The 17th and 18th centuries were periods when all the sciences began to develop and men of science showed an interest in what began later to grow into significant ways of looking at the Earth, the composition of its crust and the life forms inhabiting it. The political, social, economic and religious events of those times acted as helping influences on the way that all knowledge grew and developed, but also provided some limitations on the ways that scientific knowledge was pursued. The 18th century became widely known as ‘the Age of Enlightenment’, as it marked the ending of ignorance and darkness, but there were developments in 17th century European culture and knowledge that foreshadowed this. This paper concentrates on the work of two men of 17th century science who assisted the rise of interest in those evidences of the past life on our planet that would later become the sciences of Palaeontology and Palaeobotany. Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd were the first custodians of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and their work demonstrates that such institutions did much to advance our scientific knowledge. Although three of their contemporaries, Robert Hooke, Nicolaus Steno and John Woodward, firmly believed that fossils were of organic origin, both Plot and Lhwyd opposed these views and developed their own explanations, yet, nevertheless, produced some accurate descriptions of fossils from both animal and plant sources. Lhwyd, in particular, was very hardworking and successful in his early attempts at classification. Later in the 18th century, Richard Brookes, MD used much of their work in a highly successful compilation of current knowledge, a six-volume work on Natural History. In this he was assisted by one of the literary geniuses of his time, Oliver Goldsmith. This was an important advance in the popularization of Natural Science
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Often regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of palaeontological studies, palaeobotany has a history that contains some fascinating insights into scientific endeavour, especially by palaeontologists who were perusing a personal interest rather than a career. The problems of maintaining research facilities in universities, especially in the modern era, are described and reveal a noticeable absence of a national UK strategy to preserve centres of excellence in an avowedly specialist area. Accounts of some of the pioneers demonstrate the importance of collaboration between taxonomists and illustrators. The importance of palaeobotany in the rise of geoconservation is outlined, as well as the significant and influential role of women in the discipline. Although this volume has a predominantly UK focus, two very interesting studies outline the history of palaeobotanical work in Argentina and China.