Attitudes Towards the House Sparrow in Victorian Britain

On Wednesday evening the Leeds Animal Studies Network ( met for the latest installment of its seminar series. For those of us intrigued by animal history, the Network’s seminars have offered some great topics: from beagle colonies to the role of elephants in the timber industry of colonial Burma.

Male and female house sparrows. From Thomas G. Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia, 1878). Available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

But the latest seminar featured my own (freshly published!) research on the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in 19thc Britain. During this time, sparrows were generally perceived as “pests” or “vermin” which consumed farmer’s crops and damaged orchards. This attitude was summed up by the complaints of a farmer named Charles Newman, who wrote to his local newspaper in 1861 to protest against bird conservation. Newman, a self-proclaimed “practical farmer,” had little patience for those who wished to preserve sparrows:

“No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

Newman was by no means alone in his hatred of sparrows, or as he termed them, “flying mice.” Arable farmers and horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their land. Yet others thought that sparrows were not destructive, but useful. In 1862 the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales  stated that insectivorous birds like sparrows consumed as much animal [insect] as vegetable matter, acting as ‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general.” Some naturalists feared that destroying sparrows would upset the delicate balance of nature. As early as 1841, a letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit orchard, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole bushes of their leaves.

The English sparrow in the USA. From William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds Vol.1 (London, 1843): 474-478. 

The idea of using sparrows as a form of biological control against harmful insects was enacted across the globe. Sparrows were introduced to both Australia and the United States by acclimatisation societies during the 1860s. Yet attitudes towards the sparrow in both countries quickly turned sour. In 1878 an article in The Derby Mercury charted the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:

“For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however, there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and multiplication of the imported blessing.”

In the face of such failures, the acclimatisation movement declined. Natural history also suffered a decline during the latter half of the 19thc ( Economic ornithology, described as ‘‘the study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture’’ by the President of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1892, took over the issue of whether sparrows were harmful or beneficial for agriculture. British economic ornithologists followed the lead of their American counterparts by condemning sparrows for consuming cereal crops. Following the outbreak of the First World War, sparrows were therefore persecuted on a systematic basis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sparrow in 19thc Britain, or how matters of social and scientific consequence were decided during this time, my paper “The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900” has just been published by the Journal of the History of Biology. It is Open Access and you can read or download it from the journal’s website at Or you can read it and my other publications on my Academia page:


Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…


In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

Taxonomic Technology: Electrophoresis & Classification in Agricultural Botany (Part 1)

My second ever work-in-progress seminar at the University of Leeds introduced attendees to the second chapter of my PhD, which examines the use of laboratory machinery and biochemical methods to identify and analyse crop varieties at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) during the 1980s. By the late-twentieth century, classifying agricultural plants was a difficult task. More and more varieties were submitted to NIAB by plant breeders, while the distinguishing characteristics of varieties grew smaller and smaller. Identifying and classifying varieties had traditionally relied upon botanically-trained observers. Yet visual scrutiny of plants’ morphological characteristics was problematic, requiring both considerable expertise and grown specimens.

The problem of classifying of agricultural plants is demonstrated by these images of celery varieties. Each column here represents a distinct variety: the correct classification of these samples by eye would be a near-impossible task for the untrained observer. From G.W. Horgan, M. Talbot and J.C. Davey, ‘Plant variety colour assessment using a still video camera’, Plant Varieties and Seeds (1995) 8: 161-169.

An escape route was provided to NIAB via a form of protein fingerprinting developed in biochemistry: electrophoresis. For historians of biology, electrophoresis is best known for its use by Lewontin and Hubby to break an impasse in population genetics during the 1960s. Electrophoresis was trialed at NIAB during the same period, to little avail. Matters changed during the early years of the 1980s, when staff at NIAB’s Chemistry and Quality Assessment Branch were able to apply electrophoresis to cereal varieties. Electrophoresis works by running an electric current through a gel in which a sample sits. As different proteins carry different charges, they separate into distinct “bands” (see below).

