Patrick Russell’s 18th century volume of Indian serpent skins | Library and Archives

Museum paper conservator Konstantina Konstantinidou handles a large number of  items from the Library and Archives collection each year. Each object has differing needs and can offer a variety of challenges in regard to the work needed to be done. In this blog, Konstantina introduces us to an 18th century volume with rather unexpected contents.

Patrick Russell snake skin volume (1)
Full page specimen from Russell’s snake skin volume, displaying a specimen of Coronella russelli (name is now Oligodon arnensis)

Patrick Russell (1727-1805) was a physician and naturalist who spent the first part of his career (1750-1771) working in the Middle East, specifically Syria. Whilst working as physician to the factory of the English Levant Company, he assisted his brother Alexander with his publication Natural History of Aleppo (1756), and continued to provide revisions to this work after his brother’s death in 1768. Some of this research centred around the plague epidemics that hit Aleppo during the 1760s.

Patrick Russell Snake skin volume 1
Close up of volume showing tight binding with the specimen Naja tripudians

During 1785-1789 he took up the post of botanist to the East India Company in the Carnatic or Southern India, where he amassed large collections of both specimens and drawings of flora and fauna. He published some papers and corresponded with notable naturalists at the time, including Sir Joseph Banks.

Patrick Russell snake skin volume (3)
Naja tripudians specimen inside the Russell volume

The Museum holds an item compiled by Russell, consisting of 67 snake skins attached to paper, and bound into a volume. The binding is not contemporary, but rather a later intervention. The skins are mounted on paper pages and kept in loose format due to Russell’s need to put the volume to practical use to educate officers of the East India Company and the locals to help in the prevention of harmful snakebites.

However, the binding was causing damage to the skins, many of which were important specimens. Many of the skins were too close to the gutter of the binding, and the friction of the volumes usage had the potential to cause damage on the skins.

In consultation with the Museum’s reptile curator it was decided that because these are actual ‘skins’ and therefore need to be regarded as ‘specimens’ and placed in the appropriate storage conditions, the book was dis-bound. The leaves were separated and kept within bespoke mounts and in individual enclosures. Once conserved, they were digitised, and are now kept all together within a custom-made cabinet.

A couple of skins had evidence of past infestation that we determined was historic, and therefore no freezing was necessary. The evidence was simply cleared away.

Patrick Russell snake skin volume (4)
Close up of snake specimen showing arrow pointing to historical damage to a part of the skin

These specimens have now been added to the dry collections held by the Life Sciences Department and kept in the Large Vertebrate Store (LVS). They are available to researchers for further study alongside the other Russell preparations in purpose built, climate controlled, insect repellent cabinets.

Further reading

The natural history of Aleppo : containing a description of the city, and the principal natural productions in its neighbourhood : together with an account of the climate, inhabitants, and diseases, particularly of the plague (1794)
By Alexander Russell and Patrick Russell

This has been digitised for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and is available to read and download for free https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.66636

An account of Indian serpents, collected on the coast of Coromandel : containing descriptions and drawings of each species, together with experiments and remarks on their several poisons (1796-1801)
By Patrick Russell

This has been digitised for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and is available to read and download for free https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.114003