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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).

Easter Term 2019

Show overview

29 April Rebecca Earle (University of Warwick)
The politics of the potato in the 19th century
Over the 19th century potatoes became deeply embedded in arguments about the merits of capitalism. Political radicals condemned potatoes as a tool of exploitation. Advocates of free trade denounced them as an obstacle to economic rationality (Ireland being a prime example), and nutritionists investigated the deleterious effects of 'sluggish potato blood' on the urban proletariat's productivity. This talk sketches out the ways in which potatoes, and the everyday eating practices of working people, became entangled in debates about industrialisation and economic change in 19th-century Europe, to show how talking about potatoes provided a way to talk about capitalism.
6 May Harriet Ritvo (MIT)
When is a cow not a cow?
When we think about animals in the 19th and 20th centuries, we notice two conflicting themes. Nineteenth-century breeders carefully policed the behaviour of their animals, in the interests of maintaining and enhancing quality. On the other hand, like many of their contemporaries, breeders were also attracted by quality of a very different, inconsistent kind: the Romantic cachet associated with wildness. The tension between these conflicting attractions produced divergent experiences for cattle and contrasting agendas for their proprietors; they also fuelled arguments in taxonomy about the degree of difference required for the recognition of separate species. These tensions continue to shape and inspire efforts to restore lost landscapes and their vanished inhabitants. This talk will explore these themes, considering the relationship between the constraints of domestication and an increasing appreciation for wildness.
13 May Luz Fernanda Azuela (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)
Mexican science at the crossroads of French imperialism and Maximilian's empire (1864–1867)
Mexico, which had been an independent nation since 1821, suffered a colonial takeover by the French between 1864 and 1867. During these years Mexican science was torn between the colonialist aims of the Napoleon III and the Hapsburg Empire of Maximilian that the French Intervention had enabled. Maximilian agreed with local scholars on the urgent need for scientific institutions that would foster practical research to support material and cultural progress. His main objective was his régime's legitimation. Napoleon III, in contrast, wanted to boost France's presence in the Americas, and restrain the expansionism of the United States. Both agreed on the need to exploit Mexican resources by promoting natural history, geography, geology and medicine.

Local advances in those disciplines had been pursued for over three centuries, a tradition of research practically unknown in Europe. This led to a distorted appreciation of Mexican scholarship and qualifications, especially from the French Scientific Commission. Conversely, Maximilian engaged with the local scientific community on several projects, whose excellence contradicted the French evaluation of their expertise.

This paper aims to explain the dismissal of Mexican scientific capabilities by the invaders, even when local insight and scholarship proved to be instrumental in achieving the foreigners' goals. It will also point out the asymmetric nature of the conditions in which their collaboration took place, as an expression of imperial subjugation and eurocentrism. And it will echo Kapil Raj's statements on the reconfiguration of 'existing knowledges and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter'.
Friday 17 May Cabinet Excursion: John Clare Cottage, Swaddywell Pit and Helpston Village Church
We will be visiting the village of Helpston, the home of poet, farm labourer and naturalist John Clare (1793–1864). We will begin by exploring his cottage and garden, before walking or driving about a mile to a local nature reserve, Swaddywell Pit. In addition to viewing its beautiful orchids and hearing about its geological history, we will learn about the site's connection with John Clare through his criticism of the enclosure movement. We will then receive a guided tour of the local medieval church, where Clare and his parents are buried. We will depart from the Department at 10am and return to Cambridge by 5pm. Cabinet will provide transport and lunch. Due to the capacity of the minibuses, places will be limited to 18 participants. RSVP to Laura Brassington (lb685).
20 May James Ryan (Victoria & Albert Museum/University of Exeter)
Men of eminence: science, photography and biography in the self-fashioning of Robert Hunt in 19th-century England
This paper considers the way the one Victorian man of science – Robert Hunt (1807–1887) – employed biography and the photographic portrait in his wider self-fashioning. A chemist, experimental researcher on light and photography, folklorist, geologist and writer, Hunt manoeuvred his way from humble beginnings in Devon and Cornwall to the relative heights of metropolitan science in mid-19th century London. He used his talents in chemistry, photography and writing, together with support from powerful patrons, to enter the world of science and social respectability. He is a good example of men who, through their talents, exertions and institutional networks, forged careers in professional science in this period. Like many such men, Hunt lacked the gentlemanly background that had hitherto dominated the world of science. While Hunt's experiments in genres of science writing and his romantic geological interests have recently received scholarly attention, notably from historian of science Melanie Keane, the connections between his literary exertions and his experiments in visual culture have been little studied. This paper considers Robert Hunt's own photographic image and how he used the art of biography to write himself into the history of science. It pays particular attention to Hunt's work in one particular experimental photographic and biographical publication: photographic portraits of men of eminence in literature, science and art, with biographical memoirs, published in six volumes from 1863 to 1867, with photographs by Ernest Edwards, edited by Lovell Augustus Reeve (1814–1865) and E. Walford. In doing so the paper seeks to open up questions about the significance of the photographic portrait and biography in the cultural framing of scientific, gender and class identities in mid-19th century Britain.
Friday 14 June Garden Party, 1–3pm, Caius Fellows' Garden
Nick Jardine (HPS, Cambridge)
Fungi and feelings
Dramatic pronouncements have been made about the transformative impacts of fungi on human history. My focus will be on the forms of anachronism involved in claims about the foundational roles of the hallucinogenic Fly Agaric in world religions. I shall suggest that these claims are distorted by affective anachronism, inappropriate projection onto past agents of our own feelings, concerns and attitudes, this being a form of anachronism that is especially insidious given historians' need to understand and convey past experiences and values.