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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 Laura Brassington (lb685).

Michaelmas Term 2018

Show overview

8 October Spike Bucklow (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
The long-lost Paston Collection
This talk will consider some aspects of a 17th-century collection of natural history, paintings, literature and musical instruments that was housed at Oxnead in North Norfolk in the 17th 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 was 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.
15 October Emma Spary (History, Cambridge)
Putting the pieces together: Canadian ginseng and botanical expertise in the French Regency
This paper will examine the complex history of the relationship between French botanical knowledge, commerce and Royal institutions in the 1710s–1730s through the case of Canadian ginseng. Its discovery in 1717, growing in newly-colonised French Canada, was ostentatiously publicised back in the metropolis. The history of how this Canadian plant came to be attributed properties similar to those of the famous Chinese drug which was its namesake has been told several times, most recently as a story of widening separation between the interests of botanists and those of clergy. Using previously neglected archival materials, I will argue, in contrast, for a far more complex response to the new drug, centred on a reconfiguration of the relationship between state power and botanical expertise during the 1710s. These developing connections shifted the scope of botanical practice away from classical humanism and towards a new view of the distant natural world as a source of national prosperity; they also placed a new emphasis upon the botanical garden as a space of proof and demonstration. The ways in which Canadian ginseng changed as an object of knowledge can be seen to express these forming and transforming relationships between statecraft, natural knowledge and wealth.
22 October Annual Fungus Hunt
29 October Justin Rivest (History, Cambridge)
Elite paternalism and exotic drug demand in early modern France: the case of the Marquis de Louvois and quinquina, circa 1685
My talk will explore the links between household medical consumption of prominent aristocratic families and the early bulk consumption of exotic, non-European drugs by the French army in the 17th century. Men of state like the French War Secretary, the Marquis de Louvois, approached their personal health problems – as well as those of their families and servants – through personal networks of informants, suppliers and experts. Looking specifically at Peruvian cinchona bark (quinquina), I will consider how Louvois' personal advocacy of the drug helped extend its use to his subordinates, servants, the king and ultimately in bulk volumes to thousands of soldiers during an epidemic of intermittent fevers at the construction site of the Eure Canal.

Louvois' drug networks were not in any sense dependent upon traditional 'medical' actors such as physicians or apothecaries: it was in fact Louvois who supplied his physicians with quinquina, not vice versa. His networks of supply and information included reliable familial clients from many walks of life, from domestics to jewellers and bankers, and other servants scattered strategically through various institutions and settings, both in France and abroad.

Drawing on this case and a few others, I argue that the personal consumption of élites served as a crucial mediator for population-scale consumption of exotic drugs. Far from an economy of individualised consumption, I argue that the state marketplace for exotic drugs originated within a broader culture of paternalism and charity: it was an extension of the personal care of aristocratic patrons for their clients and servants.
5 November Martha Homfray-Cooper (History, Cambridge)
The Curious Martin Folkes (1690–1754): sociability and collecting in the mid-18th century
Martin Folkes, President of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, has not been treated kindly by historians. He has either been seen as an aristocratic menace to the progress of 18th-century science or else ignored completely. And yet his contemporaries awarded him prestigious scientific positions. The vast majority of contemporary voices praised him for his involvement in a wide variety of sciences – antiquarianism, numismatics, mathematics, astronomy and natural history. The disconnect between the negative picture of Folkes as drawn by historians and contemporaries' more positive testimonies requires explanation. This talk examines Folkes's correspondence networks, his possessions, and his travels around Europe. Contemporaries had a set of criteria for what counted as good science very different to that which scholarship presumes. In the first half of the 18th century, good science shifted from being about singular, one-off curiosities to valuing large collections of knowledge. Folkes was fundamental to encouraging and modelling this shift. Science was no longer about finding the unique; it was now about building large collections and ordering them. Folkes simultaneously collected various objects and European-wide correspondents and he himself conformed wonderfully to the criteria of good science which he helped to shape. This talk seeks to reconstruct how he successfully self-fashioned himself as the Curious Martin Folkes and how this relates to mid-18th century scientific practices.
12 November Marie de Rugy (History, Cambridge)
Mountains, rivers and forests: the colonial mapping of southeast Asia, between observation and vernacular cartography in the 19th century
During British colonisation of Burma and French rule in Indochina, surveyors were sent throughout the territory to explore, measure, observe and describe it and to draw topographical maps. On the one hand, they used their own techniques and proved to be scientific actors, charting the territory on maps according to European norms. On the other hand, they collected indigenous information to help them understand an unknown territory and given that they were not always able to make proper observations themselves.

In this paper, I will concentrate on the representation of natural elements, such as mountains, rivers and vegetation to show how fundamental they have been in the mapping of territory, but also how diversely they have been depicted by different actors. European officers, Indian surveyors, Burmese foresters, Shan traders and Vietnamese administrators all have particular ways of drawing a map and describing a landscape. By analysing topographical and indigenous maps, I will try to understand these different perceptions of a territory through its constitutive elements and question the integration of vernacular knowledge in European mapping.
19 November Oscar Kent-Egan (HPS, Cambridge)
Isaac Van Amburgh the lion tamer: spectacle, education and natural history in Britain, 1825–1872
In August 1838, an enigmatic American showman by the name of Isaac Van Amburgh arrived in London with a troupe of performing lions. He exhibited daring feats of control over these creatures and helped establish lion taming as a popular and profitable act in theatres and circuses. He toured Europe until 1845 and inspired numerous imitators. His shows were the first dedicated exclusively to lion taming and attracted various sections of society, ranging from members of the working classes to Queen Victoria. The question of how Van Amburgh tamed his lions sparked widespread discussion. He was secretive about his training methods and papers speculated on whether rational instruction, brute strength or special knowledge of animal behaviour explained his powers. This talk explores the marketing and press coverage of Van Amburgh's shows. It considers the complex imagery spun around his performances. Newspaper reports often claimed that the acts revealed social and scientific lessons. They were tied in with Lord Brougham's attempts to reform working class education and debates on behavioural studies of animals. Van Amburgh's show was not merely dismissed as a vulgar spectacle or violent entertainment. I argue that the press transformed it into an illustration of the improvability of nature and the value of practical, experiential knowledge of animals. These interpretations influenced the development of lion taming in the second half of the 19th century and help explain the persistence of the practice.
26 November Margot Lyautey (EHESS, Paris/Tübingen)
Plant protection in France and Germany from the 1930s to the 1950s: the case of the Colorado potato beetle
In this paper, I aim at proposing a French-German history of the rise of chemical insecticides from the 1930s to the 1950s using the Colorado potato beetle as a case study. This particular insect was one of the most feared agricultural pests after World War I. Being such a big threat for food supply in France and Germany, especially during World War II, the potato beetle was considered as public enemy number one in agriculture. It was also one of the first agricultural pests fought at a European level through chemical means, and was contemporary to the advent of chemical pesticides. Originating from the USA, hence the name Colorado, the potato beetle infested Europe in the early 1920s, starting in Bordeaux's haven and then spreading year after year until the end of the 1950s. Furthermore, this insect had strong cultural implications throughout the 20th century. In World War II German occupation soldiers were nicknamed 'Potato Beetles' ('Doryphores') by the French population because they were invaders and were known to eat a lot of potatoes. After the war, the Colorado potato beetle was presented in East Germany in communist propaganda to be a biological weapon used by the USA, in order to sabotage socialist agriculture with insects supposedly brought on German territory using planes. Through a French-German history of the fight against the Colorado potato beetle, I will try to show what comparative history can bring to the history of agriculture, which is often studied inside national frames.