What is more dangerous than pufferfish poison? How about the “Nestor of American science,” Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill (1764 – 1831), whose vast range of scientific accomplishments includes the first description from an American pen (Linnaeus had described a specimen from the Carolinas in 1766) of a fish variously known as the Lineated Puffer, Smooth Puffer, and Rabbitfish, but which, in the good Dr. Mitchill’s synonymy, was christened “The Mathematical Tetrodon.”
On the streets of lower Manhattan in the early 19th century, Dr. Mitchill was the commonest of sights, going about in his blue coat, buff-colored vest, and buckled shoes. From his quarters on Barclay Street, a block from City Hall and the Park, he would make frequent strolls to the Fulton Market – sometimes accompanied by students from Columbia College or the College of Physicians and Surgeons – to see what the local nets had lately brought up from pelagic parts both far and near. Having grown up in “Plandome” (North Hempstead, Long Island), he was well-acquainted with the fish of Long Island Sound, and for all his cosmopolitan vagabondage (after the British occupied New York City, he left his medical practice to study at the University of Edinburgh, where he rubbed elbows with such notables as Sir James Mackintosh – who would become the preeminent Scottish jurist; physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar; and Thomas Addis Emmet, Irish revolutionary and later American lawyer and politician; Dr. Mitchill was equally acquainted with the leading philosophes of London and Paris) the fishes about the North River, East River, and their confluence just off the Battery were at the epicenter of his pioneering ichthyology.
“Pioneering” is in no way too provocative a word for Dr. Mitchill, whose entire biography seemed to play out along the frontier of science and technology. An early advocate of the new Lavoisierian system of chemistry, his 1797 mineralogical survey of New York included an analysis of the Saratoga mineral waters. Sir Humphry Davy’s conception that acids were substances that contained replaceable hydrogen was aided by Dr. Mitchill’s research on septic acid. He exchanged observations and speculations upon American climate, geology, paleontology, and ethnology with Thomas Jefferson; brought out the first American edition of Cuvier’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1818) and then improved it considerably for his American audience by his detailed narrative of the “Fredonian” (the alternative name he proposed – and long cherished – for the United States of America) and especially New York City region bedrock landscapes. With Priestley he penetrated phlogiston; with Jefferson and Peale, the “American incognitum” – the mastodon. In the words of a late 19th century biographer: “He wrote largely to Percival on noxious agents. He cheered Fulton when dejected; encouraged Livingston in appropriation; awakened new zeal in Wilson the ornithologist, when the Governor, Tompkins, had nigh paralyzed him by his frigid and unfeeling reception; and, with Pintard and Colden, was a zealous promoter of that system of internal improvement which has stamped immortality on the name of Clinton.”
Through no other single person could one receive such a capacious window upon the intellectual landscape of early 19th century Gotham – indeed, Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History (1809) was inspired largely as a satirical response to Mitchill’s straight-laced and rather soporific history, Picture of New-York (1807). Dr. Mitchill’s curiosity knew no bounds, so that two hundred years later, if one follows him in his inquiries, one gets the most extravagant and inviting picture of the rapidly changing city. Everywhere and always Dr. Mitchill was concerned with life, and so the narrow streets of lower Manhattan become enlarged and enriched through his eyes.
Yesterday I had set out to imagine Dr. Mitchill standing along the outer promenade at the Battery, in late summer of 1817, as at that moment he was just returned from a field excursion to Chester, in Orange County, where he and his friends had disinterred the teeth, bones, and tusks of a mastodon. Nine years later, in a discourse to his fellow Lyeum of Natural History members about the scientific accomplishments of his old friend Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Mitchill would take special note of Jefferson’s own interest in the incognitum, as a key element in his patriotic effort to refute Count Buffon’s proclamations of American “degeneracy.” Sharing Jefferson’s acute republicanism and cosmopolitan erudition, Dr. Mitchill’s zoology was also loftily political and expertly informed, but always tinged with homespun. In his report on the Chester mastodon, when he noted that the ‘dexter prong’ – the right-hand tusk – was more heavily worn than the ‘sinistral’ (left-hand side), he took it to be a “manifest indication of preference for what the drivers of animals call the off-side limbs.” Dr. Mitchill was constantly alert to the peculiar sagacity of his neighbors.
