figured out that it was at Cornell University, which received it in 1923 from a faculty member, the author’s descendant. Having caught Cueto’s infectious excitement, Russell joined him on a field trip to Ithaca to see the volumes.

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This illustration, labelled "Largerstroemia," is unusual for being incomplete, with the blooms colored in but the leaves only outlined with pencil. "I think she may have been using this technique to represent what she saw, which was the plant’s flowers in bloom early in the season, with leaves only beginning to bud," says Cornell's Anne Sauer. "Perhaps without the leaves fully grown, she was using pencil to show that she was theorizing as to what the leaves would look like once unfurled, and wanted to be clear that this drawing was not based on her actual observation."

“Both of us tried to moderate our expectations,” Russell says. “We get there, and, My God, they are full botanical drawings with pages of narrative. And they’re exquisite.”

Women in 'stem'

Based on some genealogy sleuthing, Russel reports that Wollstonecraft died in 1828 at age 46, leaving incomplete entries, untranscribed notes and loose draft paper among the volumes.

“She was not finished,” Russell says. “It gives you goosebumps, you know, how close we came to losing it.”

Cueto is now working to introduce Wollstonecraft, the sister-in-law of famed women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, to new generations. He has traveled to her adopted hometown of Matanzas in search of her grave and contemporaneous mentions in local newspaper archives, and he surmises that she was among the U.S. citizens who flocked to the Caribbean island in the 19th century for health reasons.

His many-splendored vision includes having the newfound manuscript on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., where it could be seen by millions who traverse the nation’s capital. He also envisions the manuscript finally published as a book, with a foreword recounting how this lost work came to light. And he wants a Spanish translation, to make it more accessible to Cuban audiences.

So far, the manuscript has been digitized and is available for all to experience online.

“We have uncovered a new American scientist and artist who has been forgotten by those disciplines,” Cueto says. “Had she lived further, she would have been a major force in illustration.”

Czerne Reid is a science writer originally from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. She is a lecturer at the University of Florida College of Medicine and education co-chair for the National Association of Science Writers. Follow Czerne on Twitter and LinkedIn.