At first glance, the world of early modern English botany may seem like an unlikely angle from which to explore dynamics of privilege and status, but Madison Arnold-Scerbo ’18 saw an opportunity to employ her interest in the history of science alongside these social class distinctions.
Arnold-Scerbo’s thesis, “Collecting, Cultivating, and Classifying: Status and Collaboration in Early Modern English Botany,” reveals a dichotomy between social influence and historical impact by exploring the lives of little-known noblewoman, gardener, and botanist Duchess Mary Somerset of Beaufort and teacher and botanist Reverend Robert Uvedale.
“Both Somerset and Uvedale lacked some elements of status, but they were still incredibly influential actors in the botanical world, despite the fact that they do not get much mention in the historical record,” she said.
For the history major and museum studies minor, this thesis work stemmed from courses she took in the history of science, particularly with her advisor, Associate Professor of History Darin Hayton. She also took inspiration from early botanical collectors and social class dynamics of the time.
“The ways that people who did not possess trappings of privilege in society partook in collecting, cultivating, and classifying plants were particularly interesting to me,” she said.
At Haverford, Arnold-Scerbo was heavily involved with the history department, and helped to organize the department’s first Spring Showcase of senior thesis research. She was also a recipient of the department’s F. Page Newton Fund, which allowed Arnold-Scerbo to be able to travel to London, England, and Huntingdon Gardens in Pasadena, California to supplement her research.
“These experiences were pivotal to the success of my thesis, since my topic was in a foreign country,” said Arnold-Scerbo. “In London I spent many hours in the British Library, Kew Gardens Archives, and Natural History Museum researching about early modern English botany. Together, these experiences helped to give me a sense for the real world manifestations of historical research.”
Now starting work as a Quaker Voluntary Service fellow with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Portland, Ore., Arnold-Scerbo ultimately plans to pursue a career in public history, library science, or museum studies.
“I plan to use history to tell stories about our past, especially those that have not been told,” she said. “But in any field that I end up in, I know that the skills I cultivated during my thesis project — archival research, project management, critical thinking — will be helpful.”
What did you learn working on your thesis?
The process of writing my thesis helped to teach me that the key to success with large projects is finding a balance between focusing on the immediate task at hand and keeping in mind the big picture. It can be overwhelming to work on such a large project, but rather then constantly wishing away time and thinking things like, “Wow I can’t wait until I’m finished!” it is much better to embrace the stresses of the day-to-day work. The thesis process also reinforced my belief that it is best to start early and prepare!
The biggest takeaway from my thesis is the fact that science is, and always was, a collaborative endeavor that is not as objective as we would like to believe. Instead, the way that science was conducted and received was always dependent on the status of the people doing the science.
What are the implications for your thesis research?
My thesis project provides a model for investigating historical figures who have been largely ignored. It also provides a model for a social history based in comparison of two historical figures. My hope is that other historians will continue this type of work, which will ultimately lead to a more accurate and nuanced view of history, rather than one that tells only the story of powerful, rich, white men.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.
Photo: Madison Arnold-Scerbo ’18 conducting field research for her history thesis on early modern English botany.