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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.

Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm on Zoom and in Seminar Room 2 (unless otherwise stated). In person attendance will be limited and advance booking will be required.

Organised by Olin Moctezuma-Burns (om345).

Michaelmas Term 2021

11 October
Xinyi Wen (HPS, Cambridge)
The 'lesser herbals' in early modern natural history

In many traditional historiographies, the history of early modern English herbals ended with John Parkinson's encyclopaedic Theatrum Botanicum (1640), followed by the rise of pre-Linneaus botany in the eighteenth century. This paper will unravel a forgotten history of late seventeenth-century English 'lesser herbals' and their significance. A term borrowed from the pseudo Hannah Woolley, the 'lesser herbals' refer to a group of herbal literature emerged in the second half of seventeenth century characterised by their small size. Written by learned physicians, these herbals usually focused on plants locally available in England, aiming to offer the public practical guidance for collecting, preserving and curing. Characteristically, they were heavily influenced by astrological botany and the doctrine of signatures – a Paracelsian theory connecting plants' medicinal value to their morphological resemblance with human body parts. This paper will exhibit a reading history of the 'lesser herbals' through actors ranging from London wine merchants to apothecary James Petiver and natural historian John Aubrey. I will show how the 'lesser herbals' were highly regarded by readers from various backgrounds, and how their compactness and unique structure benefited readers' retrieval and reorganisation of herbal knowledge. More importantly, it was those so-called superstitions – astrological botany and the doctrine of signatures – that provided new methods and diverse practice-oriented taxonomies, which influenced latter history of botany.

18 October
Patrick Anthony (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
The upland exchange: village life in natural history, 1771–1832

This talk centres the mountain village of Muggendorf (Germany) in the history of natural history. It traces the guiding and collecting enterprise of the family Wunder over three generations, alongside corresponding generations of naturalists who came 'like pilgrims' each spring after the snows had melted. Wainwrights by trade, the Wunders first turned to natural history as a source of supplemental income in 1771, the 'Year of Hunger'. For over a half-century, their cabinet supplied collections in Erlangen and Bayreuth with rare plants and fossils, like the antediluvial megafauna that drew the likes of Buckland and Cuvier to Muggendorf. While the market for natural trade and travel came from distant courts and university towns, traditional centres of science, the enterprise itself – the labour, infrastructure, and organization – came from a marginal upland community. There, the combination of learned interests and rural economy produced something altogether new: an upland exchange in knowledge and naturalia that gave form to natural science ca. 1800, in herbaria and geo-theory. I am especially interested in deploying working-class history perspectives (about inter-household collaboration, for instance, and artisanal notions of honour) to understand how the Wunders were not simply discovered by Romantic visitors but active in promoting a commerce of scientific goods and services. I close by suggesting the Wunders belong to a larger social group in the history of science: across (and surely beyond) central Europe, highland families employed everyday working practices in natural inquiry, revealing the extent to which natural inquiry was itself embedded in the everyday.

Saturday 23 October
Cabinet Fungus Hunt (TBC)

25 October
Charlotte Connelly (The Polar Museum), Jack Ashby (University Museum of Zoology)
'Environment and Empire... in the museum': Cambridge and the platypus

This talk comes in two parts, first an introduction to a new network that explore the legacies of empire and enslavement in natural history museums, and the ways those legacies are still influencing environmental science today. This will be followed by an example of the research in this area.

The Environment and Empire project was designed to address a particular challenge that natural history museums face. Unlike many other types of museums, natural history collections are curated and cared for by people who have typically been trained as scientists, rather than historians. While many natural history museum staff are interested in the histories and legacies of their collections, they do not necessarily have the time or skills to interrogate them alongside their day-to-day work. This project sought to bring together museum professionals working with natural history collections and interested historians to discuss some of the colonial legacies embodied in those collections, and the ways they continue to affect natural science today.

Across former European empires, collecting became part of the act of colonisation, with implications for how, why, where and by whom science was done. Jack Ashby will explore this theme by focussing on Australian mammal collections in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Cracking the question of how platypuses and echidnas reproduce became a decades-long mystery for nineteenth century naturalists, even though Indigenous experts told Europeans that they lay eggs soon after the British invaded. The matter was settled to the satisfaction of the European scientific establishment only when a Cambridge academic saw the evidence for his own eyes, and that would not have been possible without the efforts of over 150 Aboriginal collectors.

Thursday 28 October: Special session, 10am, online only
Maree Clarke, Mitch Mahoney, Fran Edmonds (University of Melbourne)
The Living Archive of Aboriginal Art and Knowledge

The Living Archive of Aboriginal Art and Knowledge project seeks to reveal the dynamic and interconnected relationships of First Nations Australians with their collections located in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums (GLAMs) across the world. Part of this process includes exploring Storytelling as an Indigenous method of enquiry that challenges the way 'archives' structure Indigenous histories and cultural heritage. Storytelling is an embodied practice and can be reflected through oral transmission (often supporting traditional languages); artmaking; photography; performance; writing and other expressions of cultural production. The Living Archive is supported by the practice of Storytelling and is entwined with an ongoing past, located in the present and future orientated – reflecting Indigenous knowledge systems. In this discussion we will outline our concept of the Living Archive in relation to the work of Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Wemba Wemba/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke and her great nephew Mitch Mahoney (Boonwurrung/Barkindji), as they work in Maree's backyard/artists' studio to revitalise their Ancestral material culture and stories. We will also discuss our work with the Ngukurr community in southeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, reinstating their ongoing connections with their Ancestral collections held in GLAMs to produce a Living Archive.

