The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme

Hello, and welcome to Giants’ Shoulders #58, the monthly online carnival of history of science blogging, this month hosted at Asylum Science. There have been a whole load of interesting posts and programmes on the history of science, technology and medicine recently, so here’s a round-up of what caught my eye: a bit like the Top 40, but without the (public) ding-dong battle over what to include.


Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): pictured not inventing soft-scoop ice cream

With the death of Margaret Thatcher (pictured right), histories of politics (and economics) in the second half of the twentieth century seem to have dominated the news in the UK over the last week. But, that doesn’t mean historians of science had nothing to say about the Iron Lady. Over at the Guardian’s Political Science blog, Jon Agar and Alice Bell both commented on Thatcher’s ambiguous relationship with science policy (and even more ambiguous relationship with Mr Whippy). And, looking forward in the field of science policy, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon discussed the positive role that historians of science can play in political decision-making. Before this, history in general (but only in relation to Britain) had become something of a political football in the heated responses to Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum (discussed last month by Seb Falk). Add this to the ongoing debates over open access and the impact agenda, and the rise of pseudo-academic journals, and there are plenty of contemporary issues for historians of science to be mindful of. Robin Schleffer’s thoughts on ‘slow science’, Patrick McCray on the opium of technology, the ever thoughtful contributions of Will Thomas, and the recent focus section in Isis on the Future of the History of Science (free access), also give plenty of food for thought on the future directions of the discipline.

Troubled Minds

Emotional Time Machine

There was further 80s revisionism on the BBC as it commemorated the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Prozac. In fact, there have been a few interesting Radio 4 shows on the history of psychiatry recently, and on BBC 2 there is a series currently airing on Royal Illnesses, including an obligatory retrospective diagnosis of George III (whose recovery was celebrated with a blaze of light). Elsewhere in London, Chris Millard queried the possibility of equating emotional states across different centuries, as he took audiences back in time in a Carnival of Lost Emotions, as part of a Festival of Neuroscience. Thomas Dixon examined the complex meanings that can be attributed to weeping, Lisa Smith raised the historical problems of measuring physical or emotional pain and linking it with particular brain states, and Jesse Bering reported on the surprisingly sexual etymology of the neuro-anatomical terms used for the brain’s different parts.

In his Trying Biology blog, Adam Shapiro wrote a couple of interesting posts on the links between anti-evolutionary thinking and, firstly, the anti-eugenics movement, and secondly, antidisestablishmentarianism. Laura Jane Martin noted Darwin’s interest in monstrosities, David Bressan recounted Charles Lyell’s search for the sea snake, and Romeo Vitelli wrote about early 20th century attempts to train chimpanzees. Outside of the academy, Bess Lovejoy presents the story of Orrill Stapp, whose search for the Other World was recorded at the Seattle Public Library. Importantly, if you want to understand human character, look here.

Doctors, Patients, Poisons and Potions

Brains weren’t the only suggested source of mental illnesses, however, as Jennifer Wallis explored in her post on the surgical origins of post-operative insanity. Meanwhile, Maev Kennedy reports on the happier products of surgery, as the design for a statue of the WWII plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe and his ‘Guinea Pigs’ was unveiled in East Grinstead. The Dead Bell blog uncovered an individual (though perhaps typical) case of industrial poisoning from chemical dyes in early 20th century USA; Linda M. Richards detailed the widespread poisoning of Navajo people and land by uranium mining waste in the latter decades of the century; and Dominic Berry began investigating Sir William Gavin, who may well have poisoned the entire English countryside! Bloggers from the British Library looked at the roles of Indian doctors and the East India Company in combating outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century. Jennifer Evans considered the intriguing relationships between doctors and patients in the early modern period, and the way the location of treatment affected their position (anyone fancy staying with their surgeon for a few weeks?). On the subject of human reproduction, Lisa Plotkin writes about the presence of ‘foreign bodies’ in pregnant women, including slippery elm bark and uterine fibroids (UCL have an exhibition on this theme, open until July); at the Dittrick Museum, Brandy Schillace traces the emergence and disappearance of William Smellie’s 18th century birthing automaton (see also the story of another, chess-playing automaton); and, following the passing of Sir Robert Edwards (1925-2013), this 2010 article (free access) provides an interesting account of the hostile reception to his IVF research in the early 1970s.

