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Abstracts for Cabinet of Natural History

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.

All seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. Please feel free to bring your lunch.

Organised by Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).

Lent Term 2018

Show overview

22 January Ádám Mézes (Central European University, Budapest)
Blood will tell? Constructions of the 'vampire problem' in the eighteenth century
In 1732, Habsburg military surgeons handed in an autopsy report to the provincial administration, in which they described several corpses that local Serbian Orthodox villagers claimed to be vampires. The report discussed an epidemic that disrupted the public order and resulted in dozens of dead subjects, many of whom (despite having been buried for up to two months) apparently refused to decay properly. The report incited a short-lived, but vigorous debate in the learned circles with contributors from the ranks of theology, natural philosophy, medicine and law. The phenomenon did not easily fit existing natural philosophical and demonological theories, hence opening the room for various ideas, such as vitalism, sympathies, astral influences, chemical processes and demonic activity to be discussed alongside one another. Since the eighteenth century, the debate has occupied a stable position in the narratives of disenchantment and enlightenment as a swift and complete victory of natural sciences over superstition.

Based on a reconstruction of the channels through which the first-hand reports travelled, the talk will argue that the learned debate started out at the provincial level in the form of appeals to the learned elite for scientific clarification, but it soon became a discourse in its own right. Furthermore, based on a comparative analysis of treatises and first-hand reports, the talk will try to show that the administrative and the learned discourses had different priorities and interests, which meant that in the end, the learned conclusions could not be convincingly applied at the grassroots level.
29 January Meira Gold (HPS, Cambridge)
The first geological chronology of ancient Egypt and the antiquity of man, 1846–63
The 1850s through early 1860s was a transformative period for Victorian studies of the remote human past, across many new and evolving disciplines. Yet very little is known about the role of ancient Egypt as a focus of these discussions. Naturalists and scholars with Egyptological knowledge fashioned themselves as authorities to contend with the divisive topic of human antiquity and looked to the country's ancient monuments and written records to support their various claims. In a characteristic case of long-distance fieldwork, British geologist Leonard Horner relied on Turkish-born, English-educated, Cairo-based engineer Joseph Hekekyan to measure Nile silt deposits around pharaonic monuments at the ancient sites of Heliopolis and Memphis. The excavations were jointly-funded by the Royal Society of London and Egyptian government and contributed to a research program, championed by Horner and his son-in-law Charles Lyell, to assign absolute dates to the most recent geological period. Hekekyan meticulously recorded his field observations in hundreds of letters, reports, sketches and maps, which he sent to Horner for analysis. Their conclusion in 1858 that humans had existed in Egypt for over 13,000 years was particularly shocking to those who endorsed traditional biblical chronology and the work entered heated exchanges about man's place in nature and Scriptural authority.

