BBC Radio 4 – Squirrels & Knotweed

Last week I was delighted to share some of my knowledge of exotic and invasive species on national radio, thanks to an invitation by Kat (@harpistkat) and Helen Arney (@helenarney) to appear on their series “Did the Victorians Ruin the World?”

In the episode I talk about the introduction of the grey squirrel to Victorian Britain and how negative attitudes towards native red squirrels rapidly changed thanks to the new arrivals. I also discuss the introduction of Japanese knotweed, which was once advertised as an ornamental and desirable addition to every garden.

You can listen to the episode at:


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:

A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH ( produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From
A surly Robert Fortune. From

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 


A Hidden Gem: The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum, University of Alberta 

Late last month I found myself in Edmonton, with a free day prior to the Three Societies meeting (22-25 June). Touring the University of Alberta campus, I  wandered into the basement of the Earth Sciences building, to discover the Mineralogy and Petrology Museum ( Visitors to the small museum are greeted by a colossal sample of Albertan copper – continue to explore and numerous treasures present themselves. For instance, the Toluca meteorite, discovered in 1776 and at some 4.6 billion years old advertised as the ‘oldest item you will ever touch.’


A moment from the history of science is captured in a display on the work of George Barrow (1853-1932). A geologist and surveyor, Barrow is best known for his work in Scotland from 1884 to 1900. Mapping in Glen Clova (northeastern Scotland), Barrow noticed a pattern of mineral occurrences. Subsidiary minerals – chlorite, biotite, garnet, staurolite, kyanite and sillimanite occurred in six distinct zones (see below). Barrow theorised that these differences indicated different degrees of metamorphism (the intensity of heat and pressure) that had occurred in each region. He had discovered a new tool for mapping metamorphic rocks. Zones of progressive metamorphism have subsequently become known as ‘the Barrovian sequence’ or ‘Barrovian zones’.


Yet according to David Oldroyd’s entry on Barrow in the Dictionary of National Biography (, all did not end well. Barrow used his discovery to declare that the main metamorphic regions of Scotland all came from the same source: each had simply been ‘metamorphosed to different degrees.’ Oldroyd tells us that Barrow had a certain ‘tenacity’ regarding this theory, which caused him to fall out with his colleagues. Eventually, it was agreed ‘to move him from Scotland to the less controversial geology of the English midlands.’


The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum is undoubtedly a hidden gem, which holds fascinating specimens and captures intriguing moments from the history of geology. Founded in 1912 by the first Chair of the Geology department, Dr. John A. Allen, the museum now functions as both a teaching space for students and a public attraction (for tourists like me)! If you ever find yourself in the Edmonton area, the museum and the neighboring Paleontology Museum are well worth a visit!

History & Philosophy of Monsters: HPS in 20 Objects Lecture Series, University of Leeds

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.

The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.

The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at:

Herbarium, Ethics & Eels: BSHS Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge

A new year: another British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference! The BSHS provides a friendly and relaxed venue for postgraduate researchers to present their findings. Hosted this year by Cambridge HPS, a number of biologically-themed papers and events were in evidence. It began with an outing to the Cambridge University herbarium (

Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website:

Now housed in the Sainsbury laboratory, the hebarium contains specimens of great historical significance, some dating from the early-eighteenth century. The herbarium holds Charles Darwin’s plant specimens from the voyage of the Beagle, which were passed onto his friend and mentor John Henslow. Darwin’s specimens are an impressive sight, possible the result of criticism from Henslow, who asked Darwin to label his specimens correctly and refrain from sending him “scraps”. Other items of interest in the collection include plants gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace in South-East Asia (

Drawer of bird skins
Edmund Selous (1857-1934) refused to kill birds for the purposes of collection: a practice which the norm at the time.

Back at the conference, students from the University of Leeds participated in a “Evolutionary theories” panel. Clare O’Reilly introduced attendees to concepts of hybrid plants in late nineteenth-century Britain, while Emily Herring delved into the strange world of the neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to be the chair of the panel on zoology. Here, Mathew Andrews of the University of Manchester presented his research on Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose scientific work on ornithology was shaped by his ethical objections to killing birds for use as specimens or for museum display. Federica Turriziani Colonna (Center for Biology and Society, ASU) then examined the work of a young Sigmund Freud on eels at the Trieste Zoological Station in 1876.

Although the BSHS annual conference will not be taking place this year, American, Canadian and British societies for the history of science will be gathering for the “Three Societies” meeting in Edmonton, Alberta from 22-25 June. Hopefully this meeting will prove to be just informative about science and the natural world!

The Decline of Natural History & Rise of Biology in 19thc Britain

For the past few weeks, the history and philosophy of biology (HPBio) reading group here at the University of Leeds has been tackling a series of readings on a contentious historical issue: how biology came into existence and what it replaced.

E. Donovan, 1805 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. Second edition. Plate 2, Figures 5-9.

Natural history: Consisting of field observation, collection and classification, natural history consisted a grand civic and scientific project in Victorian society. Clubs and societies, with associated journals and museums sprang up across nineteenth-century Britain. Natural history was (at least in theory) open to all comers, from both genders and any social class. The field remained remarkably stable for a long period, in terms of the practices and equipment utilised. Historian of natural history David Allen remarks that in entomology, basic field equipment used in the 1950s such as the collecting tin and the vasculum were indistinguishable from their mid-eighteenth century counterparts (Allen. 1998: 362).

Its decline: Allen (1998) goes on to claim that natural history suddenly lost its preeminence in the late-nineteenth century. A rising class of professional scientists – largely based in universities – turned against amateurish natural history in favor of a new experimental biology, often based in the laboratory. These professionals derided practitioners of natural history as ‘bug-hunters’ while the latter returned fire by labeling laboratory biologists ‘worm slicers’ (Allen, 1998: 366). Attempts by naturalists to reintegrate themselves in British science were unsuccessful. In ecology, amateur naturalists initially found a role for their taxonomic expertise in biological surveys. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, ecology adopted a physiological approach, pushing out the naturalists. Ecology remains ‘dauntingly technical’, especially following its adoption of statistics (Allen, 1998: 367).

John Richardson, 1837. Fauna boreali-americana. Volume 4.

Biology: The word biology is generally perceived to have been coined early in the nineteenth century. Joseph Caron (1988: 247) locates the emergence of a distinct science of biology in England between the 1850s and 1890s. Here, scientists such as T.H. Huxley proposed a new synthetic and general perspective on living beings and life in general (Caron, 1988: 247). These calls were backed up by action, with figures such as J.D. Hooker working to have ‘biology’ adopted at the university level. As it lacked a distinct research programme, Caron (1988: 253) describes English biology during this period as a publicist science par excellence. Controlling university teaching and examination allowed the subject to flourish – a point both Allen and Caron agree upon.

Our reading:

Allen, D.E., ‘On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period’, Archives of Natural History 25 (1998): 361-371

Caron, J.A., ‘Biology’ in the life sciences: a historiographical contribution’, History of Science 26 (1988): 223-268

Johnson, K., ‘Natural history as stamp collecting: a brief history’, Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 244-258