The Correspondence of Robert Plot

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge

Robert Plot, by William Reader. c.1672–80. Oil on canvas, 75 by 63 cm. (image: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Robert Plot (1640–1696)

The ‘learned Dr Plot’, who is best known as a naturalist, antiquary, and first keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, was born at Sutton Barne, Borden, Kent. Educated at the Free School in Wye, in 1658 Robert Plot matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, where subsequently he served as dean and as vice-principal, before moving to University College in 1676. It was initially as a student and then as a teacher that he became involved in the activities of Oxford’s circle of natural philosophers at the centre of which was first Robert Boyle and later Thomas Willis.

By the mid-1660s Plot had formulated a plan to traverse the length and breadth of Britain collecting material for a written survey of the country, a project he restricted subsequently to the counties of Oxfordshire and Staffordshire. His research on this endeavour began in earnest in June 1674 — in part thanks to the support of John Fell, bishop of Oxford, and the University’s vice-chancellor Ralph Bathhurst — with travels throughout Oxfordshire, and two years later he brought out through the University press The Natural History of Oxfordshire, being an Essay toward the Natural History of England. The favourable reception and subsequent success of this publication appears to have been a factor in the University’s decision to accept Elias Ashmole’s substantial gift and to erect a new building in which both to house Ashmole’s donation and to accomodate in addition under the same roof a School of Natural History and a chemical laboratory; in 1683, Plot was appointed Professor of Chemistry and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. His appointment, which in November 1684 caused him to resign his secretaryship of the Royal Society, allowed him to complete a second publication, The Natural History of Stafford-shire [1686], and he remained in post for seven years, during which time, as Gunther writes, ‘his energies all turned to the profit of the Museum. The jealous even declared that “his acquisitiveness was such as to disgust some of his fellow antiquarians”. But he was one who gave ten-fold more than he received, and he had many friends, and was intimage with Pepys and Evelyn’.1 From 1687 Plot’s assistant was Edward Lhwyd, who himself appeared to have reservations about Plot’s acquitision habits.2

Plot resigned frm the chair of chemistry in November 1689, possibly on account of his intended marriage with Rebecca Rebecca Burnam (née Sherwood) in the summer of 1690. Citing insufficient stipend as the reason he tended his resignation as Keeper of the Ashmolean the following winter (in which post he was succeeded by Edward Lhwyd), whereafter he returned to Sutton Barne. Despite stating that he would ‘never publish’ more of his ‘Histories’, Plot appeared to be contemplating a ‘Natural History of Middlesex and Kent’ as well as one of London and Middlesex; he both published proposals and undertook tours of collection before, through severe illness, he died in Kent on 20 April 1696.

Partners and Additional Contributors

Between 1920 and 1945, Robert Gunther, the zoologist, antiquary, and historian of science, brought out the fourteen volumes of his Early Science in Oxford. As founder of the Museum of the History of Science, which is housed in the very building where Plot presided over the fledgling Ashmolean, Gunther made in these volumes a significant contribution to the archaeological study of science In Oxford, and he edited and published a significant number of the letters of Robert Plot. Cultures of Knowledge has collated the metadata, primarily from volume XII, of these letters published by Gunther to form the beginnings of a calendar. Thanks are due in particular to Digital Fellow Callum Seddon for working his way through Gunther’s volume to enter the metadata, and to EMLO intern Antonio Geremicca for his proofreading work.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

R. T. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, vol. IV and vol. XII (Oxford, 1925 and 1939).

Scope of Catalogue

EMLO will continue to enhance, update, and enrich the metadata in this catalogue, including the completion of manuscript details; work will be scheduled also to supplement the calendar with metadata for the letters that were not published in Gunther’s volumes. In addition, it is hoped that students in Oxford will engage with this catalogue as part of their coursework. Links to interpretations of letters that reside in alternative catalogues in EMLO will be inserted shortly so users are able to toggle between versions.

Further resources


R. T. Gunther, Early science in Oxford, 14 vols (Oxford, 1920–1945).

A. J. Turner, ‘Plot, Robert (bap. 1640, d. 1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).


Related material

Robert Plot, The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an Essay toward the Natural History of England (Oxford, 1676), facsimile edition at the LInda Hall LIbrary Digital Collections.

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1 R. T. Gunther, Early science in Oxford, 14 vols (Oxford, 1920–1945), vol. III, p. 320.

2 Ibid.