15 June 2017 from 15:15 to 17:00

UCLA lecture by Mary Terrall

Michel Adanson (1727-1806)
Michel Adanson (1727-1806)

The annual UCLA lecture is held this year on 15 June 2017 by Prof. Mary Terrall, Professor of History of Science. The topic of her lecture is Colonial Dreams: Michel Adanson’s Encounter with Africa in the 1750s.

Since 2004 the UCLA lecture is organised annually as part of the exchange programme of Utrecht University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The lecture is organised by the Research Institute for History and Art History. A similar lecture series (Van Tilburg lectures) takes place at UCLA.


The French botanist Michel Adanson spent five crucial years in Senegal as a young man, working frenetically to establish himself as a naturalist and to earn support, and possibly long-term rewards, from the directors of the Compagnie des Indes. He collected and cultivated African plant species of potential commercial interest, as part of a much broader goal to map and inventory the landscape and natural resources of the watersheds of the Senegal and Niger rivers. Adanson tried to realize his personal ambitions at an intensely fraught political conjuncture, when English and French trading interests were jockeying for advantage with African rulers and merchants.

This paper explores questions of the geographies of knowledge at a time of empire-building, in the context of French ambitions for an expanded colonial presence in and around Cayenne. Adanson submitted an elaborate project for a secret five-year expedition to gather plant and animal resources in Africa for transport to the new colony across the Atlantic. Though the expedition never happened, his detailed articulation of plans for how to integrate natural knowledge into the state’s imperial ambitions, give a prescient portrait of the interlocking interests of individual savants, government ministers, and commercial traders that would continue to motivate science and serve empire in the decades to come.

Prof. Mary Terrall
Prof. Mary Terrall

Mary Terrall

After a spell at Harvard, Prof. Terrall joined the History Department at UCLA in 1998. She was also a visiting scholar in Paris (2002, 2008) and Berlin (Max Planck, 2008 and 2014). Her book The Man Who Flattened the Earth from 2002 was awarded the Pfizer Prize (History of Science Society) in 2003 and in 2004 won the Gottschalk Prize (Annual book prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies). In 2016 she received the Thackray Medal for her most recent book Catching Nature in the Act. In July 2016 she was appointed interim director of the prestigious William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.

Key publications

  • Catching Nature in the Act: Réaumur and the Practice of Natural History in the Eighteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2014).  
  • The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2002). 
Start date and time
15 June 2017 15:15
End date and time
15 June 2017 17:00