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…



Slaughterhouses, Electric Chickens & Soil: The 2015 BSHS Postgraduate Conference at UCL (Part 2 of 2)

On the final day at UCL, more weird and wonderful talks made an appearance, doing sterling work to keep a now slightly tired and bedraggled postgraduate audience attentive and engaged!

Humane(ish) Slaughter: From Pole-Axe to Electricity  

Representing the Manchester CHSTM group on the “Science and Case Studies” session was Andrew Ball, who spoke on “Stunning pigs: pork, pain and the development of electricity for animal slaughter in inter-war Britain.” This talk featured interactions between scientific innovation and moral considerations, as the humane slaughter movement emerged in tandem with the construction of public, purpose-built slaughterhouses in European and North American cities. Cleanliness, efficiency, quality and the division of labour and animals featured in the new constructions. Experiments and technological advances in electrical stunning were also discussed by vets, physiologists and electrical engineers. Scientists at the University of Bristol tested various levels of current on pigs, despite objections from the humane slaughter association, which pointed out that animal’s pain could not be accurately measured in the experiments. Such groups actually preferred high-powered air guns to kill, in preference to the new electricity or old means of stunning via a blow (or blows) from a pole-axe.


Horticultural & Agricultural Research Stations: Community Outreach and  Electrocuting Chickens

In the afternoon “Science and Environment” panel, Paul Smith stepped up to talk on “Horticultural and agricultural research stations in the UK, 1910-1930: A Feast of Variables.” During these two decades, agricultural research stations varied in size, from large institutions such as Rothampstead, to ones consisting of only a few scientists. During the inter-war period, agricultural research stations were described by one Conservative minister as “research factories,” covering everything from plant physiology to growth stimulants, plant breeding for disease resistance to food storage. Research stations were initially funded through taxation on landowners by Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George. The system focused on pure science, with emphasis on long-term projects at permanent stations. Research stations remained incredibly active in their engagement with growers during this period. At Cheshunt Glasshouse Research Station, over 4700 lectures to farmers were delivered by staff from 1920-21, in addition to tailored visits to growers and analysis of received samples of soil and fertiliser. These stations were actively sought out by farmers for information (who could reciprocate by carrying out scientific investigations on their land). One slightly dubious activity of research stations was the electrocuting of chickens in the belief that they would grow larger. This was later revealed to be false.

Healthy Greens in Unhygienic Soil

In the final talk of the session, Sophie Greenway described her PhD plans with “Growing well: Dirt, health and the home gardener in mid-twentieth-century Britain.” Declining domestic vegetable production in Britain was revealed to be due to ideas of modernity – as ideals of a clean and well-polished home didn’t fit well with soiled vegetables coming in from the garden. Opposition to this trend came in the form of the organic movement, with ideas of healthy soil leading to a healthy populace – although dominant ideas of health being maintained through hygiene and technology have persisted. Interestingly, soil itself has not been considered as a natural resource of any value for much of history (while waste, which can be spread as fertiliser, was). These attitudes may only have changed in the twentieth century, with an increasing awareness of soil erosion via catastrophes such as the 1930s “dust bowl” in Canada and the United States.


Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), founding father of the organic movement and author of An Agricultural Testament (1940).

Science in the Environment: The Modern Agricultural Revolution

Writing about British agricultural science during the 1970s has brought me into contact with two very obviously competing traditions of how we view the history of agriculture and the environment. The first really consisted of an amalgamation of political economy and science. In this narrative, for better or for worse, industrial agriculture has developed almost beyond recognition since the Second World War, comprising of high-yielding crop varieties, vast swathes of monocultures and a heavy reliance upon chemicals.

If you are an agricultural scientist like the late Kenneth Blaxter (1919-1991), this transition is easily explained. Intensive agricultural education and research in the post-war period created new crops and animal vaccines, which were readily applied by a new generation of innovative and forward-looking farmers. Rising production lowered real prices, facilitating the adoption of still more technology. The “technological treadmill” was born and continues to run on self-sustaining momentum.

Of course, the treadmill as an unstoppable and predictable force in agriculture is too powerful a metaphor to be confined to the writings of agricultural scientists. John H. Perkin’s Geopolitics and the Green Revolution (1997) adopted the same mechanism, albeit in a more nuanced manner than Blaxter. Once again, the development of high-yielding wheat varieties are essential to understanding the development and direction of agriculture in recent history. For Perkins, the factors underlying plant-breeding science are cultural and political, encompassing national security, foreign exchange and a 10,000 year old human affinity for wheat.


Plate from Joseph P. Linduska, Ecology and Land-Use Relationships of Small Mammals on a Michigan Farm, Lansing: Franklin Dekleine Company, 1950.

So there you have it. Agricultural science and production are locked into a technological cycle, which (regardless of the factors which produced it in the first place) will determine the future of agriculture for the foreseeable future, pending any significant upheaval to economic, political or scientific institutions.

However, we all know history is a lot messier than this. Agricultural science does not only exist in the sterile settings of the laboratory, but proves itself in the field. Fields are not formulaic, predictable or understanding. Instead, they can fairly often act like a house of cards. This is the competing story that emerges from environmental histories of industrialised agriculture.

Reading the accessible history of Clive Ponting’s original A Green History of the World (1991), gives a very different vision, not of development and the triumph of food production over Malthusian limits (although this point is grudgingly conceded on a temporary basis), but of the short-term exploitation and subsequent collapse of ecosystems. Sticking to the twentieth century, these examples include the infamous “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, the Soviet “virgin lands” programme of the 1950s and extensive soil erosion affecting half of the Australian state of New South Wales by 1942. Ponting refers to the draining of the inland Aral Sea (Kazakhstan) from the 1960s as the “one of the greatest of all ecological catastrophes” (p. 265). By the late 1980s, two-thirds of the sea had dried up, wiping out fish, causing local climatic changes, lowering the water table of the region and causing the sewage system in surrounding villages to fail. Typhoid rates increased by twenty-nine fold, ninety percent of children were classified as permanently ill and an 1990 outbreak of plague led to a quarantine of the area.


National Geographic:

What makes this picture even more grim is the repetition. Soil erosion and excess irrigation have damaged civilizations since the rise of the earliest cities, but this experience has apparently not improved matters. It seems as if an alternative treadmill is offered here, but continuing to run it does not improve your health. To a certain extent, the climate and character of soils in Europe have preserved that continent from the worst excesses of short-term farming. On the other hand, many of our more exotic foods reach us by less than sound environmental and economic practices in developing nations. The preservation of soil integrity is also undermined by the ongoing release of pollutants and chemicals, from heavy metals to DDT.

Both views of agriculture are somewhat deterministic and limited in scope, although they are not necessarily incompatible. Although, if you follow Ponting’s narrative of exponentially increasing environmental damage, the gains of agricultural science are temporary. Agriculture becomes a running battle, with humanity continuously retreating in the wake of it’s own damage, leaving behind deserts, dry seas and toxic ground. In this scenario, Malthusian limits are portrayed as a tireless pursuer, which will eventually catch up with all of us.

Just something to think about on dark nights… Thanks Ponting!

Further Reading:

Blaxter, Kenneth L. and Noel Robertson, From Dearth to Plenty: The Modern Revolution in Food Production (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Perkins, John H., Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Ponting, Clive, A Green History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 1991).