1 November
Niklaas Görsch (University of Lübeck)
Remarks on Joachim Jungius's work method in botany: Ficus indica in his letters, notes, garden and Isagoge Phytoscopica

The polymath Joachim Jungius (1587–1657), professor and temporary director of both academic schools in Hamburg, was one of the first scholars to use dichotomous diagrams to carry out a systematic analysis of the morphology of plants. The plant named Ficus indica is at the centre of this investigation because a significant impact of Jungius's network on his botanical work can be illustrated by this example. Ficus indica is mentioned several times in Jungius's legacy which contains various kinds of handwritten sources testifying his ways of recording information systematically and preparing them for his lessons. With the sample of Ficus indica intersections of different spheres of Jungius's work method can be explained. These spheres describe, for instance his botanical network which included individuals from diverse areas of society, among them friends, colleagues, students, politicians, citizens and trade gardeners. Specific academical and commercial interests were related to these groups. Conditions of transport and interest in seeds, leaves and specimens of Ficus indica become retraceable by means of seed lists and different sorts of catalogues as well as invoices. The worlds of trade and education in a sense are bound together which becomes evident by this example. What can be said about 17th-century naturalists' work processes in general and regarding their relationships with society?

8 November
João Joaquim (HPS, Cambridge)
The biological age of plant virus research: studying viruses through other organisms in 1920s and 1930s Britain

Starting in the mid-1930s, virus research was revolutionised by advancements in biophysical and biochemical instrumentation, which allowed for the physicochemical isolation and analysis of these pathogens and heralded the dawn of molecular biology. Historians of science and science studies scholars have written much on this subject, particularly in what concerns the study of viruses in the context of biomedical sciences. This presentation focuses on an earlier period, when the mere existence of viruses was uncertain, as they could only be studied indirectly through the observation of their hosts’ disease symptoms. Here, the emphasis is on the integration of agricultural scientific knowledge, expertise and practices into early virus research. Therefore, the central case study is an institution emblematic of the development of state-sponsored agricultural research in the first half of the twentieth century: the Potato Virus Research Station, installed in Cambridge in 1927 to study and control plant virus diseases. Especial attention is given to the research of Kenneth M. Smith, an agricultural entomologist, who developed a method of virus isolation using complex multi-species biological interactions as 'models'. This implied deploying different organisms as instruments in a then-novel space of science: insect-proof glasshouses.

15 November
Ernesto Schwartz-Marin (Exeter University)
The frog and the vine: indigenous knowledge, biomedical innovation, and biopiracy in Latin America

The nexus of 'western' and 'indigenous' knowledge, toxicity, and biodiversity has transformed biomedical fields ranging from drug development to microbial resistance, yet it has not been marked by just research practices. This chapter delineates the intersections of indigenous and western knowledge practices in relation to toxic organisms, in order to advance insights that shed light into the ways in which biomedicine has been (or failed to be) committed to justice and solidarity. Due to their porous nature and ability to travel across boundaries, toxins – in the forms of potent and potentially poisonous plants and animals – are an ideal place from which to inquire into questions of justice and knowledge. The use of indigenous knowledge of nature for research illuminates central tensions in biomedical research practices today. Despite policies such as Genomic Sovereignty doctrine, due to histories of manipulation, lack of benefit sharing, and limited indigenous research representation, the relationship between indigenous and western knowledges is fraught with suspicion and conflict. One particularly salient concern is that patents filed in the global north have claimed ownership over indigenous knowledge and organisms, thus exploiting inequalities and enabling proprietary colonial uses of biodiversity in Latin America (Thacker 2008; Hayden 2003; Chavez 2012; Schwartz-Marin and Restrepo 2013). Drawing on ethnographic & historical methodologies, this chapter interrogates landmark cases linked with biopiracy and medical innovation: 1) Ayahuasca and 2) the Poison Dart Frog. These two organisms have been identified as important cases, because both have been subject to patents (Tidwell 2002; Males 2015), are at the centre of significant biomedical investment, and are deeply embedded in the ancestral knowledge of Latin American indigenous groups, as well as biomedical innovations and forms of capitalist profit making via pharmaceutical research.

22 November: Online only
Marieke M.A. Hendriksen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)
Tasting the past, or the fallacy of historical accuracy

The material turn in the history of science has led scholars to successfully study the past through new methods, such as object-driven and performative research, including the reconstruction and analysis of historical recipes. Reconstructions in the history of science are a restaging of historical experiences rather than replications; they help us access and understand historical embodied and sensory knowledge embedded in texts and materiality. Yet the 'ephemeral' sense of taste is often still perceived as too subjective and thus difficult and problematic to study historically, and the supposed importance of historical accuracy is used as an argument to dismiss the use performative methods more generally. In a new project, I challenge these contentions, meanwhile contributing to new standards to study historical taste with performative methods. In this talk I will explore how we can surpass the fallacy of historical accuracy to successfully use performative methods, and in particular taste reconstructions, to study the past.

29 November: Online only
Elizabeth Yale (University of Iowa)
Tender curiosities: natural history and gendered knowledge-craft at country houses, counting houses, and Royal African Company factories