An early image of a completed electrophoresis sample. The darker protein “bands” can be seen once the gel is chemically dyed. From R.P Ellis, ‘The identification of wheat varieties by the electrophoresis of grain proteins’, Journal of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (1971) 12: 223-235.

Electrophoresis provided a new means of classifying agricultural plants and was promoted in NIAB’s publications as an efficient and modern technique of variety identification. The experience of the Institute during the 1980s chimes with what historians of science have termed the “molecularisation movement” in the life sciences. This movement is usually associated with genetics and the role of DNA and nucleic acids. Yet historians have called for broader studies under the theme of molecularisation, not least because of the broad use of terms such as “molecular biology” by scientists themselves. Financial gain and prestige came from NIAB’s research into electrophoresis; the technique still appears in guidelines issued by international agricultural bodies today, despite the rise of DNA sequencing. Yet electrophoresis was not the only method of classification investigated by NIAB during the 1980s, as future posts will explore…



Book Review: Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

So little ground has shifted in the genetically modified food debate that a twelve-year old volume remains pertinent today. Food, Inc. examines a series of controversies surrounding transgenic foods in ten chapters. The book begins with a whirlwind tour of agricultural genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s garden to the biotech revolution in agriculture since the 1980s. Following chapters are based around specific points of health, environmental and commercial contention, from the erosion of genetic diversity to bio-piracy and patenting. Journalist Peter Pringle – author of Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998) – attempts to occupy what remains of ‘the middle ground’ amidst what he perceives to be a divisive plethora of special interest groups.

‘Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene [provitamin A]’:
Pringle begins with one of the ‘most vigorously investigated botanical mysteries’: asexuality or apomixis (p. 11). Understanding apomixis could result in fixed traits in crops, unchanging throughout the generations. Yet if the secret of apomixis is patented, the dominance of industrial capital over farming will advance still further. A central dilemma in Food, Inc., this is further explored in chapter two. Here the development of vitamin-A rich Golden Rice in 1999 provides a case in point; as a supposedly humanitarian effort to counter global malnutrition degenerated into a row on the funding of science and private ownership of biotech techniques and products. By contrast, chapter four covers the 1994 outcry over the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Flavr Savr tomato. To Pringle this episode is indicative of the poor conduct of the Reagan administration, food regulatory bodies and the ambiguous criteria of ‘substantial equivalence’ used to judge the safety of transgenic crops (p.65).

Yet anti-biotech forces do not emerge intact from the book. The British scientist and activist Mae-Wan Ho, is virulently refuted over her arguments on the instability of transgenic organisms containing mosaic viruses (p.98). Pringle divides the anti-biotech community into three categories: rejectionists, reformers and organic advocates. With the exception of reformers, these activists are portrayed as having played a significant role in creating public confusion on the safety of genetically modified foods. Other factors in the latter’s rejection of transgenic crops include an irresponsible media and Monsanto’s public relations disaster in Britain.

A monarch butterfly: Food, Inc, discusses a 1999 controversy on the impact of Bt corn pollen on potted common milkweed plants, which host the butterflies.

Historian of science James Secord has argued that simplistic notions of scientific genius are often present in scientific journalism. Food, Inc. acknowledges a range of opposition to genetically modified food, from ‘anarchists and ideological scientists’ to trade unions and religious groups (p.118). Yet Pringle has little to contribute on the development of these movements. Instead the biographies of individual (often colourful) campaigners are covered. In a reflection of Secord’s criticism of scientific journalism, Pringle may have put too much focus on anti-heroic geniuses as driving opposition to the science of genetic modification. Food, Inc. readily equates a high media profile with practical influence over the anti-biotech movement.

