The Correspondence of Martin Lister (1,212 letters)

Primary Contributors:

Anna Marie Roos and Cultures of Knowledge

Detail of portrait of Martin Lister. Engraving made from a portrait by the circle of Charles Jervas (source of image: Wikimedia Commons).

Martin Lister (1639–1712)

The naturalist and physician Martin Lister was a prominent Fellow of the Royal Society who was made an honorary MD at Oxford in 1684. A significant benefactor to the Ashmolean, he corresponded regularly on natural history with its keepers, Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd. As a prolific corresponding fellow of the early Royal Society, he issued a steady stream of letters from his medical practice in York, many of which were printed in the Philosophical Transactions.

The great-nephew of royal physician Sir Matthew Lister, he was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, and in Montpelier, before setting up practice in York. During his three years of medical study in France, from 1663, Lister kept a journal in an almanac published as Every Man’s Companion: Or, An Useful Pocket-Book.

Later in life Lister moved to London, where he acted as vice-president of the Royal Society and also as censor of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1697–8 he travelled for the second time to France, after which he retired to Epsom, where he continued to transact voluminous correspondence and became court physician to Queen Anne in 1702.

Lister was one of the most high-profile and well-connected naturalists of the age. His letters provide a unique window onto early enlightenment cultures of medicine and natural philosophy throughout Britain and continental Europe. His unpublished papers were some of the largest of his donations to the Ashmolean and attest to his remarkably wide expertise, which ranged from Yorkshire antiquities and the origins of kidney stones to the disciplines of conchology (the study of shells) and arachnology (spiders), both of which he founded. Two species of orchids, a spider, and a wrinkle ridge system on the moon have been named in his honour.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The Lister scholar, Dr Anna Marie Roos, is currently Senior Lecturer in the history of science and medicine at the University of Lincoln. She is a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Dr Roos joined the Cultures of Knowledge project during its first pilot phase and, in the course of her work to edit and publish the correspondence of Martin Lister, contributed the metadata of his correspondence to EMLO. The first volume of his correspondence, published by Brill in February 2015, spans the years 1662–1677, and it is to be followed by two subsequent volumes.

Dr Roos would also like to thank the Cultures of Knowledge team, as well as Professor Richard Sharpe, Dr William Poole, Dr Chris Preston, Professor Tim Birkhead, Dr Bruce Barker-Benfield, Mr Keith Moore, and Ms Helen Watt for their archival expertise, and assistance with annotations, species identification, and translations. Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Anna Marie Roos for the text on this introductory page and Sue Burgess for her help with the ingestion of the metadata to EMLO.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Correspondence of Dr. Martin Lister (1639–1712), Volume One: 1662–1677, ed. and tr. Anna Marie Roos (Leiden: Brill, 2015).


While the Bodleian Library contains the bulk of Lister’s correspondence, totalling over 1,100 letters, sizeable quantities are held elsewhere, chiefly in the archives of the Royal Society, the Natural History Museum (Ray letters), the University of Utrecht, and the British Library’s collection of Sloane manuscripts. Lister’s correspondence illuminates, and is illuminated by, his many other scientific manuscripts, which, as Huddesford’s notes indicate, include a mass of unpublished works, drafts, notes, collections from other people’s papers, medical casebooks, and gardening plans.

As one of the most prominent corresponding fellows of the Royal Society, many of Lister’s letters from York, where he ran a medical practice, were printed in the Philosophical Transactions, the Royal Society’s journal. Lister would go on to contribute over sixty papers to the journal, and his letters demonstrate he was an innovator in archaeology, medicine, and chemistry, Robert Boyle considering him an investigator of ‘piercing sagacity’.1  Although Lister is known to have discovered ballooning spiders and his work on molluscs was standard for 200 years, he also invented the histogram, provided Sir Isaac Newton with chemical procedures and alloys for his telescopic mirrors, pursued archaeological studies demonstrating that York’s walls were Roman, received the first reports of the Chinese smallpox vaccination, and donated the first significant natural history collections to the Ashmolean Museum. Like Darwin two hundred years later, to complete his scientific  works Lister corresponded extensively with explorers and scientists who provided him with specimens, observations, and locality records from Jamaica, America, Barbados, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and his native England, making his research truly cross-cultural.