Food stuffs and ingenious concoctions were also popular this month. At the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris discussed the Victorian hostility to masturbation, which led to the production of graham crackers and cornflakes, among other things! Thony Christie provided a lovely Roman recipe for stuffed dormouse delicately seasoned with fermented fish sauce, and also presented us with an account of Dr Thomas Moffet, a Paracelsian practitioner who recommended salt for a healthy sex life. Also at the Recipes Project, Tillmann Taape outlined the heavenly properties of super-distilled wine, and Ashley Buchanan looked at the secret medicines produced at the Medici court. From the concoctinghistory blog we got ancient recipes for soap, Rebecca Unsworth took us through the history and processes of producing a starched ruff, and Fiona Keates described the solid food and detestable coffee served at the Royal Society under Sir Joseph Banks.

A Ruff Made by Rebecca Unsworth Once Starched. Photo © Rebecca Unsworth, Courtesy of the School of Historical Dress.

Picturing, Measuring, and Exploring

Albert Einstein holding a puppet of Albert Einstein.

Images remain a popular subject in the history of science, and there were plenty of wonderful pictures to see in the blogosphere. At The H-Word, Rebekah Higgitt began a series on ‘Picturing Science’, exploring a range of paintings, caricatures and slides from the National Maritime Museum’s collections, whilst Vanessa Heggie recounted the physiological planning that went into flying over, and photographing, Mount Everest. Felicity Henderson considered Robert Hooke’s Micrographia – the first fully illustrated book of microscopy – and Nehemiah Grew’s Musaeum Regalis SocietisMike Rendell illustrated the varied career of an image based on Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden; Google honoured the illustrations of Maria Sibylla Merian; Keith Moore looked at blue lizards; Genotopia turned attention back to composite photography; John F. Ptak presented pictures of star clustersSt Andrews Special Collections and Paula Findlen discussed the work of Athanasius Kircher; and Albert Einstein held a puppet of himself (above right). At Scientific American, Clarissa Ai Ling Lee began a detailed study of the culture of scientific diagrams, beginning with examples from mathematics and physics.

The clocks went forward for British Summer Time, but the loss of sleep didn’t affect the Board of Longitude Project blog, where a constant stream of posts covered topics including: setting the date for Easter; timekeeping on the Bounty; and using earwax to fix quadrants. For those of us looking at the stars, there was Thony Christie on grumpy astronomers in the late 17th century, Alice Sage on star-gazing girls in the 18th century (see also these other great links about women in science), Imogen Clarke on early 20th century astronomical expeditions (and the split between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics), and Amy Shira Teitel on cosmonauts stranded in the Siberian forest. There were also stories of travel that included Edmond Halley on HMS Paramore, Charles Wilkes on the last great worldwide sailing expedition, Vincent Lunardi in a balloon, Albert Einstein sailing around in search of wisdom, and forensic biologists in search of Tycho Brahe’s nose. Finally, we also learned that Tom Lehrer (of ‘The Elements Song’ fame) turned 85 recently, that Michael Faraday occasionally failed, and that Sherlock Holmes was a great chemist.

The End

Phew! Well hopefully that should be enough reading to keep everyone busy for an hour or two. Thanks to Lisa Smith, Thony Christie and Rebekah Higgitt for all their suggestions, and thanks to you for visiting our website. Giants’ Shoulders #59 will return again on 16 May 2013 in… Something by Virtue of Nothing, a blog run by Kata Phusin ( You can send your suggestions directly to Kata, or to Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus.

7 responses to “The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme

  1. Silvia Camporesi

    Reblogged this on Humanities and Health.

  2. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #58 | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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