Antonio Vallisneri, an Italian geologist and naturalist, was born May 3, 1661. In 1695, the English geologist John Woodward wrote a book, An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth, in which he argued that, during the Great Noachian Flood, the entire crust of the earth had been dissolved, allowing animals and plants to descend through the muck and take up new places as fossils. Vallisneri, a professor of medicine at Padua, was an early critic of Woodward, both in reviews of Woodward’s book, and in his own later book on fossils, De corpi marini (On marine bodies, 1721). Vallisneri found it a bit extreme to think that God would use such a world-wrenching device just to punish wicked mankind, when he could do the same thing with a much smaller force. He thought the Flood was probably a local phenomenon (after all, humankind was confined to the Near East at the time), and he believed that fossils required an entirely different explanation. Accounting for fossils still required water and sediment, but probably much more time than the Flood provided. For Vallisneri, the Biblical Flood was miraculous, it did what God wanted it to do, and it had nothing to do with fossils, or any other aspect of the natural world. Vallisneri’s general view was that trying to use Scripture to explain Nature is detrimental both to religion and to science.

The Library has the first and the second, expanded edition (1728) of Vallisneri’s De corpi marini in the History of Science Collection, as well as his book on fountains and springs, Lezione accademica intorno all’origine delle fontane (1726), from which two books the images above were drawn.  Five years ago, the Library hosted a Fellow from Italy, Francesco Luzzini, who worked on Vallisneri and other “theorists of the earth” during his stay here.  His book on Vallisneri was published in 2013 and is available on Amazon and in the Library.

Vallisnieri’s portrait is in the collections of the University of Bologna (fifth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.