In 1683, he moved to London, where for a time he acted as Vice-President of the Royal Society and also as Censor of the Royal College of Physicians.  From 1697 to 1698 he travelled abroad with Lord Portland, and retired finally to Epsom, where he continued to transact voluminous correspondence. Lister was consulted by the great and the good about their health, serving as a Royal Physician to Queen Anne, a post sanctioned by his niece, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and he was held in high regard by an unusually broad range of contemporaries. His letters provide a unique window onto early enlightenment cultures of medicine and natural philosophy throughout the British Isles, continental Europe, and the Atlantic World.

Letter of 10 January 1671 addressed to Henry Oldenburg from Martin Lister (Royal Society, Early letters, volume L5, letter 22; photograph supplied by Anna Marie Roos and reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Society, London).


Although Lister had donated some of his works to Oxford, we have to thank William Huddesford, the perceptive eighteenth-century antiquarian and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, for the bulk of this collection.2  Huddesford had a long-held interest in Lister, his research providing him with an escape from town-and-gown politics. Huddesford had been conducting a long and frustrating campaign for Oxford’s streets to be lighted and cleaned properly, even publishing a tongue-in-cheek tract on the matter (appropriately, this was published in ‘Lucern’ by ‘Abraham Lightholder’), in which he revealed that he had been fighting the public’s prejudice that did ‘not know what Service the lamps were of, except to light a Pack of drunken Gownsmen home’.3   His scholarly work was a tonic, however, and he remarked when ‘conversing with Lister and the old Nat[ural] Historians I scarce know who is minister of state’.4

The Keeper was engaged in writing Lister’s biography, having gone so far as to initiate correspondence with Lister’s descendents living in the family’s manor house in Burwell Park, Lincolnshire, as well as with the Gregory family of Harlaxton Hall (also in Lincolnshire), who had intermarried with the Listers; he had even contacted the President of St John’s College, Cambridge, Lister’s alma mater.5

One can imagine Huddesford’s delight when he heard in 1768 that one Dr John Fothergill had bought at auction ‘put up in band boxes, confused like waste paper, several bundles of Dr Lister’s papers’, to save them from annihilation in the ‘pastrycooks oven’ or as wrapping for purchases at the Grocers.6  Fothergill (1712–1780) was an English physician, a Quaker, and F.R.S. who devoted his leisure time to studies of conchology and botany and had, thus, a logical interest in this manuscript collection. As Fothergill confessed to Huddesford that he should ‘never have the leisure to peruse them’, he wondered ‘what to do with them?’7  He mused that he ‘had best give them to some public Body — either to the Universities or to the Royal Society’, closing his letter to Huddesford with the query ‘What dost Thee think?’8  Huddesford replied quickly, ‘You ask Dr an interested Man.  I say to the University of Oxford and to the Ashmolean therein.  But I will give you a reason also — The Papers consist of letters to . . . Lister . . . a very great Benefactor.’9  Fothergill agreed to the proposal, and Huddesford recorded gleefully:

. . . came down one large Box, near a hundred weight.  The contents as followeth
1.    3 large Vols of letters to Lhwyd [Lister’s colleague Edward Lhwyd]
2.    Several Bundles of Letters to Lister
3.    Near 40 Books in 4to [ie. quarto] of MSS annotations on, and extracts from various Authors — Lister’s hand.
4.    Several Private Pocket Books in which Lister kept an account of the Fees he received in Practice.10

In the course of the mid-nineteenth century, these collections passed from the Ashmolean to the Bodleian Library. Most of these papers were kept together, forming the bulk of what is known, appropriately enough, as MSS Lister.11  MSS Lister 2–4, MSS Lister 34–37, and MS Ashmole 1816 make up the majority of the Lister correspondence from Fothergill’s gift to the university. With the exception of those printed in the Philosophical Transactions and in the correspondences of friends such as John Ray, there has been no scholarly edition of Lister’s letters.12 This has led to the neglect of this centrally important archive

Further resources

Further information of Martin Lister’s life and work may be found in detail in Anna Marie Roos’s biography, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist, which was published by Brill in 2011.


Primary Editions

The Correspondence of Dr. Martin Lister (1639–1712), Volume One: 1662–1677, ed. and tr. Anna Marie Roos (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

‘Martin Lister’s Healing Springs of England (annotated translation)’, ed. and tr. Anna Marie Roos, in Anna Marie Roos, ed., The Salt of the Earth: Chemistry, Medicine, and Natural Philosophy in England, 1650–1750 (Leiden, 2007).

