Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Galileo star in Treasures of the Royal Society

By Culture24 Reporter | 06 December 2011
An image of a black and white illustration of three 16th century men
© Royal Society
Exhibition: Treasures of the Royal Society, Royal Society, London, until June 21 2012

Accounts of London life in bygone centuries tend to be gripping, although John Graunt's book of 1679, Natural and Political Observations...upon the Bills of Mortality, can also make for depressing reading.

Among "foldout tables" of mortalities compiled from weekly lists of deaths and their causes in the city, it lists demises by "itch" and "frighted" (both counts were single-figure ones), "grief" (the source of more than 200 cases during a 20-year period), and around 20 deaths each year from the "King's Evil", although the author cautioned that certain notions surrounding this slightly superstitious concept were "false and seditious".

An image of a page of a 17th century book showing illustrations of various creatures and small plants
Nehemiah Grew's Musaeum Regalis Societatis© Royal Society
More grimly, almost 30,000 people died from tuberculosis during one ten-year period – a shocking statistic when the population totalled less than 350,000 – and there was a huge rise in deaths by smallpox, hinting at the epidemic that would ravage the vaccination-less capital the following century.

The publication is considered a pioneering work for medical statisticians and demography, but it's in equally academically biblical company in this amazing display.

Taken from 350 years of collecting at the Royal Society library, other highlights include the first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, Galileo's Starry Messenger, Isaac Newton's handwritten corrections to his Principia and Robert Hooke's masterpiece of microscopy, Micrographia.

"Graunt's book reminds us that the huge advances in public health in recent centuries have had an enormous impact on urban living," says the Society's Professor Jonathan Ashmore, discussing the "rare and often priceless" works on show.

"London was a very different city then from the metropolis we experience today – though its inhabitants clearly shared some of the same problems of overcrowding and traffic congestion.

"Visitors shouldn't miss this opportunity to see some of these extraordinary and wonderful treasures from the Royal Society archive."

  • Open Tuesday 2pm-4pm, Thursday 10am-12pm (closed December 23-January 2). Admission free.
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