This talk will discuss these geo-archaeological investigations, the production and circulation of field records, Hekekyan's role as a go-between, and lastly, the publication's mixed reception by several groups in Britain, including Egyptologists, geologists, ethnologists, anthropologists, Scriptual chronologists and German biblical critics. The episode is indicative of the many practical attempts in this period to deal with the growing anxieties of human antiquity. It further illuminates the roles of local knowledge and ancient Egypt within debates about the age of humans and highlights mid-Victorian attempts to reshape porous disciplinary boundaries.
5 February Simon Werrett (University College London)
Joseph Banks: science, culture and the remaking of the Indo-Pacific world
In this presentation I assess the findings of a one-year AHRC-funded project on the career of Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist on Cook's first voyage and president of the Royal Society from 1778 to 1820. Against a view of Banks as a 'centre of calculation' participants reconsidered Banks as a connecting agent among existing imperial and scientific networks mobilising plants around the world and transforming British enterprises in the Indo-Pacific world. Participants also explored Banks after Cook, in a period between c.1780 and 1820 that is rarely discussed in the literature. During this period Banks fitted into a variety of networks of men and women engaged with the sciences, acted as an information manager and broker, and managed a diverse collection of botanical and personal images and texts. Participants doubted that he followed a coherent agenda in these activities.
12 February Petter Hellström (Uppsala Universitet)
Trees as keys, ladders, maps: a revisionist history of early systematic trees
In recent years, there has been a profusion of studies charting the history of tree diagrams in natural history and biological systematics. Whereas some of these have focused on one or a few arboreal schemes, the majority have presented long histories, spanning centuries and occasionally even millennia. Early or 'pre-Darwinian' trees typically feature in these histories as precursors to phylogenetics; sometimes even as the 'roots' of later trees. Together with colleagues in France, I have previously argued that one of the most frequently cited early tree diagrams, Augustin Augier's 'Botanical Tree' (1801), cannot in any reasonable way be made to play the role of forerunner to later, evolutionary trees – even as the author pitched his tree of natural families in explicitly genealogical terms. In this talk, I push the argument further by proposing an alternative reading of the historical record. Starting from Augier's tree and other early examples, I argue that 'pre-evolutionary' trees should be understood less in terms of what came after, and more in terms of what came before. Attending to the functions they performed as keys, ladders and maps, I argue that early trees were logical, rhetorical and mnemonic devices drawn to imagine perfect, static order.
19 February Caterina Schürch (LMU München)
Physico-chemical biology in practice, 1920s–1930s
During the interwar period, 'physico-chemical biology' was institutionalised on an unprecedented scale. A group of eminent researchers, science managers and philanthropists promoted the view that physical and chemical concepts and methods could and should be adopted in biology. My talk is concerned with the practical implementation of this vision: how did researchers (from the physical and the biological sciences) identify biological problems that were to be approached from a physico-chemical standpoint? And, after all, why did they decide to work on problems at the interface between the physical and life sciences? I will introduce four interwar research programs in which physical or chemical methods and concepts were used to investigate biological phenomena: research on plant growth hormones in Utrecht and Pasadena; Selig Hecht's work on the physical and chemical basis of vision; Cambridge biochemist Rose Scott-Moncrieff's study of the biochemical basis of flower colour inheritance; and the activities of Prague's 'biological-physical working group'. The talk will focus on the early phases of these research programs and show how these cross-disciplinary studies were planned, implemented, and evaluated. The analysis emphasises the material and technological conditions of the modern life sciences and, at the same time, provides insights into the methodological norms that shaped scientists' actual research actions. Secondly, it promises to speak to the motivations behind cross-disciplinary research collaborations. I will argue that researchers were willing to cooperate with practitioners from other disciplines, since they recognised their epistemical interdependence.
26 February Justin Rivest (History, Cambridge)
How to rediscover a medical secret in eighteenth-century France: the lost recipe of the Chevalier de Guiller's powder febrifuge
My talk will trace the fortunes of a single proprietary drug, namely the poudre fébrifuge of the Chevalier de Guiller, a remedy for intermittent fevers which was granted a monopoly privilege by Louis XIV in 1713. The drug was based on cheap, locally-available plants, but their exact identity as well as the processing techniques needed to transform them were lost to Guiller's heirs because he died in 1729 without revealing his secret. The next generation of would-be proprietary drug monopolists were put in the position of needing to 'rediscover' the secret of the poudre fébrifuge in order to renew their royal monopoly privilege and to secure a lucrative contract to supply it in bulk to the French army.

But was the drug really the same? Drawing on surviving judicial records, I will explore the way in which trade secrecy could be a double-edged sword for early medical monopolists: it protected them from competitors and counterfeiters but could also opened the possibility of breaks in transmission across generations. I will also use the case to pose questions about substitution, modification and counterfeiting in eighteenth-century pharmacy, and trace the ways in which information about a drug could sometimes prove to be inseparable from the embodied expertise of the actors who had produced it.
5 March Spike Bucklow (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
A cabinet of natural history: the long-lost Paston collection
This talk will consider some aspects of a seventeenth-century collection of natural history, paintings, literature and musical instruments that was housed at Oxnead in North Norfolk in the seventeenth century. The collection was assembled by Sir William Paston and his son, Robert Paston, both of whom were famed for their hospitality and learning. The collection's core included objects obtained on Grand Tours and fabricated from materials derived from the Americas, Pacific, China and India. The full extent of the collection is known only through house inventories and auction lists, since it was dispersed by Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth and his son, William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth. Approximately 1% of the collection's items were depicted in a monumental still-life painting of c.1664. The talk will outline the nature of exchanges implied by the collection and its painting.
12 March Genie Yoo (Princeton University)
The Ambonese Rumphius and his inter-island information networks
Living on the island of Ambon from the age of 25 until his death, Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627–1702) explored, experimented and wrote about the natural world of the Indies while working as a koopman for the United Dutch East Indies Company. His knowledge of the flora and fauna of the islands was best encapsulated in two of his now best-known works, Het Amboinsch Kruydboek and D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer. This paper seeks to trace the information networks of this one man, whose writings projected an Ambonese world that was much larger than the tiny island of Ambon itself. How was Rumphius able to explore the natural world of the Indies through his engagement with local itinerant merchants and Muslim practitioners of medicine? What kinds of relationships did he establish with them and how did his experiences come to influence the scales of difference and similarity that he applied to his understanding of nature and the diversity of people living in the archipelago? Within the geographic and temporal contours of this study, circulation of knowledge did not exclusively take the form of a linear trajectory whereby knowledge was collected in the tropical fringes, changed in transit and consumed in the centre. Rather, through the example of Rumphius' works, this paper demonstrates how 'local' knowledge produced through cross-cultural interactions underwent its own complicated circuits of transmission within the Indonesian archipelago before reaching a wider audience in Europe.