A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698, by Martin Lister, ed. R.P. Stearns (Carbondale, 1967).

Secondary Works

Carr, Jeff, The Biological Work of Martin Lister (1638–1712), University of Leeds: PhD thesis, 1974.

Cook, Hal, ‘Natural History and Seventeenth-Century Dutch and English Medicine’, in H. Marland and M. Pelling, eds, The Task of Healing (Rotterdam, 1996), pp. 253–70.

Hunter, Michael, Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain (London, 1995).

Iliffe, Rob, ‘Foreign Bodies: Travel, Empire and the Early Royal Society of London’, Canadian Journal of History, 33 (1998), pp. 358–85.

Keynes, Geoffrey, Dr. Martin Lister: A Bibliography (Goldaming, 1981).

Parker, John and Harley, Basil, eds, Martin Lister’s English Spiders, 1678 (Colchester, 1992).

Roos, Anna Marie, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639–1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden, 2011).

— , ‘The Art of Science: A ‘rediscovery’ of the Lister Copperplates’.  Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2011)

— , ‘A Speculum of Chymical Practice: Isaac Newton, Martin Lister (1639–1712), and the Making of Telescopic Mirrors’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2010).

—, ‘Lilies of the Sea’, Natural History, 118, no. 10 (December 2009/January 2010), pp. 26–30.

— , ‘All that Glitters: Fool’s Gold in the Early Modern Era’, Endeavour, 32 (December 2008), pp. 147–51.

— , ‘Lodestones and Gallstones: the Magnetic Iatrochemistry of Martin Lister (1639–1712)’, History of Science, 46 (2008), pp. 343–64.

— , ‘Martin Lister (1639–1712) and the Chemistry of Fool’s Gold’, Ambix, 51 (2004), pp. 23–42.

Unwin, R.W., ‘A Provincial Man of Science at Work: Martin Lister, F.R.S., and His Illustrators, 1670–1683′, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 49 (1995), pp. 209–30.

Wood, S., ‘Martin Lister, Zoologist and Physician’, Annals of Medical History, 1 (1929), pp. 87–104.

Woodley, J.D., ‘Anne Lister, Illustrator of Martin Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum (1685–1692)’, Archives of Natural History [Great Britain], 21 (1994), pp. 225–29.

Launch Catalogue

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.


1 Bodleian MS Lister 34, 99r. 12 April 1683 from Tancred Robinson to Martin Lister. Robinson was relating Boyle’s comments to Lister about his recent publication on spa waters, De Fontibus (1682).

2 Arthur MacGregor, ‘William Huddesford (1732–1772): His Role in Reanimating the Ashmolean Museum, His Collections, Researches, and Support Network,’ Annals in Natural History, 34, 1 (2007), pp. 47–68.

3 William Huddesford, An Address to the Freemen and other Inhabitants of the City of Oxford (1764), p. 4.

4 William Huddesford to William Borlase, 31 July 1770; Borlase Papers, Morrab Library, Penzance, MOR/BOR/3, f. 62.

5 Lister held a fellowship by Royal Mandate at St John’s College, Cambridge, granted in 1660. For Huddesford’s letters, see Additional MSS 22596, British Library, London.

6 J. Nichols, Illustrations of the literary history of the eighteenth century (London, 1822), vol. 4, p. 458; MacGregor, ‘Huddesford’, p. 58.

7 MacGregor, ‘Huddesford’, p. 59 and p. 66.

8 Nichols, Illustrations, vol. 4, p. 458, as quoted in MacGregor, ‘Huddesford’, p. 59.

9 MacGregor, ‘Huddesford’, p. 59.

10 MacGregor, ‘Huddesford’, p. 59. These documents comprise MSS Lister at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

11 Huddesford separated four boxes of Lister ephemera from the main collection; Huddesford was using them to complete another edition of Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-92; 1770). See A.M. Roos, ‘A Discovery of Martin Lister ephemera: the construction of early Modern Scientific Texts’, The Bodleian Library Record, Apr. 2013, p. 127.

12 See The Correspondence of John Ray, ed. Edwin Lankester (London: The Ray Society, 1848) and The Further Correspondence of John Ray, ed. R. W. T. Gunther (London: The Ray Society, 1928). Helen Watt and Brynley F. Roberts have provided transcriptions of Lister’s correspondence with Edward Lhwyd, although these are not annotated. See