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A Forgotten Botanist

Anne Kingsbury was born on October 29th, 1791, in Rindge, New Hampshire. She married Charles Wollstonecraft, whose sister was Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary was quite famous in Britain as a philosopher, author and advocate for the rights of women, and he was uncle to Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.”

When her husband died in 1817, Anne moved to Matanzas, Cuba. After settling in she began a study of the flora of the island. Three years later she created an extensive illustrated manuscript, “Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba. It became an important resource for the study of the natural history in colonial Cuba. She published several of her botanical discoveries but under the pseudonym D’Anville. She was after all, a woman you see. Boston Monthly Magazine published only one of her letters.

She had almost completed a manuscript and sent it on to another publisher several months before her death, Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba. Sadly it was never published. This work contained not only drawings but descriptions of the plants and records of their indigenous uses. One can plainly see that this was an invaluable resource. Emilio Cueto, author and scholar of Cuban history and culture, called it “the most important corpus of plant illustrations in Cuba’s colonial history.

Cueto hunted for the Wollstonecraft manuscript for more than two decades. The work was in three volumes, comprising 220 pages of text and 212 illustrated plates. It was believed by scholars to be a lost work. Over the years there were vague references to it, but no one had actually seen it. It seems that in 1923 Benjamin Freeman Kingsbury, a relative of Annes, who was a faculty member at Cornell University, donated the work to the University. It had been a treasured family heirloom. Because of a clerical error in early references to the work misidentified the author’s name, its significance was not recognized. In March of 2018 it was located and is now properly identified, its significance fully recognized, and made available to view or download online via the Hathi Trust Digital Library, courtesy of Cornell University Library. I can’t help but wonder what Anne would think of this now!

Most of Wollstonecraft’s writing centered on botany and ecology, she also wrote in vigorous support of women’s rights. The Natural Rights of Women was published in the Boston Monthly Magazine.

“The story of this manuscript is a wonderful example of what makes libraries so important, and what makes the Cornell University Library such a wonderful resource for Cornell and for the global research community,” said Anne Sauer, the Stephen E. and Evalyn Edwards Milman Director of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. “We are thrilled that Wollstonecraft’s work will now be easily available to all.


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