Village People: Henry Thomas Soppitt and the Universal Importance of Local History
Henry Thomas Soppitt (1858–1899) was a Yorkshire greengrocer turned drysalter who chose to study nature in his spare time. Despite dying relatively young, he had a substantial impact on mycology, the study of fungi. He was the first person to show that some rust fungi could have lifecycles that involved more than one plant host. He did so using experimental methods; transforming his garden into a laboratory to assess the fungus throughout its lifecycle. Furthermore, rust fungi are not mere academic curiosities; they are responsible for substantial losses across a variety of crops resulting in substantial economic and social impact across the globe. Soppitt’s work represents an important piece of the puzzle in our understanding of the fungus and highlights the important contributions made to science by people from all walks of life.
Much of what we know from Soppitt is thanks to the efforts of his friends and contemporaries to preserve his work and legacy. Both Soppitt’s library and collection of fungal specimens (fungarium), were given to organisations for their long-term preservation and use by the local scientific community. Charles Crossland, a close friend and fellow mycologist, collected letters of condolence and presented them to the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union giving an excellent glimpse into Soppitt as a man independent of his scientific pursuits. These collections are still available today. Soppitt’s fungarium is at the Tolson Memorial Museum. His library, being the seed for a much larger scientific library, is still accessible with the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union. The book of letters is part of the West Yorkshire Archives Service.
Stories like those of Henry Thomas Soppitt are abundant across the UK (and, indeed, across the rest of the world). Every town will have a history of men and women exploring the world around them and contributing often small but always important experiments and observations to our understanding of nature. As we find out about these stories, we expand our understanding of who does science and who science is for. We move away from the image of the lone scientist, aloof and unconnected, and instead find stories of nature study as a social activity; that enriches the life of the individual and of their community.
Local museums are important in discovering these stories — many of which unfortunately remain untold. Men and women like Soppitt were defined by their communities. Aside from studying the local nature, they sought to uplift their towns and villages as bastions of civic life. They volunteered as science teachers, published in local journals, and engaged in other communities and societies unrelated to the study of nature. Local museums were often preferential targets of bequethments, rather than national institutions, so that their work and writing might to continue to benefit the community that had been such a core aspect of their life.
The past might be a foreign country, but it has a familiar landscape. The hills, valleys, streams, and forests that inspire us today are the same that inspired those before us. Far more than faded photographs, when we look back at those who studied nature in the past we find lives and stories familiar to our own with wants, needs, and failings also familiar to ours. Theirs are human stories and they inspire and caution in equal measure. More of them should be told.
This blog was written by Nathan Smith, FLS, Assistant Curator at Tolson Memorial Museum who has responsibility for its Natural History collections. Nathan is also an educator and researcher whose work is focused on the past and present intersections between professional and amateur research communities in mycology.