For an introduction to current themes in agriculture and biotechnology, Food, Inc. is a useful resource. Yet room for expansion on several of its themes remain; the emergence and character of environmental protest being one area. Another would be critiques of a now-established (US-based) narrative of commodification of the natural world by an industrial elite. One topic of interest to historians of science mentioned in the book is the life and work of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov. This noteworthy story is covered in a 2008 work by Pringle, which this blog will review at a later date. Food, Inc. ultimately comes down in favour of genetic modification, albeit with misgivings. The book’s arguments should therefore be considered by all those interested in the biotech debate.

Pringle, Peter, Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

The Travelling Rat (1850-1950) at BSHS Conference, University of Swansea

Last week, a surprisingly high proportion of beach-goers on the coast near Swansea were historians or philosophers of science. The British Society for the History of Science annual conference was underway, featuring subjects as diverse as science fiction, Renaissance anatomy and nineteenth-century beliefs in extraterrestrials. One panel that caught the eye of many was “The Travelling Rat, 1850-1950,” which featured three presentations on historical attitudes towards our furry neighbors:

The Rat Catcher’s Prank – Neil Pemberton 

Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria:

It is unsurprising to see that rat-catching practices are shaped by continuous battle with the ingenuity and behavior of rats. One man who understood this was Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria. Black paraded around Victorian London in a self-made uniform, complete with a belt covered in iron rats. One of his numerous exploits involved confronting another rat-catcher in a pub, after stealing 10 live rats from the rival’s cart. Black displayed them to his rival’s dismay, the latter being bitten as he attempted to retrieve his lost rats. In this context, rats were objects of public display and spectacle. Yet today, rats are considered vectors of disease, not a subject for humorous pub pranks. Contact with rats has not always been perceived as dangerous. Jack Black boasted of being bitten everywhere (even in places he couldn’t name). Others catchers killed rats like dogs, using their teeth. In his interview with a Victorian journalist, Black didn’t talk about the sewer-dwelling habits of rats. Such a setting was hardly suitable for spectacle. To avoid plagues of rats on London streets, Black advocated the fitting of rat-proof drain grating. Strangely, hunting rats in their natural (sewer-based) habitat would constitute a form of “animal murder”.

Rattus-Homo-Machine: Rats as Seafarers in the Nineteenth Century – Kaori Nagai

Joseph Conrad’s novel Youth (1898) describes the spectacle of rats abandoning the author’s ship following a refit. Later Conrad’s ship caught fire and sank, proving the innate wisdom of seafaring rats. During this time, it was quite normal for rats to inhabit ships, embarking and disembarking at their leisure. Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, was greatly pestered by rats and cats on his island. He was forced to tame the latter to keep the rats away. With rats taken on shipping routes to countries all over the world, nineteenth-century writers characterised rats as the ultimate colonisers. These animal colonisers caused their human counterparts no end of trouble, attacking farms and plantation. Rats also preyed on both native and other introduced species. According to Joseph Hooker, the Maori of New Zealand stated that just as European rats had driven away their native ones, the same phenomenon would occur on the human level. In the Encyclopaedia of Natural History (1837), Charles Partington recognised that the alarming multiplication of rats abroad was entirely the fault of human migrants.

The ‘Modern’ Management of Rats Moving Across Farm and Field: 1900-1940 – Karen Sayer   

Rat catchers, 1900's (5) (1)
Rat-catchers in Sydney, c. 1900.

By the late-nineteenth century, rats had long been subject to population control in rural Britain. Existing attitudes towards rats as “vermin” were reinforced by a (minor) outbreak of plague in rural Suffolk in 1910. Newspapers panicked and staff from the Lister Institute were sent to examine rats and their fleas. There were also debates in Parliament, which predictably pronounced the affair a matter for the local authorities. Detractors noted that reliance upon local controls were clearly insufficient when rats are able to travel. In 1919 the rats and mice destruction act was passed, threatening fines for those who allow rats to inhabit their land. In a new era of regulated control, modern, “scientific” methods of extermination, including gas and salmonella bacterium were promoted. The Victorian-era rat-catcher was confined to the annals of history. Newspapers dismissed traditional practitioners as part of an idyllic, or “silly” illusion of the countryside.

