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Prestigious award for book detailing the cultural history of the orchid

A professor from the University of Sussex has been awarded a prestigious international History of Science prize recognising the appeal of his book for general readers.

Jim Endersby, Professor of the History of Science, was awarded the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize for his book Orchid: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Orchid was described by the History of Science Society as a "delightful, engaging and insightful study" into the cultural and scientific allure of the orchid.

Through the ancient Greeks to the current research on the impact of climate change, to Darwin’s research and the short stories of HG Wells, Jim Endersby traces the cultural meanings associated with the plant, while reconstructing the scientific investigations of the often mysterious biology of the orchid family.

Patrick McCray, Mary Terrall and Mark Barrow from the History of Science Society wrote that “Orchid delivers on its promise to offer a history of science that is simultaneously authoritative, accessible, and as enthralling as its subject matter.”

Jim Endersby said: “If I were greedy and could specify the prize I would most like to win, it would be this one because it's given for the best book for a general audience.

“It was books for general audiences, particularly those written by the late Stephen Jay Gould, which first inspired my interest in the history of science. So, to feel that I'm following in the footsteps of writers like Gould, and may perhaps inspire a few others to take up this wonderful field, makes this an especially precious honour.

“The prize is also particularly welcome because just after I started writing Orchid, I was diagnosed with cancer. As everyone who has had this experience comments, there's nothing like cancer to put things in perspective (it is a cliché because it's true).

“I decided I would write the book I really wanted to write, without worrying about whether or not it would appear on anyone's reading list, or be a good career move. By the time the book was done, I was cancer-free, as I have now been for six years – many thanks to the NHS!

“But I did worry that perhaps I had written a book that nobody but me would ever want to read. Perhaps it was just too eclectic, and I worried that it might be too academic for a general readership, and too 'popular' for an academic one. So, it's exciting and gratifying that the History of Science Society believes the book deserves to reach a wider audience.”

Prior to the publication of Orchid, Professor Endersby wrote and presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Crafty OrchidsBroadcast in February 2016, the programme asked how the biology of orchids, one of the world’s most collectable plants, has manipulated us into spreading them, presenting a scientific and historical exploration.

By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Friday, 16 November 2018