Rachel Poliquin

How to Scrutinize a Beaver

Cromwell Mortimer’s Musky Contributions to the Anatomical Sciences of the Eighteenth Century

Discussed: A Fountain of Live Flounders, Death by Dog, Secretions from the Anal Scent Glands Used in Puddings, An Inducement to Miscarry, Fabled Self-Castration, Isidore of Seville, The First Beaver Dissection at the Bibliothèque du Roi, The Great Fissure, To See Well What One Wishes to Represent

I. THE SUM TOTAL OF THE BEAVER

The great British collector, naturalist, and physician Sir Hans Sloane kept a young female beaver in his garden in the fashionable Bloomsbury District at the center of London. She was a paunch-bellied beast and only half grown, measuring thirty inches from the tip of her nose to the end of her tail. She lived mainly on bread, which she held with both paws, sitting on her haunches like a squirrel. Occasionally she nibbled the willow boughs that were brought for her, but she preferred the vines growing in Sloane’s garden and gnawed several of them down to the roots. She was never heard to make any noise, except a few short grunts when chased or angered. Most of all she loved to swim in a fountain filled with live flounder, which she ignored. Her excrement was jet black and extraordinarily fetid. Her urine was turbid, white, and pungent. Where the beaver hailed from, who sent her to Sloane, and when she came to the garden are lost to time, but she was decidedly dead three months after her arrival, when Cromwell Mortimer, Sloane’s neighbor and good friend, dissected her remains, in 1733. The beaver had suffered a bout of convulsive fits. She recovered and was well enough until the day she was torn apart by a dog.

This much we know from a paper Mortimer published in Philosophical Transactions. At the time of the beaver’s death, Mortimer and Sloane were at the heart of London’s scientific community. Sloane was president of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, succeeding Isaac Newton in the position. Mortimer was the society’s secretary, and, as secretary, he was responsible for circulating any and all noteworthy observations, experimentations, and innovations in the society’s journal, none other than Philosophical Transactions.

Taken on its own, Mortimer’s sketch of a beaver ambling about an English garden hardly constituted useful knowledge for his enlightened readers. After all, this was the eighteenth century. Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in 1714. Edmond Halley had discovered the proper motion of the stars in 1718. And Carl Linnaeus would publish the first edition of his revolutionary ordering system, Systema Naturae, in 1735. The new natural philosopher discovered the world and its laws by investigation and experiment, accumulating natural facts by slow and precise observation. Which is to say, properly scrutinizing a beaver, by eighteenth-century standards, required an exhaustive description of the sum total of the beaver, or, as Mortimer entitled his paper, “The Anatomy of a Female Beaver, and an Account of Castor Found in Her.”

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Rachel Poliquin is a writer and curator dedicating to exploring all things orderly and disorderly in the natural world. She is the author of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing and ravishingbeasts.com.

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