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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 in Seminar Room 1 in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Free School Lane, Cambridge. The seminars will no longer be streamed on Zoom, and all are welcome to join us in person.

Depending on the participants' interest, we might schedule a daytrip to Audley End House and Gardens, tentatively on 5 June.

Organised by Silvia M. Marchiori. Please write an email to smm218[at] if you wish to be added to the mailing list.

Easter Term 2023

8 May

Jacob Orrje (Uppsala University)
Merchants of Enlightenment: making knowledge move between England and Sweden, 1700–72

What connected the correspondence networks of eighteenth-century scholars? Earlier studies of early modern scholarly exchange have provided detailed maps of correspondents, yet we know surprisingly little about the merchants and sailors who ensured the flow of things – such as letters, books, and instruments – between scholarly communities. The project 'Merchants of Enlightenment' examines such logistical infrastructure in Anglo-Swedish scholarly circulation of knowledge, through the case of a group of London merchants engaged in the Anglo-Swedish metal trade. In this presentation, Jacob Orrje will relate this group to the Northern-European cultures of useful knowledge in which they acted. Furthermore, Jacob will analyse how they became vital in securing the flow of information and things for regional scholarly networks not only of Linnaean naturalists but also, e.g., of philology, metallurgy, and astronomy.

15 May

Valentine Delrue (Ghent University & Ca' Foscari University)
The many faces of meteorology: weather knowledge at the Société Royale de Médecine in the French Enlightenment

In the eighteenth century, meteorology was a site of lively debate and discussion as multiple visions of weather knowledge were proposed. Despite this diversity in meteorological conceptions and methods, however, individuals and institutions involved in creating weather knowledge often shared the goal of managing living bodies. Therefore, to better understand the disciplinary dynamics of meteorology in this context, Valentine Delrue will look at different (bio-political) projects that aimed to advance meteorological knowledge. Through an analysis of their development, exchanges, and debates, Valentine aims to understand the different conceptions of meteorology that lie at the heart of these various undertakings. Perhaps the most well-known of these French projects was the network of meteorological correspondents of the Société Royale de Médecine (1778–1793). This network was managed by the priest and meteorologist Louis Cotte (1740–1815), who himself had been appointed by the permanent secretary of the Société Royale de Médecine, Félix Vicq d'Azyr (1748–1794). The network's general aim was to improve the understanding and management of diseases across France by collecting and analyzing observations sent every three months by medical correspondents. While on the surface level, Cotte's ambitions might have lined up with those of the Société and correspondents, their different ways of observing reveal telling differences in how they related to meteorology as a developing discipline.

Thursday 18 May, 2pm, Fitzwilliam Museum

Henrietta Ward (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
Botanical drawings in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Limited capacity – please email smm218 to register.

22 May

Craig Martin (Ca' Foscari University)
Taming experience: Giambattista Da Monte's commentary on the Hippocratic Epidemics I

Since the eighteenth century, scholars and physicians have celebrated the Hippocratic Epidemics, especially books one and three, as a model for observational medical practices. Recent studies have argued that sixteenth-century evaluations of the case studies in Epidemics I and III helped fuel the emergence of a new empirical culture. In the earliest printed commentary on Epidemics I (1554), Giambattista Da Monte, a professor of medicine at Padua, emphasized theoretical rules about prognostics, causation, and the importance of philosophy. Da Monte recognized the epistemological importance of experience, yet he understood it to be subordinated to theory. Rather than viewing Epidemics I and its case studies as a catalogue of raw observations that could form the foundation for new theories, he argued that the descriptions of symptoms and seasonal conditions were designed as exercises for teaching how to conjecture about diagnosis and therapy using already discovered principles.

29 May

Lynn Berry (Open University)
The nuns and the apothecary: transatlantic collecting in the eighteenth century

In this talk, Lynn Berry will examine the correspondence between Augustinian nuns in Quebec and their contacts in France, to whom they shipped plants and animals for fabricating medicines or as curiosities for collectors. Lynn will explore the mystery of this transatlantic relationship between the nuns and the French apothecary who was their main contact, considering why the sisters persisted in such activities for so long, despite many significant obstacles. Using their letters, which spanned decades in the mid-eighteenth century, as well as drawing from the Annales of their Augustinian community in New France, this paper will present a theory as to why nuns restricted by cloister, climate, and colonial wars, still persevered with their role in this transatlantic network.

12 June: Garden Party at Gonville and Caius Fellows' Garden, 1pm

Claire Sabel (University of Pennsylvania)
Finding common ground: the geopolitics of gems in the early modern earth sciences, c. 1600–1730

Before diamonds were discovered in Brazil in the 1730s, virtually all the world's diamonds came from a few localities in the Indian subcontinent and the island of Borneo. The growth of direct maritime commerce between Europe and the Indian Ocean world over the early modern period offered European naturalists new opportunities to learn about diamonds and other precious stones, as London and Amsterdam joined Batavia, Golconda, and Melaka as centres of the global gem trade. In this talk, Claire Sabel will follow several jewellers and gem merchants on their travels from Europe to South and Southeast Asia in search of stones over the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most gem deposits remained under local control in this period, meaning that access to gems depended on existing regional trade routes, regimes of mine management, diplomatic negotiations, and artisanal expertise. Claire will explore how newcomers to the trade acquired knowledge of precious stones in situ, and how their knowledge reached Europe and entered learned discourse. By showing how gems served as a kind of common ground for aspirations for mineral wealth, political prestige, and scholarly inquiry, Claire will suggest that precious stones can also offer new insights into the conditions of knowledge production created by colonial commerce.