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‘The sceptre of her pow'r’: nymphs, nobility, and nomenclature in early Victorian science

  • DONALD L. OPITZ (a1)

Only weeks following Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne on 20 June 1837, a controversy brewed over the naming of the ‘vegetable wonder’ known today as Victoria amazonica (Sowerby). This gargantuan lily was encountered by the Royal Geographical Society's explorer Robert Schomburgk in British Guyana on New Year's Day, 1837. Following Schomburgk's wishes, metropolitan naturalists sought Victoria's pleasure in naming the flower after her, but the involvement of multiple agents and obfuscation of their actions resulted in two royal names for the lily: Victoria regina (Gray) and Victoria regia (Lindley). To resolve the duplicity in names, the protagonists, John Edward Gray and John Lindley, made priority claims for their respective names, ultimately founding their authorities on conventions aligned with gentlemanly manners and deference to nobility. This article will analyse the controversy, hitherto unexamined by historians, and argue for its significance in repositioning Queen Victoria – and nobility generally – as central agents in the making of authority in early Victorian science.

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Maurice Crosland , ‘Pensions for “cultivators of science”’, Annals of Science (2010) 67, pp. 527559

Robert H. Schomburgk , ‘Diary of an ascent of the River Berbice, in British Guyana, in 1836–7’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1837) 7, pp. 302350, 320

Clements R. Markham , The Fifty Years’ Work of the Royal Geographical Society, London: John Murray, 1881

Robert Hermann Schomburgk , ‘Report of an expedition into the interior of British Guyana’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1836) 6, pp. 224284

Margaret Homans , Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837–1876, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998

D. Niesen , ‘Victoria Regia's bequest to modern architecture’, in A. Carpi and C.A. Brebbia (eds.), Design & Nature V: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, Southampton: WIT Press, 2010, pp. 6576

William T. Stearn , ‘The self-taught botanists who saved the Kew Botanic Garden’, Taxon (1965) 14, pp. 293298

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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