Resurrecting Frozen Fish: Competing Traditions of Experiment and Observation in Natural History, 1775-1851.
Across eighteenth-century Europe, a commonly held fact of natural history was that various organisms, notably fish, could be revived from a frozen state. This myth was apparently debunked in an experimental program designed by John Hunter (1728-1793), anatomist and Fellow of the Royal Society. However, despite Hunter’s seemingly enlightened rebuke of popular lore, resuscitated fish persisted in natural history journals and periodicals into the mid-nineteenth century. Part of the explanation for this durability can be found in accounts of Arctic exploration. The case of frozen fish was leant scientific respectability with the approval of Dr John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon and naturalist who encountered the phenomena on John Franklin’s first overland expedition along the Coppermine River (1819-1822) and later in Franklin’s second expedition of 1825-1827. Richardson’s natural history accounts of the voyages appeared in his Fauna Boreali-Americana (1836), where the ability to survive freezing was attributed to the Grey Sucking-carp (listed as Cyprinus (Catastomus) Hudsonius).
This paper examines the role of field observation and experiment as competing traditions in natural history, questioning how these differing approaches to the examination of natural phenomena influenced scientific convictions. While Hunter’s experimental program was misinterpreted or merely ignored, observational or second-hand accounts of resuscitated fish were routinely carried in nineteenth-century natural history literature. The prestige attached to exploration over the metropolitan lab bench, combined with the process by which natural history knowledge was communicated, allowed both observational discovery and error to become embedded in scientific understanding.