The History of the Plant: Cultivating Innovation at the John Innes Centre

On Tuesday 14th April, an eclectic mix of historians, lawyers and scientists gathered at the John Innes Centre (a leading research organisation in genetics and plant science) under the auspices of the University of Leed’s “Cultivating Innovation” project ( Giving a historical overview on the question of who can actually own plant was keynote speaker Professor Daniel Kevles from Yale University:

From Public to Private Goods: The Evolution of Plant Properties in the American Political Economy


By his own admission, Professor Kevles begin with an improbable point for a history of plants and intellectual property. In 1751 polymath Benjamin Franklin oversaw the publication of Medicina Britannica in the American colonies. Authored by British physician Thomas Short, Medicina was one of many texts which displayed plants and their medical properties. So why did Franklin involve himself in its publication?

Medical knowledge of plants had long been confined to experts. Compendiums of knowledge appeared in Latin, often containing cryptic alchemical or astrological connotations. The British Patent Office issued patents on plant-based medicines, yet this process did not help ease secrecy surrounding their ingredients. As an Enlightenment man, Short railed against this, declaring that his book was not for the learned gentlemen. He announced that his text omitted traditional superstitions attached to plants. Short also excluded chemical preparations. In his worldview, pure, unrefined plants were the principle gifts of divine providence.

Franklin was smitten by Short’s sceptical empiricism. Intrigued by medicine and agriculture, Franklin became a plant devotee, envisioning fields of soy flourishing in the colonies and sending back specimens from his trips abroad. Both Franklin and Short believed in an idealised “natural commons.” Natural resources were free and provided for all.

Thomas Jefferson opposed patents for this very reason, but gave way to James Madison on the issue, resulting in the Patent Act of 1793. Yet Jefferson’s requirement of novelty in patentable goods maintained the natural commons. Plants were public resources for medicine and agricultural purposes. Crop improvement drew attention from lawyers, naturalists and agriculturalists, who attempted to place the new “United States” on a sound economic footing. These men enlarged and diversified American fauna and flora, founding opulent estates and botanic gardens. In 1819, the Federal government joined their cause, enlisting naval and consular officers to acquire exotic plants and seeds.


Seeds and cuttings could be easily saved by growers, minimising the need to purchase seed. Problems of identity or quality also discouraged buying from seed houses or nurseries. Yet these institutions did provide new varieties, including those from abroad. One example was David Landreth’s seed house, which ran its first advertisement in 1784. Landreth’s developing brand identification through the nineteenth century was held up by Professor Kelves as an instance of defense of intellectual property.

In 1881 Federal government passed trademark legislation, which the Landreth Company seized upon to trademark its liberty bell logo. Seed was now sold in marked bags and packets, carrying threats that any infringements would be prosecuted. “Beware of deception” warned their 1887 catalogue. In the same year, Landreth successfully sued a seed grower in Wisconsin in 1887 for selling his seeds under their name. In 1893 Stark Brothers nurserymen trademarked a “Delicious” apple. Stark had to ask buyers to sign a contract upon purchase of its new “Golden Delicious” seedlings, offering rewards for those who broke its contract and going so far as to employ Pinkerton agents.

In 1930 Congress passed the Plant Patent Act, in no small part due to Stark’s lobbying. At the opening of the twenty-first century, there are still continuities from Franklin’s day. But now plants have been broken down into their chemical components, thwarting Short’s vision. A new regime of privatisation has emerged.

