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The first ‘spider-man’ in history

October 18, 2013

The extraordinary career of Dr Martin Lister – by Anna Marie Roos

Woodcut of a spider by Arnaldus de Villanova, 1491. Wellcome Library

Woodcut of a spider by Arnaldus de Villanova, 1491. Wellcome Library

London cabbies are famous for being able to turn their minds to any topic (one once even won Mastermind). The cabbie who drove me to Heathrow Airport a few years ago sparked a conversation about a biography I was writing of an early modern Royal physician whose particular interest in spiders made him the first arachnologist. “Arachnologist?” he said. “You mean the creepy-crawlies? Doesn’t what you do put your boyfriend off?” I sighed before setting out my public engagement stall. I explained that the first ‘spider-man’ in history might seem an off-putting topic, but Dr Martin Lister (1639–1712) was a remarkable pioneer whose life and work are well worth studying even 300 years on.

Lister was one of the most important doctors of his generation, acknowledged as a virtuoso. He became a court physician to Queen Anne in 1702, was Vice-President of the Royal Society, and wrote 19 books on medicine, antiquarianism and natural history. He was the first arachnologist, and discovered spider ballooning – the way spiders use their silk to catch the breeze and float impressive distances. He was also a chemist, the founder of conchology (the scientific study of mollusc shells), and the inventor of the histogram (the graphical representation of the distribution of data). He wrote a bestselling travel guide to Paris, edited a Roman cookbook, and was a friend of Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Samuel Pepys. Sir Isaac Newton even consulted Lister on metallurgy, seeking assistance to create telescopic mirrors. Lister has had named in his honour two species of orchid, a spider (of course!) and even a system of ridges on the moon.

Martin Lister. Wikimedia

Martin Lister. Wikimedia

I explained to my cabbie that investigating Lister’s life and letters had made me reconsider just how significant medicine and natural history were to each other in the 17th century. I had become particularly interested in the ways that the acquisition of new knowledge about animals in the New World, and the new schemes for classifying them, had affected scientific perceptions and treatment of animals for medical and experimental use. For instance, Lister was one of the pioneers of medical entomology, investigating whether insect vectors were behind diseases such as smallpox; indeed, the link he drew between the rash of smallpox and insect bites, based on their similar characteristics, was seen as a medical breakthrough at the time. As Lister reported when writing his tract on spiders, he had been stung many times. His description that “the part bitten by a phalangius [a poisonous spider] grows red, and develops what look like needle-points” is accompanied by an explanation of just how difficult it is to urinate after being attacked, knowledge borne out of his direct experience. Self-experimentation was prevalent in early science, especially among leading scientific minds like Robert Hooke, who self-medicated. Lister often let himself be stung by what he called ‘bestiola’ (little beasts).

Pages of Lister’s treatise on smallpox were devoted to classifying the effects of the bites of poisonous insects and animals, based on his own observations. He was particularly precise about the appearance of the pustules. By a detailed examination of the skin lesions they produced, he did some of the earliest work to systematically distinguish syphilis (the great pox) and smallpox. Even today, it can be challenging for medics to differentiate secondary syphilis from smallpox. Lister’s identification of necrosis and blood poisoning from the pustules’ appearance corresponds to modern conceptions of its aetiology.

Lister likewise exchanged letters about smallpox with a distant relative, Joseph Lister, who was serving in the Dutch East India Company in the Indies and then in China in Amoy (Xiamen). Joseph described Chinese medical and cultural practices, including the use of intranasal variolation for smallpox. To my knowledge, his was the first report of variolation to reach England, well before Dr Emanual Timoni reported the Turkish method of inoculation against the disease in 1714. Joseph Lister wrote on 5 January 1699/1700 that the Chinese had “a Method of Communicating the Small Pox when and to whom they please, which they perform by opening the pustule of one who had the Small Pox ripe upon them and drying up the Matter with a little Cotton, which they preserve in a close box, and afterwards put it up the Nostrills of those they would infect [–] the benefit they pretend by it is, they can prepare the body of a Patient, and Administer it at what Season of the Year or Age of the person they think most proper.”

Six weeks after this letter, the physician Clopton Havers presented the details of the procedure to the Royal Society. Although nothing substantive immediately came of either account, knowledge of Chinese variolation did not vanish. Dr Richard Mead mentioned it in his book De Variolis et Morbillis (1747), to which he appended Rhazes’s treatise on smallpox. Mead used the nasal method on an experiment on prisoners in Newgate in 1721, testing it out on an 18-year- old woman, who duly contracted the disease, albeit in a less virulent form. She was, however, “sadly afflicted with most acute pains of the head, together with a fever,” until the pustules appeared. Lister’s empirical skills as both a doctor and a naturalist thus eventually led to important discoveries in the treatment of a disease that disfigured so many patients for life.

Lister's pocket-book. Image supplied by author

Lister’s pocket-book. Image supplied by author

But what I most wanted to understand about Lister was the origin of his twin interests in medicine and natural history. Ferreting around in the Bodleian Library, I found his memoirs and a student travel diary kept in an almanac entitled Every Man’s Companion: Or, An useful Pocket-Book. His diary indicated that in 1663, he left his parents’ house in Lincolnshire to study medicine in Montpellier. During his three years in France, he kept another set of memoirs, and wrote several letters. Furthermore, his travel companion, Phillip Skippon, and his mentor, the botanist John Ray, published accounts of part of their travels. Lister later donated 1200 books to the Bodleian, some of them his original student texts.

In his pocket-book, month by month, Lister noted the medical texts he consulted; in his textbooks, he annotated the recipes given to him when he lodged with an apothecary. He described the personalities and works of the luminaries he met in France, including Nicolas Steno (a founder of modern stratigraphy, a branch of geology that studies rock layers and layering), Francis Willoughby (one of the first scientific ornithologists) and John Ray (considered the father of English natural history). The pocket- book and his memoirs reveal that Lister performed a series of animal dissections with Steno, as well as going on natural history expeditions with Ray. As his time in France was part of his education as a gentleman, Lister visited gardens and libraries in Paris, and made observations of French manufacturing methods, wine (which he greatly enjoyed), literature, drama, and French rules of etiquette and fashion. He sent his little sister Jane bottles of French perfume, as well as instructions to learn the latest French dance, the courante. We even have Lister’s draft of his goodbye letter to his first girlfriend, a lovely mademoiselle he met while in Montpellier.

With some assistance from the British Academy, I have been able to create an interactive website that maps the stages of Lister’s journey from England to Montpellier and back via Paris, documenting them photographically along the way. The images and videos of landscape, natural history specimens, and museums and artefacts were conceived as a form of medical humanities fieldwork, allowing us to reconstruct the mental world of the early modern virtuoso. I hope that for everyone intrigued by Lister, this new resource will be a good introduction to early modern medical education and natural history.

So next time you see a spider in your bathtub, don’t squash it; rescue it, in honour of Martin Lister and his many accomplishments in medicine and natural history.

Dr Anna Marie Loos FLS is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln ( and the author of Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639–1712), the first arachnologist. See her staff profile page and Lister’s letters online.


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