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Elaine M. Ayers: “Nature Resistant: Tracking the Strange History of the Corpse Flower in the Nineteenth Century”

Rafflesia illustration

Thursday, October 26, 2017, 4:30 PM
Building 200, Room 307

In the spring of 1818, British naturalist Joseph Arnold trekked into the rainforest outside of Padang, Western Sumatra, where he and his team of collectors discovered the “greatest prodigy of the vegetable world”: Rafflesia arnoldi, the largest flower in the world, and perhaps the most repulsive. By mimicking the smell of rotting flesh, the so-called “corpse flower” attracts carrion pollinators attracted to its overwhelming stench and to its dark red, uncannily flesh-like body, speckled with pustular protuberances and undeniably animalistic weight. Even after swatting away the swirling flies and beetles, Arnold found himself unable to collect the flower—it rotted into a stinking mess by the end of the evening, and the naturalist feared that his colleagues back in Britain would never believe his account of the plant’s size, smell, or appearance. Indeed, Rafflesia has operated outside of the bounds of botanical study since its discovery. Resisting collection, preservation, description, and even cultivation—to this day—the plant has facilitated news methods of botanical communication, redefining the limits of natural history writ large.

By focusing on a single species of plant and following its transformation across media, I will examine the role of materiality—or lack thereof—in the history of collecting, preserving, shipping, illustrating, and describing plants. Rather than following a strict chronological history of the discovery of Rafflesia, we will explore its life history in several material forms, both as an individual and as burgeoning species: as text, as herbarium specimen, as illustration, as wax model, and, ultimately, as conceptual, monstrous object.

Please also join us on Wednesday, October 25 at noon (room TBA) for a more informal session with Elaine hosted by the History of Science Reading Group.

Elaine M. Ayers is a PhD candidate in the Program in History of Science at Princeton University and a fellow at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City.

presented with HPS