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




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…



Coming in from the cold: nineteenth-century exploration and science in the Canadian Arctic

This short essay originally appeared on the UK Polar Network (UKPN) Social Sciences blog:

British discoveries in the “Arctic Regions,” 1818-1826. From John Franklin’s Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827 (London, 1828).

With the threat of climate change looming, the Polar Regions have never seemed so pertinent to our everyday lives. Yet historians have long considered such environments influential beyond their borders in a myriad of ways. For instance, nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and scientific work relate to broader themes of state power and expertise. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, examining the formation of imagined landscapes and scientific knowledge is revelatory of both past and present human self-conception.

By the early nineteenth century, the appointment of a naturalist to collect and catalogue specimens had become routine in British exploration – a trend characterised by historians as part of an imperialist drive to classify, quantify and comprehend the universe. The expedition acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and research tool (Sörlin, 2000, p. 51; MacLeod, 2009, p. 45). Understanding a region’s fauna and flora can be seen as a form of resource assessment. Browne (1996, pp. 313-314) considered the collection of natural history specimens and their return to British soil representative of “the whole culture of imperial enterprise.”

The hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic was of great interest to Britain’s government and scientific institutions. When John Franklin’s (1786-1847) first expedition began preparations for its journey in 1818, with the ostensible aim of surveying the coastline east of the Coppermine River, a naturalist was practically a prerequisite. This role was fulfilled by John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon. Richardson was commanded by the British Admiralty to collect specimens of plants, minerals and birds. Naval surgeons of the period often received their training at Edinburgh University, home to renowned natural history facilities (Browne, 1996, p. 307).

Yet in an era before the word “scientist” had even been coined, “professional” came with unwanted connotations. A professional was someone who investigated the natural world without a suitable aristocratic background or financial base (Allen, 2009, pp. 15-16). Yet imperial ambitions require expertise. Sending naval personnel to far-flung corners of the globe was one means of acquiring informed experts, without associating with those who found professional employment in scientific work. As one historian (Allen, 2009, p. 17) described the situation:

The nearest thing to a paper qualification for a post in the life sciences was a medical degree and the nearest thing to postgraduate training was a journey to little-known parts of the world as the naturalist attached to a voyage or expedition, perhaps as a surgeon on a naval vessel.

Naval surgeons collected specimens which became Crown property, or published field observations with the aid of Admiralty funding (Browne, 1996, p. 310). Richardson’s zoological specimens from Franklin’s first expedition were deposited in the Edinburgh university museum and the British museum (1). Upon his return to England in 1822, Richardson found himself courted by the Linnean Society and private clubs (2). Fame and entry into the scientific establishment came in spite of repeated failings during the expedition, which faced starvation on numerous occasions. Hardship imposed by the Arctic environment warped the scientific goals imposed by the Admiralty, as Richardson was forced to abandon the specimens he had collected during the summer months (Levere, 1993, p. 108). Meanwhile Franklin manipulated Richardson’s natural-historical remit for non-scientific purposes. Upon his party experiencing a shortage of grog, Franklin wrote to the one of his officers, George Back:

Some of the mighty strong [liquor] would not only be equally acceptable to the Canadians and Indians but is necessary for preserving any specimens which the Doctor [Richardson] may have which require Such means of preservation. Ours is not sufficiently strong for that purpose, and if you have not already got a Supply, I must request you to demand two galleons from each house at Great Slave Lake, and if they demur, a statement of the reason for this demand [specimen preservation] will procure their compliance (3).

In fact Richardson only carried a few jars for preserving specimens. A tax on glass meant that British naturalists did not favour preservation in alcohol until 1845 (Larsen, 1996, p. 360). Despite harsh conditions, Richardson attempted to continue his natural history work. In lean times and during a heavy gale, he ventured down to the coast off Cape Barrow in an attempt to identify fragments of seaweed. Collection practices were shaped by external factors, including the Arctic environment itself.

Cultural and scientific beliefs were also imposed upon the Arctic by British expeditions. Exploring the geology of the Barren Lands, Richardson framed his findings in Wernerian terms, supporting existing theories of a dynamic earth (Zeller, 2000, p. 88). In other areas of knowledge, naturalists were not so forthcoming, gripped by a fear of generalising systems and theorisation (Barber, 1980, pp. 64-65). In his later career, Richardson adapted biogeographical models to represent Arctic flora, based upon the reports of other travellers, particularly fur traders (Zeller, 2000, p. 89).

From the biography of a single nineteenth-century naturalist, a plethora of historical attitudes towards the Arctic are exposed. The Canadian Arctic may have been geographically “peripheral” to centres of European power, but engaged states, science and society. In the case of natural history, the Arctic was an untapped resource, place of training for future experts and testing ground for scientific theories. Two centuries on, these same values are still attached to the Polar Regions.


1. GELL MS, LETTER #8, Franklin, “Letter to John Richardson, 24 July 1823.”

2. GELL MS, LETTER # 4, Franklin, “Letter to Richardson, 24 October 1822.”

3. SPRI MS 395/70/4, Franklin, “Letter to George Back, 31 January 1821.”


Allen, David E., “Amateurs and Professionals,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 15-33.

Barber, Lynn, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).

Brown, Janet, “Biogeography and empire,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305-321.

Larsen, Anne, “Equipment for the Field,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 358-377.

Levere, Trevor H., Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 34-59.

Sörlin, Sverker, “Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 51-69.

Zeller, Suzanne, “The Colonial World as Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems) of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 85-107.

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: