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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 Jules Skotnes-Brown (jasb2).

Michaelmas Term 2019

Show overview

14 October Kevin Edwards (University of Aberdeen)
Marginalia in the 'bible' of pollen analysis
The annotation of texts and their study has a long history in literature and the humanities, but less so in science. This talk examines the marginalia within a copy of the first edition of Text-book of modern pollen analysis – the 'bible' of the discipline of pollen analysis (palynology), published in 1950 by two botanists, Knut Fægri (professor of botany in Bergen) and Johannes Iversen (palaeoecologist with the Danish Geological Survey).

Pollen analysis – the study of pollen grains incorporated in accumulating sediments – is the single most widely used technique in environmental reconstruction. The annotations are the work of 'Mr Pollen Analysis', palynology's evangelist Gunnar Erdtman, a former schoolteacher who went on to develop one of the major research centres for palynology in Stockholm. A further ingredient in a sometimes toxic mix is the 'founder' of palynology, the Swedish geologist Lennart von Post, who had approved of an introductory book by Erdtman and then went on to lavish considerable praise on Fægri and Iversen's volume.

The marginalia display strong feelings, even anger, concerning the contents of the book. They are pedantic, yet can often be shown to confront sloppy writing if not sloppy thinking. They certainly permit an insight into the perspectives of a pioneering scientist as well as revealing a lack of inhibition which might otherwise be hidden. They also reflect an adherence to traditional palaeontological approaches to plant systematics at a time when palynology was being becoming more statistically and conceptually rigorous, addressing ecological problems at scales from the local to the global.
21 October Paul Sampson (Rutgers University)
The lungs of a ship: labour, medicine and the maritime environment, 1740–1800
My overall project, 'Ventilating the Empire: Environmental Machines in the British Atlantic World, 1700–1850', investigates the pre-industrial origins of efforts to improve air quality as a measure for preventing the spread of contagious disease. The portion I will present examines the attempt to ventilate and reform the 'close, confined, putrid air' on Royal Navy ships during the mid-18th century. Alarmed at the high mortality rates of sailors, British experimenter and clergyman Stephen Hales (1677–1761) invented new 'ventilators': hand- or wind-powered bellows constructed to mimic the action of human lungs. Required on all Navy ships after 1756, these machines were unpopular with captains and many sailors, but Hales' theories deeply influenced the work of maritime medical experts James Lind, John Pringle and Gilbert Blane, who viewed ventilation as a vital necessity to be cultivated through hygienic discipline. Management of the shipboard environment was fiercely debated in moral terms that cast the clean, well-ventilated ship as the 'nursery' of sailors and the dirty ship as a 'pestilential maw' – an appellation most frequently applied to slave ships. My work will examine how shipboard ventilation played into debates over the use and abuse of labour both in the Royal Navy and the West Indies slave trade.
28 October Cabinet Annual Fungus Hunt
4 November Nathan Smith (Zoology, Cambridge)
It takes a village: the life and legacy of Henry Thomas Soppitt (1858–1899)
Henry Thomas Soppitt was a greengrocer-turned-drysalter and artisan experimental mycologist whose work primarily focused on discerning the life-cycles of rust fungi. His death on 1 April 1899 was a seminal event in the history of the Yorkshire nature study. Occurring at a critical junction in British mycology, it saw unprecedented response by Yorkshire mycologists to cement his legacy through preservation of his library and herbarium. As time passed, and the fortunes of Yorkshire mycologists continued to decline, there was a continuous return to the work of Soppitt within the community. Focusing on Soppitt's elucidation of the lifecycle of Puccinia bistortae, this paper will explore the significance of the discovery to Yorkshire mycologists and the scientific landscape in which it took place.
11 November Matt Holmes (CRASSH, Cambridge)
Hybrid or chimera? Reinterpreting the botanical exchange of William Bateson and Erwin Baur
After several years fighting in defence of Mendelian genetics, William Bateson was appointed Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in 1910, where he investigated the development of plant chimeras. Recent scholarship has portrayed this research as something of a misstep by Bateson, which left him out of touch with modern developments in biology, including the chromosome theory of heredity. This paper argues that Bateson's interest in plant chimeras was partly an attempt to address a longstanding controversy in the annals of natural history: the existence, or non-existence, of graft hybrids. Previously unpublished correspondence between Bateson and the German botanist Erwin Baur reveals that Bateson sought to expose graft hybrids as chimeras in order to preserve Weismann's distinction between somatic and germ cells. For his part, Baur helped Bateson to grasp the true nature of plant chimeras and sent him specimens to display at the Royal Society. The timing of this exchange is significant. In Germany, a former debunker of the graft hybrid hypothesis, botanist Hans Winkler, claimed to have created a genuine botanical graft hybrid. In the United States, leading Mendelian William Castle was engaged in a heated exchange with physiologist Charles Guthrie over the existence of animal graft hybrids. Castle portrayed this clash as an attempt by neo-Lamarckians to overthrow both Weismann and Mendel. This wider context revises our picture of Bateson's interest in plant chimeras from that of a scientific misstep to a necessary effort to tackle an immediate threat to the future of Mendelian genetics.
18 November Joanne Green (HPS, Cambridge)
'We the tormentors, the destroyers': death, emotions and gender in entomology
This paper explores a female entomologist's feelings towards the insects she collected during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Entomology, ostensibly an exact and objective science, was in actuality filled with emotions, such as the aesthetic joy derived from the beauty and diversity of insects, and the excitement and heightened emotions of the hunt. This paper will place a special focus on the gendered aspects of the relationship between death and natural history, and how entomologists felt about killing insects and turning them into specimens, by focusing on the lepidopterist Margaret Fountaine. Fountaine's entire life revolved around entomology and her collection, but she was also deeply conflicted, and oscillated between the joy of the hunt and the beauty of her captures, and pity and guilt over killing the insects. In her diary she habitually anthropomorphised butterflies and portrayed them as having feelings, while she herself sometimes felt as a murderer for killing them. However, these emotions were repressed in her scientific writing, illustrating one facet of the gendering of emotions among entomologists.
25 November Leonardo Carrio Cataldi (Newton International Fellow, British Academy and University College London)
A magnetic world: understanding the lodestone in the early modern Iberian empires
There is a well-known historical narrative about magnets that ranges from Petrus Peregrinus's findings (1269) to William Gilbert's earth-magnetic theory (1600). That is, broadly speaking, from one of the first systematic descriptions of the magnet and the magnetic compass to the idea that the Earth itself behaves as a giant magnet, with two opposite poles. In my talk I will propose a different approach to this topic by addressing the question of how the lodestone was understood, used and commercialized in the early modern Iberian empires. Drawing upon sources from different domains (natural history, literature, legal disputes) my aim will be to discuss how the global expansion of Iberian empires challenged the understanding of the magnet and its uses. A more general question might arise from this discussion: what would a new social and intellectual history of such a key 'stone' look like, seen from the perspective of early modern Iberian empires?
2 December Max Long (History, Cambridge)
Tuning into nature in interwar Britain: the life sciences on film and radio
The history of popular science in Britain remains relatively unexplored for the early 20th century. In particular, the relationship between new media and existing print cultures deserves closer attention. Plants, animals and other natural subjects were staples of the mass media of film and radio during the interwar years. Secrets of Nature, for example, was one of the most successful short film series of its time. The series covered a wide range of natural history subjects and was made with the collaboration of scientists like Peter Chalmers Mitchell, Julian Huxley and Edward Salisbury. These individuals, and others like them, believed in the potential for new media technologies to communicate scientific knowledge to a wide public. In the BBC, natural history broadcasts were considered an ideal vehicle for education, such as in children's programmes and school broadcasts. The BBC's output during this time also included adult talks about the life sciences, as well as Ludwig Koch's unique recordings of birdsong. In this paper, I examine film and radio to ask two principal questions. First, what versions of 'nature' were predominant in new media representations of the life sciences, and who was responsible for defining these? The negotiations between producers and scientific advisers are crucial to understanding the kinds of films and broadcasts which characterise this period. Secondly, I will address the differences between scientific film and radio interventions in popular culture, and how these relate to popular experiences of the natural world in interwar Britain.