Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization.[1] Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.[2]

To what extent did sciences of the time shape the representation and structuring of the knowledge on offer at the exhibition? An especially interesting site at which to study such effects are the Indian courts at this world fair, embedded as they were, in the spatial, taxonomical, and textual frameworks of contemporary science, while also leading to substantial transformations in British knowledge about India. Continue reading “Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851”

‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire

Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.”[1] Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home. Continue reading “‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire”

The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology

How does an expert transmit expertise? What genres of scientific writing are available for doing so? Does the choice of genre matter in the long run? In this essay, I approach these questions by comparing two monographs published in the mid 1940s in the field of microbiology. While the works shared a concern with life at its smallest, they were written in different genres. One, entitled L’évolution physiologique: étude des pertes de fonctions chez les microorganismes, was a general survey of research on microbial nutrition.[1] The other, called Pure Cultures of Algae: Their Preparation and Maintenance, was a manual of techniques for cultivating microscopic algae in test tubes.[2] Continue reading “The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology”

Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science

When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country? Continue reading “Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science”

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology—from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE. Continue reading “Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy”

Taking Human Genetics Digital: ‘Mendelian Inheritance in Man’ and the Genealogy of Electronic Publishing in Biomedicine

As of my writing on April 12, 2018, there are 24,506 known or suspected human genes out of roughly 3 billion base pairs in the reference sequence of the human genome.[1] While the bulk of these were identified during the course of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which ran from 1990–2003, a majority of the 5,000 or so with a well-characterized clinical phenotype—a genetic trait visible in human anatomy and physiology with consequences for human disease manifest above the cellular level—were cataloged beginning in the 1960s, long before genetic sequencing was possible. Medical geneticists worked to identify heritable traits in study populations that manifested unambiguously in family lineages. They set up clinics around the world and established sections in academic hospitals.[2] In a discipline that was still marginal to mainstream medicine and tainted by its incomplete severance from eugenics, breaking apart old categories and multiplying new ones became a legitimation strategy, one that required physicians and counselors across the country to be on the same page. Continue reading “Taking Human Genetics Digital: ‘Mendelian Inheritance in Man’ and the Genealogy of Electronic Publishing in Biomedicine”