Book Review: Scientists’ Expertise as Performance: Between State and Society, 1860-1960

Russian agronomist Aleksei Doiarenko’s career was most turbulent. Promoting agricultural modernisation in Tsarist Russia, Doiarenko entered the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture during the 1920s. Yet his careful negotiation of academic, popular and political audiences to achieve expert fame was cut short by the Great Purges of the Russian revolution. The importance of Doiarenko and other experts is examined in Scientists’ Expertise as Performance. The book’s four sections represent expert performance: searching for audiences, convincing them, engaging with the state and shaping or reshaping social and political objects. A sample chapter from each section can be found below:

Borderless Nature: Experts and the Internationalization of Nature Protection, 1890-1940 – Raf de Bont

tigerThe Prince of Wales and the Maharaja of Gwalior with tiger and two leopards, c. 1900:

The idea that nature crosses national borders is an axiom in conservation today. Yet in 1900, nature was viewed in a local and national manner, its protectors stressing the patriotic value of their activities. Perceptions of nature changed with the rise of a small network of experts from 1890-1940. At international ornithological conferences, conservationist concerns over the decline of migratory birds were raised. Ornithologists presented themselves as rational experts, quite different to the “hysterical activists” of organisations such as the RSPB. Scientists such as Paul Sarasin rallied zoologists to worldwide nature protection, arguing that “nature today knows no borders.” Interaction between new scientific experts and policymakers occurred at various conferences through the 1920s and ‘30s. Establishing an expert role in conservation involved strategic dissociation from “unscientific hunters” or “silly nature hysterics.”

Contested Modernity: A.G. Doiarenko and the Trajectories of Agricultural Expertise in Late Imperial and Soviet Russia – Katja Bruisch

Aleksei Doiarenko maintained a desire to further dialogue between scientists and the rural population throughout his agronomic career, which spanned multiple regimes. State intervention in the national economy increased during the First World War, with agricultural knowledge gathering administrative and political value in the face of Russia’s food supply crisis. Doiarenko was therefore well placed to take up positions in the Provisional Government of 1917. His expertise later merged with the political apparatus of the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution. After Stalin’s rise to power, the position of agricultural experts became untenable. By 1929 collectivisation saw leading pre-revolutionary experts arrested. Doiarenko suffered the additional misfortune of falling foul of Lysenko, losing his academic post in 1948. He was rehabilitated with Krushchev’s personal support in 1961, his death in 1958 notwithstanding. Doiarenko’s fortunes as an expert were tied to dominating political visions of agricultural modernity.


Soviet collectivisation propaganda:

The Rise of the Scientist-Diplomat within British Atomic Energy, 1945-55 – Martin Theaker

When British atomic scientists returned home from wartime projects at Montreal and Los Alamos, their expertise was indispensible to post-war governments. Atomic energy was seen as a solution to Britain’s economic and geopolitical problems, including a plateau in domestic coal production. In the face of austerity, both Labour and Conservative governments increased atomic energy spending year-on-year. Scientists such as John Cockcroft embraced newfound roles as atomic ambassadors. Cockcroft undertook lecture tours, which included visits to New Zealand and Australia. He later visited states behind the Iron Curtain, consulting on technical matters and possible collaboration with the UK. By the mid-1950s, Britain had a world-leading atomic industry, the prominence of science-diplomats bound to domestic eminence. Science adapted to political constraints, ensuring that the expert became a permanent fixture in British politics.

Expertise and Trust in Dutch Individual Health Care – Frank Huisman

In 2009, challenges to the medical profession in the Netherlands emerged from anti-vaccination campaigners. Following a large information campaign, turnout for the HPV vaccination was much lower than expected, in no small part due to internet rumours and conspiracy theories. To understand growing distrust of the Dutch medical profession, a historical overview is taken. National legislation governing the medical profession was enacted in 1865, which was supported by the rise of the intervention state during the early-twentieth century. Yet the 1990s saw the liberalisation of legislation, with citizens described as well informed patient-consumers. Paradoxically, calls for the liberation of the patient have gone hand in hand with calls for even more medical expertise.

Scientific expertise has enjoyed great success in modern policymaking. Yet academic experts have never fully controlled the “expert society” they helped create. Drawing upon a large number of historical perspectives, Scientists’ Expertise as Performance delves into the difficulties surrounding issues of the “expert” in commendable fashion.

Joris Vandendriessche, Evert Peeters & Kaat Wils (eds.), Scientists’ Expertise as Performance: Between State and Society, 1860-1960 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: