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

Book Review: Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

Mosquito Empires examines the dynamics of empire in the ‘Greater Caribbean’ – the Caribbean Islands and the coastal regions of North, Central and South America – bringing disease and ecology into traditional political and social history. John Robert McNeill argues that ecological change led to the proliferation of mosquito vectors which shaped subsequent wars, empires and revolutions (p.3). Mosquito Empires is divided into four main parts, structured around chronological case studies. McNeill first establishes the lethality of malaria and yellow fever through accounts of conquest and colonisation by Atlantic powers prior to the proliferation of mosquito vectors. This is followed by multiple examples of the deadly effect of disease on Western arrivals, including the disastrous malaria epidemics suffered by the 1655 English assault on Jamaica, establishing the rise of a new ‘ecological-military order’ (p.101). The second section studies British attempts to conquer Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (1690-1780) and the defeat of General Cornwallis’s forces during the American War of Independence, all of which suffered in varying degrees from malaria and yellow fever. In its third part, the book discusses the role of disease in the success of Caribbean revolutions in St. Domingue, New Granada and Cuba, from 1790-1898. Finally, the book concludes with the eventual overthrow of the ‘Mosquito Empire’ as means of controlling yellow fever and malaria emerged via the experience of the United States in Cuba and Panama (p.313).

John Trumbull’s ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ 1820. Cornwallis’s forces suffered from heavily from malaria at Yorktown

In the historiographical context, Mosquito Empires draws upon a tradition of incorporating disease into wider historical contexts. A well-known example is the works of Alfred Crosby, which places microbes alongside soldiers in the battle for the Americas. McNeill’s work similarly identifies the role of disease in the formation of empires. In the Greater Caribbean, ecological changes produced by the transition to plantation economies allowed mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever to flourish, wreaking havoc among non-resistant populations, particularly European expeditions and colonialists (p.4). Mosquito Empires supports the idea of Western expansion as a two-way process, facilitating the movement of disease while creating new environments for disease vectors. The example given of U.S. triumph in Cuba and Panama appears to confirm disease control as a tool of empire, allowing conquest in regions previously closed off by the disease barrier. McNeill – to his credit – also covers clashes between Western empires in disease ridden zones, encompassing differential immunity among colonists and the manipulation of disease environments as a strategic defense (pp.141-142).

McNeill contrasts the heavy toll suffered by French workers on the Panama Canal in the 1880s with American efforts following anti-mosquito campaigns from 1904-1914 (pp.310-312). “The Panama Canal — The Great Culebra Cut” by Charles Graham (1852-1911), artist – Reproduced from an original illustration drawn from photographs and published in Harper’s Weekly.–_The_Great_Culebra_Cut.jpg

Occasionally overarching statements and interpretations weaken the author’s arguments. The link between man-made ecological change and the establishment of the ‘mosquito empire’ lacks firm evidence, respective diagnosis is problematic and questions over human agency and environmental determinism are left unresolved. The importance of human agency is ambiguous, the book being ‘not quite an essay in mosquito determinism’ (p.6). Certain claims made in the book surrounding the heritability of disease immunity (p.46), would benefit from the inclusion of arguments in K.F Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave (1984), which goes unmentioned despite its presence in the bibliography. Yet the book produces a sound main thesis, drawing heavily upon contemporary sources, while telling a forgotten story through a combination of environmental, political, military and medical history.

McNeill, John Robert, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Understanding & Altering the Climate: Historical Perspectives

Tuesday evening gave me the chance to alter my geographical position on the University of Leeds campus, temporarily abandoning the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science to visit the School of English. Here, the Environmental Humanities reading group had gathered for a discussion of the most pertinent of topics – climate history:

LOCHER, F. and FRESSOZ, J.B., 2012 Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity. Critical Inquiry 38(3): 579-598.  

A diagram on the distribution of vegetation on the Peak of Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, by naturalist Alexandre von Humboldt. Humboldt’s biogeography was harnessed by French thinkers to create historical vegetation data, aimed at reconstructing the climate of the past two thousand years.

Some hold the assumption that our relationship with the environment has completed transformed over the course of two generations, resulting in what has been termed the “Environmental Age” or “Second Copernican revolution.” Part of our new environmental awareness is a fear of climate change – the realisation that humankind is capable of altering the makeup of our planet’s atmosphere.

Is an awareness that we can change the climate new?

According to Locher and Fressoz, no. Ptolomy (AD 90 – c. 168) conceived of climate as fixed according to latitudinal position on the globe. By the seventeenth century, perspectives of climate  had radically altered. It was now dynamic and even pliable. The Comte de Buffon declared that centuries of human habitation in Europe had produced a milder climate than that encountered in North America. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the destruction of aristocratic forests by the peasantry were blamed for unfavourable meteorological conditions, including drought.

Locher and Fressoz also link historic attempts to alter climatic conditions to existing ideas of health and degeneracy. Marshy conditions and associated diseases around the Nile were blamed upon the mismanagement of Islamic civilization. In 1826 professor of hygiene Jean-Baptiste Bérard declared that the decline of Egypt was due to its subjection to “the ignorance and barbarism of Islam… Through Turkish negligence, the Nile became a source of plague that infects or threatens the rest of the world.” In Algeria, a French colony during the 1860s, thousands of eucalyptus trees were planted to deflect harmful miasmas from marshes.

An early photograph of the Nile c. 1900. Diseases associated with the river were described by French hygienists as partly the result of poor climate – in turn the result of environmental mismanagement.

This grand “climate theory” collapsed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Pasteur’s germ theory, new ideas of heredity and trends in the social sciences and economics undermined the link between climate, human actions and health. Climatic determinism also emerged from the findings of earth scientists from the second half of the nineteenth century, who promoted glaciation theory and speculated upon the existence of ice ages.

Why does understanding historical thought on climate change matter?

Humanity has recently found itself beset by environmental problems, including chemical pollution, depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. How we respond to these new challenges may not be as original as we would like to think. Instead, our attitudes and approaches towards environmental problems may stem from centuries of European thought. An awareness of this ancestry could potentially alert us to pitfalls and blind-spots in our twenty-first century ways of thinking.

Yet Locher and Fressoz note that modern environmental destruction has not occurred in a world where nature is considered valueless. Instead, devastation has happened despite longstanding climatic theories, which have always cited environmental objects as the very things that produce humankind. Quite correctly, the authors label this a “strange and disturbing fact.”


Book Review: Anatomy & the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850

Anatomy has had applications far beyond medicine. In 1699 Edward Tyson compared the anatomical structure of lions and cats, marvelling at the resemblance of their parts. Based on the observations of natural historians, Tyson remarked that humans and chimpanzees similarly resemble each other. Although Tyson did not develop a theory of common ancestry, dissection and anatomy has yielded insights into natural and social worlds throughout history. Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 compiles a series of case studies, from contributors across the humanities. With some thirteen pieces contained in three sections, a very select few are reviewed below:

Earth’s Intelligent Body: Subterranean Systems and the Circulation of Knowledge, or, The Radius Subtending Circumnavigation – Kevin L. Cope


Joseph Wright, “Vesuvius from Portici,” ca. 1774-1776. The Huntington Library:

An eighteenth-century country parson, Thomas Robinson was fond of ale, sporting events and collecting minerals. His first book The Anatomy of the Earth was replete with anatomical analogy. Just as the skin of animals held lice, so the “Skin” or “Outer Coat” of the Earth produced grass, trees, vegetables, birds and beasts. Under the surface lay “the Bones, that is, Stones, Metals and Minerals.”  In an attempt to envision divine order in a seemingly random world, Robinson turned to anatomy. Inequalities and differences in nature became part of a complex system of circulation. Volcanoes, underground streams and similar processes represented the bodily systems of the earth, which could become blocked or rupture to create floods or earthquakes. Robinson’s geological anatomy provided a natural explanation as to why disasters did not only strike the sinful.

Visualizing the Fibre-Woven Body: Nehemiah Grew’s Plant Anatomy and the Emergence of the Fibre Body – Hisao Ishizuka

Staying in the eighteenth century, medical men mused over the fundamental building block (minima naturalia) of the body. One popular viewpoint for Enlightenment physiologists and anatomists was the fibre theory. Textile and weaving metaphors for bodily tissues followed in the wake of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665). Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682) furthered the fibre theorist’s cause, postulating that plants were composed of fibres and leant authority by numerous illustrations. An advantage of Grew’s observations to natural philosophers was the suggestion of a designer through textile metaphors, allowing the latter to dodge charges of atheism or political radicalism. Even as investigations into the brain and nerves appeared in the late-eighteenth century, almost all physicians subscribed to the idea of a fibre-based body, woven with innumerable threads.

Visualizing Monsters: Anatomy as a Regulatory System – Touba Ghadessi

L0021649 A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica L0011136 Vesalius "De humani...", 1543; figure

Plates from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543):

Early modern European culture held a fascination with monsters. Physical deformities were viewed as both theological omens and curiosities of nature. Anatomists adopted the normative body displayed in Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543), visual comparison highlighting the abnormal. Medical accounts structured public and expert accounts of monstrosities, which maintained their appeal as “pathological” specimens into the nineteenth century. In fact, Ghadessi asserts that it was this scientific inquiry into the abnormal which allowed a court culture obsessed with the deviant to flourish, without its participants appearing deviant themselves. Monstrous subjects, combined with anatomical knowledge, provided an alternative manner of understanding human bodies, while confronting ideas of cultural conformity.

Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 is not for the reader wanting a general overview of anatomical practice in medicine. Instead, the social impact of anatomy is discussed through literature, language and analogy. The intellectual and cultural place of anatomy in the early modern and modern world is re-imagined in a series of intriguing studies.

Matthew Landers & Brian Muñoz (eds.), Anatomy and the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: 

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