And thus perhaps you begin to see the peculiar danger in studying this unparalleled studier of Nature – his observations lead one in so many tantalizing directions! In order to help me imagine what animals he might have seen on that summer day of 1817, I turned to Dr. Mitchill’s Report, in part, On the Fishes of New York (1815). Along with his routine anatomical descriptions, nearly every one of the 166 species described offers some small literary or historical gem. Of Sparus ovis, the Sheepshead, he declared that: “Nothing, in the opinion of a New Yorker, can exceed boiled sheep’shead served up at a sumptuous dinner. . . This noble fish . . . the feats of hooking and pulling him in, furnish abundant materials for the most pleasing and hyperbolical stories.” Dr. Mitchill imagined some future day when the fish would be brought to New York “in perfection”; for now, he regretted, “the sheep’s head too often corrupts for want of ice.”
In Dr. Mitchill’s day a vast repository of natural history still lay in local folklore, and he was keen to record it. In earlier days the custom was to bait one’s hooks for Tautog or Blackfish in early April, when the dogwood came into blossom; now that the dogwood was nearly gone from lower Manhattan’s streets and yards, the American chestnut tree served as phenological prognosticator, and Dr. Mitchill duly noted a common rhyme among fishermen:
When chestnut leaves are big as thumb-nail,
Then bite blackfish without fail,
But when chestnut leaves are big as a span,
Then catch black-fish, if you can.
Children too were ready sources for Dr. Mitchill. Writing about the different species of sturgeon, he included this bit of arcana – local boys found that the gristle taken from sharp-nosed sturgeon was much less elastic than that of the blunt-nosed, and so a ball made from it did not bounce so well. As a longtime intimate of Robert Fulton (Dr. Mitchill was among the passengers on the Clermont’s maiden voyage in 1807), one should not be surprised to find that the steam wizard too supplied him with ichthyological specimens. Fulton had caught an Orange file-fish (Balistes auriantiaeus) on August 1, 1814, and promptly passed it on to Dr. Mitchill, who then asked his brother-in-law, Staten Island physician (as well as pioneering agricultural reformer and co-founder of the New York Institute for the Blind – all of these men seem to have been prodigious polymaths!) Samuel Akerly, to draw the fish.
I will pass over Dr. Mitchill’s remarkable remarks about the Killi-fish, the Cow-nosed ray, and Centronotus, the Crab-eater – the last entry in Mitchill’s Report, in part, On the Fishes of New York, and the only species for which he felt obliged to invent a new taxon. No, I take it back; I cannot resist this one quote from the Crab-eater description: “This fish was boiled and served up at my table; on which occasion, my family, servants and all, had but one opinion – that it was one of the best we had ever eaten.”
Given all these digressions, I see that I have yet to come to the Mathematical Tetrodon, Tetrodon mathematicus. Dr. Mitchill examined his single specimen of “this curious fish” on June 29, 1814. The War of 1812 was still going on; a month before, the First Treaty of Paris had been signed, and Napoleon had been exiled to Elba the same day. The two dozen cannon installed at the West Battery Fort (today’s Castle Clinton) were still trained out onto the waters from which the Tetrodon and most of Dr. Mitchill’s other specimens had come.
It seems rather an unassuming fish, standing there as it does on the same Plate VI with such lovelies as the phantasmagorical Spot-striped Diodon; its congener Hairy Diodon – which looks for all the world like some Ed Koren rendering of a small Upper East Side dog; the diminutive but arresting Spinous Dory. One must turn to Dr. Mitchill’s species account to find why the little pufferfish becomes a much more luminous member of both Dr. Mitchill’s taxonomy and lexicon:
“Lateral line departing from the ring encompassing the eye, like a tangent; ascending in a superb curve toward the back; sweeping boldly down from the olive of the back through the satin of the side; and then running direct to the tail; putting one in mind of the ecliptic cutting the equator. . . Another line from the eye-circle to the transverse line, and parallel to the lateral line, making a sort of parallelogram.”
Mitchill seems here to be some piscatorial William Blake, seeing a World in the external markings of a lowly fish, as if he were holding the infinity promised by mathematics in the mucus-covered palm of his hand.
Even were the Fulton Market open today, I could not stroll over and ask the fishmongers if they had any Tetrodon mathematicus among their daily spoils, and thank heavens that the good Dr. Mitchill did not take it back to his cook to prepare for his table. Ethnobotanist and Zombie authority Wade Davis reports that it “regularly appears in the zombie preparations.”