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 (http://cambridgeherbarium.org/).

Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website: http://cambridgeherbarium.org/collections/darwin-specimens/darwins-plants-at-cambridge/

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 (http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2014/09/16/rsnr.2014.0035.short?rss=1).

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. https://www.rammuseum.org.uk/collections/zoology/flights-of-fancy

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!


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: https://www.thedodo.com/community/AnimalHistoryMuseum/canned-hunting-a-legacy-of-emp-711831617.html

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: http://ssthumanities.weebly.com/stalins-economic-policy-and-impact.html

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: http://www.pickeringchatto.com/expertise