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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. Organised by L. Joanne Green (ljg54).

Easter Term 2021

3 May
Amelia Urry (University of Cambridge)
Hearsay, gossip, misapprehension: Alfred Newton's second-hand histories of extinction

The study of extinction was rooted in Victorian practices of observation and collection, but presented a challenge to the discipline's increasing emphasis on empiricism and precision. This paper traces the role of witness testimony and hearsay accounts in early studies of extinction in the notebooks of Cambridge zoology professor, Alfred Newton. Beginning in 1850s, Newton and his collaborators sought to trace the histories of species suspected to be extinct, such as the British great bustard and the great auk of Iceland. With its subjects absent by definition, the study of extinction relied heavily on hearsay and rumour, as well as evidence gleaned from past published accounts. Through his methodical attempts to collate diverse and contradictory sources, from eyewitnesses to newspapers to local folklore and gossip, Newton demonstrated the inextricability of human and social concerns from the practice of studying extinction. These attempts to resolve this social evidence into scientific certainty were time and again frustrated by the uncertain epistemic status of his sources.

10 May
Christoffer Basse Eriksen (University of Cambridge)
Nehemiah Grew, collector, curator, and cataloguer of plants

In 1682, Nehemiah Grew published his majestic Anatomy of Plants, which is rightfully lauded for its systematic observations of the minute structures of plants, and its beautiful visual representations of their insides. The publication earned Grew recognition as the first anatomist of plants. In this talk, I want to highlight another aspect of Grew's engagement with the vegetable world, namely how he sought out specific plants to study. In order to do so, I will present snapshot databases of the plant species that Grew observed in his printed works, as well as a reconstruction of his private plant collection. This plant collection was catalogued by Grew himself in an unpublished manuscript, and later by Hans Sloane, who bought the collection after Grew's death and incorporated it into his own collection of 'vegetable substances'. Throughout the talk, Grew emerges not as anatomist, but as collector, curator, and cataloguer of plants.

17 May
Franziska Holt (University of York)
Of wasps in wigs and gnatter with gnats: how insects made Alice in Wonderland

The year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the second of Lewis Carroll's Alice novels: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Despite the huge popularity of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Looking-Glass has always remained the less-studied of the two books. Distinctions between the two books have been scrutinized little, and the very different concerns and ways of expressing them in Looking-Glass, and the way in which they frame Lewis Carroll, his interests, and contributions to Victorian intellectual discourse have been side-lined. This has contributed to criticism distorting the role of 'children's authors' and 'children's literature' – neither of which, I will argue in this talk are appropriate framing for Alice and its author – for instance, to the public discourse of science in the nineteenth century – but also, in parallel ways, today.

This paper will illuminate this predicament by exploring Through the Looking-Glass in the context of Lewis Carroll's interest in science and its impact on society, through a case study of the role insects play in his Alice novels, and particularly in Looking-Glass – including its 'lost chapter': 'A Wasp in a Wig'. Through examining Carroll's own reading, items from his personal library, to his letters to editors of Victorian newspapers on such subjects as animal rights or vaccination, it will shine a light on the ways in which Carroll used the platform gained through the success of his first Alice book to more prominently address controversial issues of his time. Crucially, it will underline how, counter to many critical readings of his works, Carroll did so to effect a moral transformation in his readers, in line with his own Christian moral sentiments. This will offer a corrective to framings of the Alice novels – and children's literature, more generally – as 'carefree nonsense', and, through a short concluding excursion, emphasise the crucial role played by narrative forms associated primarily with childhood, play in changing world views and behavioural patterns in the big science-society issues we face today, from Covid-19 to climate change.

24 May
Ella Larsson (University of Westminster)
Collecting and curating at Rothschild's Zoological Museum

Showing little aptitude for the family business of banking, Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937) instead devoted himself to the creation of one of the largest private natural history collections the world had ever seen. A prolific collector during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rothschild's collection was kept within his purpose-built museum at Tring, Hertfordshire and contained some 2.5 million Lepidoptera, 300,000 bird skins, 300 dried reptiles and over 1400 mammal skins and skulls. These extensive research collections enabled Rothschild and his curators, Karl Jordan (1861–1959) and Ernst Hartert (1859–1933), to make a substantial contribution to the study of animal species and their distribution, while the display collections fascinated the museum's many public visitors.

In this paper I will explore the logics and motivations which influenced the creation and curation of Rothschild's zoological collection. I will begin with a discussion of what Rothschild acquired for his collections and of the judgement criteria which informed his collecting practices, demonstrating the ways in which those criteria differed depending on a specimens' destination within the museum. I will then focus on the museum's public galleries and examine the ways in which Rothschild's scientific interests played out alongside his desire to inspire wonder, provoke aesthetic appreciation and convey personal stories about encounters with animals in the field, revealing the ways in which Rothschild's museum straddled the boundary between a 'public' and a 'private' museum.