skip to content

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 in Seminar Room 1 in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Free School Lane, Cambridge, and online over Zoom. The sessions on 30 January and 6, 13, 20, and 27 February will be online only.

It is no longer necessary to book in person attendance, but please follow the Department's general guidance for the safety of all participants. To join online, no booking will be required. Zoom links will be circulated beforehand.

Organised by Silvia M. Marchiori (smm218).

Lent Term 2023

23 January

Anna-Luna Post (HPS, University of Cambridge)
Natural gains or capital down the drain? The debate over the draining of the Haarlemmermeer

The seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, strongly impacted by the 'Little Ice Age', saw the rise of large-scale projects designed to improve lands for agriculture and counter the risks of flooding. Though not as heavily debated as similar initiatives in early modern England, such projects did give rise to discussions about the proper ways to intervene in and exploit nature. In this paper, Anna-Luna Post will examine the debate over the potential draining of the Haarlemmermeer between two landmeters, Jan Adriaenszoon Leeghwater and Claes Arentsen Coleveldt. She will explore their published treatises to reveal opposing views on man's relation to nature, risk and profit, the public interest, and the expertise needed to serve it.

30 January: online only

Frederick Crofts (Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen)
Picturing the world, fashioning the self: Marcus zum Lamm collects naturalia in Calvinist Heidelberg

Between 1564 and 1606 the Heidelberg lawyer, courtier, Calvinist church councillor, and 'lover of the painted arts' Marcus zum Lamm (1544–1606) collected an unprecedented 'storehouse' of images and texts, the Thesaurus Picturarum. The thirty-three surviving volumes of Lamm's Thesaurus approach an encyclopaedic assortment of themes, ranging from illustrated chronicles, diary entries, and religious polemic, through to ornithology, meteorology, astrology, teratology, prodigies, art, topography, costumes, and ethnography. Lamm's Thesaurus represents a subjective prism through which to view the development of Calvinist Heidelberg's extraordinary moment of religious and cultural assurance prior to the Thirty Years' War (1618–48). Moreover, it demonstrates the instrumentality of artworks, object collections, international networks, and global knowledge production for achieving the politico-religious ambitions of the Palatine electors and their court at Heidelberg. By examining Lamm's many natural philosophical images and reports in the wider context of his collection, this talk argues that the Thesaurus Picturarum needs to be interpreted as a visual ego-document. As such, Frederick Crofts will reveal the ways a Reformed courtier combined his love of art and natural knowledge with autobiographical details in order to build his world and connect with others. Frederick will argue that Lamm's naturalia collection helped him to project his self-image as an indispensable servant of Calvinism and the state; provided him with a potent means of forging emotional bonds within his milieu; and formed an integral part of his self-narrative as a divinely appointed witness to Heidelberg's unfolding destiny at the centre of international Protestantism.

6 February: online only

Jan Becker (European University Institute)
Preadamites on Ambon in the 1680s

In 1686, Ambon was the site of a dispute over the origins of humankind. The Leiden-trained physician and governor of Ambon Robertus Padtbrugge (1637–1703) and the VOC employee and naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius (1627–1702) could not reconcile their respective exegeses. In particular, they disagreed on Isaac de la Peyrère's book Prae Adamitae (1655), which challenged the notion of Adam being the first human to have lived and which was part of Rumphius's library. In contrast to Padtbrugge, Rumphius strictly rejected the historicity of Preadamites. How did their readings of the Prae Adamitae relate to slavery, medicine, and natural history on the island? And how did the Chinese and Ambonese inhabitants of the island shape the book's meaning? In this talk, Jan Becker will analyse how the Prae Adamitae was read on Ambon.

13 February: online only

Taylor E. Dysart (University of Pennsylvania)
Encountering Ayahuasca in the devil's paradise: Amazonian science and Victorian violence in the nineteenth century

This talk explores how nineteenth-century naturalists simultaneously characterized caapí, a liana, or thick woody vine, as a valuable global botanical specimen and a potent Amazonian narcotic. After Richard Spruce (1817–1893), a British botanist, first observed the Tukano peoples consuming caapí in 1852, he eagerly began to collect and classify plant specimens as well as accompanying cultural artifacts and ethnographic observations. Along with the Yorkshireman, naturalists from along the Americas speculated as to which Indigenous tribes consumed caapí and for what purpose, and which plants were responsible for the remarkable effects that they had observed. Informed by debates about the abolition of slavery in Brazil and the violent extractive economies of the Amazon, these naturalists came to understand caapí as intertwined with tropical degeneration, primitivism, and the infamous 'narcotics' of the nineteenth century.

20 February


27 February: online only

Xinyi Wen (HPS, Cambridge)
Extra-illustrating natural history in early modern England

A hand-coloured image of Iris flower, clipped out of a copy of Rembert Dodoens' A Nievve Herball, and pasted into a cheap, unillustrated herbal that endorsed the infamous doctrine of signatures – William Coles' Adam in Eden (1656) – under the entry of Iris. In a copy of Adam in Eden, currently held at the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy, Oxford, clip-pasted illustrations like this filled the volume, along with many plant illustrations directly drawn onto the page. Evidence has shown that these fascinating illustrations and extra-illustrations were probably made by German botanist Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684–1747), the first Sherardian professor of botany at Oxford and a botanical illustrator. Extensive extra-illustrations of plants were also found in several botanical books owned by C17–18 Oxford botanists, including John Goodyer, William How, and William Sherard.

This paper argues that extra-illustration has been a crucial paper technique for early modern English botanists. Extra-illustration or grangerising, commonly defined as 'the practice of augmenting a copy of a book with prints, manuscripts or other illustrative material' that flourished in late C18–C19, has been a curious subject of book history. Historians often interpret extra-illustration as an antiquarian 'gentle pastime'; however, the Oxford botanists' practices show us that extra-illustration was a professional, scholarly activity crucial for identifying species, developing taxonomies, and facilitating publications. By focusing on extra-illustrations, this paper emphasises materiality and active engagement in early modern botanical reading, and challenges our usual idea of what a 'book' is.

6 March

Francesco Bianchini (King's College, Cambridge)
Water, politics and health across the Bay of Bengal

In this talk, Francesco Bianchini will address various sources concerned with water and water usage in medieval South and Southeast Asia. In particular, he will look at the sponsoring of water management infrastructures and their connections with communal health. The methodology adopted aims at bringing epigraphy, ayurvedic texts, as well as archaeology and Buddhist monastic codes into a constructive dialogue.

13 March

Max Long (History, University of Cambridge)
'Photography versus the pest': Shell chemicals, mass media and pesticides in post-war Britain

This paper explores the intersections between industrial agriculture, mass media, and extraction by examining colour photographs and films produced by the oil and chemicals corporation Royal Dutch Shell in post-Second World War Britain. In the 1940s, new potent organochloride pesticides entered the agricultural market, promising to revolutionise productivity. Many of these were made from byproducts of oil refining, and were manufactured by oil companies like Shell. To market these new products, Shell spared no expense in the production of glossy photographs and vivid films intended to help farmers to 'visualise' the pests that threatened their crops. These images often drew on the expertise of natural history photographers and filmmakers, who had finessed techniques of visualising insects and other pests over the preceding decades. This paper offers a detailed examination of Shell's marketing in the 1950s and early 1960s and its use of scientific images.