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Department of History and Philosophy of Science

 

Research Project

The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice

Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship 221115

A walnut looks like the brain, so it can heal brain problems. In the sixteenth century, an idea emerged among Paracelsian Physicians that the morphological resemblance of an animal, a plant, or a mineral to a human body part could indicate its curative effects. This idea, often called the ‘doctrine of signatures’, has long been seen as a premodern holistic worldview and deemed primitive and superstitious by scientists, anthropologists, and historians. My thesis aims to be the first sustained study of the early modern doctrine of signatures as medical practice and artisanal knowledge. It examines how the doctrine of signatures was developed and transformed in apothecaries, laboratories, agricultural practices, and public education in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, following its transmission from Switzerland and Germany to England. I argue that the doctrine of signatures was not a universal worldview or a mere reflection of certain ontologies, as presented in certain structuralist frameworks, but a practical technique that became mystified for various reasons.

Journal Articles

"When Jupiter Meets Saturn: Aby Warburg, Karl Sudhoff, and Astrological Medicine in the Age of Disenchantment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 85, no. 2 (2024): 321-355. doi:10.1353/jhi.2024.a926151. Open Access version: https://europepmc.org/article/PMC/PMC7615932.

“Colouring Flowers: Books, Art, and Experiment in the Household of Margery and Henry Power,” co-authored with Christoffer Basse Eriksen, British Journal for the History of Science 56, no. 1 (2023): 21–43. doi:10.1017/S0007087422000474.

“Microscopy and the Signatures of Plants in Early Royal Society of London”, in Images and Institutions: The Visual Culture of Early Modern Scientific Societies, ed. Katherine Reinhart & Matthijs Jonker, Brepols (accepted, forthcoming 2025). 

Magazine Essays and Blog Posts

The Line of Transmission: Tracing botanical images in Frank Nicholls’s manuscript (MS/ 24) at the Linnean Society,” The Linnean, vol.39.2, September 2023, 46-49. 

“The Fair Never Ends: On Collecting European Rare Books and Other Things,” Art Monthly, 2023.02, 27-33. 

"The Abyss of Recipes: Cassell’s Cyclopaedia of Mechanics and William Kentridge’s Second-Hand Reading," Doing History in Public, June 2021.

Exhibitions

"From Magic to Microscopes: The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Science and Medicine," Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge, and Tsinghua University Science Museum, Beijing, 31 Mar-19 Apr 2022 (in person) and 1 July 2022-present (online).

Section Curator, "The Quest for "Perfect Truth": Embodiment, Objectivity, and Cornelius Varley’s Graphic Telescope," in “Three Research Journeys,” Whipple Library, Cambridge, Nov 2020-Mar 2021

Invited Lectures

"Bilderfahrzeuge to China: Aby Warburg’s Encounter with Chinese Astrology," Max Planck Institute of History of Science, Dept. III, Research Group "Visualization of the Heavens," 21 June 2023.

"Bilderfahrzeuge to China: Aby Warburg’s Encounter with Chinese Astrology," Warburg Institute, 29 March 2023.

"Extra-Illustrating Natural History in Early Modern England," Cambridge HPS, Cabinet of Natural History, 27 February 2023.

The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medicine,” British Society for the History of Pharmacy, 25 April 2022. Available on YouTube

“The Doctrine of Signatures: A Curious History,” Cambridge Festival, 5 April 2022.

"Inventing the Doctrine of Signatures in Nineteenth-Century British Colonial Pharmacy," University of Manchester, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, 14 December 2021.

"The Lesser Herbals in Early Modern Natural History," Cambridge HPS, Cabinet of Natural History, 11 October 2021.

"A Thousand Walnuts: The Doctrine of Signatures and Ontological Anthropology," Cambridge HPS Workshop, 12 May 2021.

Organised Panels

History of Science in the Age of Web 3.0,” Panel for British Society for the History of Science, Digital Festival, 6 July 2023. Available on YouTube

Affiliations

Predoctoral Fellow, Max Planck Institute of History of Science, Dept III, Research Group “Agriculture and the Making of Sciences,” Berlin, Apr-Jul 2023.

Visiting Student, Warburg Institute, London, Jan-Mar 2022.

Visiting Student, Department of History and Civilisation, European University Institute, Florence, Feb-Mar 2022.

Professional Memberships and Services

Early Career Representative, Scientiae

Fellow of The Linnean Society of London

Postgraduate Member of the Royal Historical Society

Cambridge Data Champion

Teaching and Supervisions

Teaching: 

Guest Lecturer, Department of HPS, Part II Paper 1: Early Science and Medicine

Supervisor, Faculty of History, Part IB T9: Nature and Knowledge

Supervisor, Department of HPS, Part II Paper 2: Science and Empire

Co-Host, Early Career Training Seminar: Introduction to Data Management and Digital Humanities

PhD Candidate
In a hall of Casa Vasari, Arezzo, a black-hair female in glasses and caramel coat is sitting in front of the window and reading on an ebook reader

Contact Details

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Affiliations

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