The Purging of English Cholera: The Anticontagionism vs. Contagionism Debate

During spring 1817, rumours floated towards the English that virulent form of cholera morbus was attacking British ports in India, and was heading towards Asia. This vicious nature of cholera was the first wave in a series of epidemics during the nineteenth century, and Europeans held their breath as the disease continued its journey, hitting Europe by 1827. Fears of the disease hitting England was well absorbed, as on September 15, 1830, Lord Heytesbury, Russian Ambassador, wrote to the Early of Aberdeen, His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, claiming that “the accounts of the progress of cholera morbus are now becoming rather alarming. It is making rapid advances towards Moscow…If the disease once reaches Moscow there can be little doubt that it will spread to St. Petersburg, Warsaw and hence into Germany…It appears to be of a very deadly nature and to have all the character of real Indian cholera.”[1] Nevertheless, the second wave was even more lethal than the first, and English citizens first felt the brunt of the disease during 1831-1832 as the epidemic hit the United Kingdom.  A third wave would follow during 1848-1849, a fourth, 1853-1854, a fifth 1866, before disappearing.

The magnitude of cholera’s impact was well known. Mainly helpless during the first English epidemic, during 1831-1832, English scholars, doctors, and members of government attempted to understand the nature and cause of the disease, in order to combat the affliction it provided. Between the years of 1845-1856, a stunning 700 works on cholera were published in London alone.[2] Introducing the battle against the disease, Frank Mort emphasizes that the “history of the disease is largely preserved within the narrative of the public health and other reform movements in early Victorian Britain. Health, housing, sanitation, the emergence of preventive medicine, the foundations of a national system of education, the reform of industrial conditions – these objects have formed the classic terrain for histories of government and public administration.”[3] Though the during the epidemic of 1831-1832, attention was mainly focused on living urban conditions, and the link of medicine to social factors in order to advocate sanitary reform, the 1840s were spent on focusing on the pathology and mode of communication of cholera itself. Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine explains that though the 1830s were dominated by the Reform Movements which led to unemployment, poverty, hunger and unrest, and placed Industrial England into unsanitary conditions, a pure contagious version of cholera nevertheless dominated the medical picture; the theory lost its ground to modified versions and non-contagion theories by the second and third epidemics. By the mid-1840s, an intense debate occurred between two parties intent on proving their explanation of cholera: the anticontagionists, and the contagionists.

Disagreements about pathology and cause resided within the contagionist camp, which explained pathological explanations by virtue of infectious agents, such as “viruses,” and the non-contagionist camps, which advocated miasma theories of atmospheric conditions as a cause of the disease. Vinten-Johnasen et al also classify the camps into “pure contagiosness” – contact (with infected skin), formities (e.g. infected bedding), and infection (“virus”) – and “pure non-contagiousness” – Sydenham’s theory of epidemic constitution (atmospheric changes/seasonal pressures), miasmas, and inhaling of poisons. Margaret Pelling also notes that during the Chadwickian period of public health, with Edwin Chadwick’s New Poor Law, historians note the conflict between the miasmatic theory of the sanitarians and what she calls the contagium virum theories as a sharp polarization upon which by the late 1840s, the sanitarians received victory. She argues that this story is not historically accurate, and attempts to destroy the simplicity of the account in Cholera, Fever and English Medicine 1825-1865 (though a very difficult and often confusing book). She presents the thesis denying the sharp polarization between the two camps, and rejects ideas that the contagionists were forebears of later germ theory and provided foundations for modern bacteriology, or that their theories—especially John Snow’s (1813-1858)—about cholera were ignored due to external and socio-political factors from the opposite camp. Rather, she argues that there were several theories of contagium virum, a subtlety picked up by Vinten-Johansen et al, as they note the development of the “contingent Contagionism” camp, and its initial London proponent, James Johnson.[4] The contingent Contagionism camps attempted to merge the problems of the contagionists and the anticontagionists, and merged favoured perspectives of both: from the miasmaists, the chemical curative agent for cholera resides from vegetable and animal matters, and from the contagionists, the transmission of infections and “virus” produced from sick bodies. The contingent contagionists also provided an environmental predisposition for cholera, arguing that crowded populations, concentrated filth were forbearers for the spread of cholera, and thus were also able to advocate sanitary reforms.

The contingent contagionists were widely perceived, and Vinten-Johansen et al provide other supporters of the theory, including E.O. Spooner, William Farr, Justus Leibig and John Snow. Since history grants John Snow credit for solving the transmission of cholera, or least setting the stage for later germ theory, Vinten-Johansen et al implies that based on Snow’s analogy between smallpox and cholera, he was a contingent Contagionism, though by fall 1848, he had changed his mind. Thus, merging his own view with the contingent contagionists, John Snow’s theory was widely received, and even led to governmental support in removing the handle from the Broad Street water pump. Pelling, on the other hand, denies initial success of Snow’s theory, and argues instead that there existed a delayed reception to both John Snow’s theory, and a similar proponent in William Budd’s version, which was mainly due to the lack of explanatory power of their hypothesis.


[1] Sandra Hemple, The Medical Detective: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera (London: Granta Books, 2006), p.9.

[2] Peter Vinten-Johansen, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Russell Rip. Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.166.

[3] Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830 (2nd Edition, Oct 2007).

[4] Vinten-Johansen, et al, Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow, p.178.


VISUALS & REPRESENTATIONS: Giant’s Shoulders #28


David Bressan discusses the value of scientific caricatures,especially those by English geologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855), in both revealing and teaching aspects of the history of geology.

The caricature by De la Beches of Charles Lyell as Prof. Ichthyosaurus on the pages of Francis Buckland's "Curiosities of Natural History" (1858).

Michael Barton also discusses cartoons and caricatures representing Darwin of evolution (in its various forms). He remarks on how evolution was used as a means to comment on society and culture and includes some fantastic cartoons in his post.

(Editorial) cartoons carry significant political meanings above all others–I’m reminded here of Punch’s (conservative) satirical humour on politics, which, in light of its more liberal counterparts, became a staple in drawing rooms.

I see an eye! Or a portal?!

Oh wait…it’s just the Helix Nebula. Make sure to check out the European Southern Observatory’s collection of Top 100 Images. They’re a must-see!

Speaking of stars, Robert W. Lebling has a phenomenal article on “Arabic in the Stars,” narrating three “waves of knowledge” that introduced Arabic-origin star names to the West:

  • The First Wave of medieval times, with the greatest number of Arabic star names, including the Ptolemaic corpus (150 ce), moving from al-Sufi (964 ce) to the astronomical compendium of Spain’s King Alfonso x.
  • The Second Wave of the late Renaissance, with most of the star names moving from the first printed edition of the works of Alfonso x (1483) and from the first printed edition of Ptolemy’s Almagest (Gerard’s 1175 Latin translation from Arabic, published in 1515) to Bayer’s Uranometria (1603).
  • The Third Wave of the 19th century, with most of the star names transmitted from al-Sufi to Ulugh Beg’s star list to Hyde’s translation (1665) to Piazzi’s Palermo star catalogue (1803).
Betelgeuse, in the constellation Orion, comes from an Arabic original whose first letter was inadvertantly changed by a 13th-century astronomer.

What a treat for your eyes: Part I of a Visual Chronology of Cosmologies

I adore John Lynch’s slides from his History of Science II (since 1700s) undergraduate course–they are so visually stimulating! Here’s the slides for his first lecture, “Revolution and Change in Science.” You can view the slides for his other lectures as well.

Talk about an identity crisis: In 1873, British anatomist Richard Owen described the Palorchestes as a very large kangaroo. Owen’s categorization held the standard until the 1970s, when the revised interpretation of the Palorchestes structured it as a large wombat:

Four views of Palorchestes: as a kangaroo, a pseudo-okapi, a “marsupial tapir”, and a “marsupial ground sloth.” Drawn from original sources by Greg Luker and included in Mackness, 2008

Also: Joanna Ebenstein (Morbid Anatomy) talks about how we can use the feelings an object or a collection of objects evoke to make the museum visit a personal and interesting journey; in other words, how do raise the “curious levels” of exhibits to draw in audiences?

A famous representation of a great vision: the DNA double-helix as visioned during the Tour de Francis.

How to steer a hurricane.


Bressan also provides another great post on forensic entomology and the depictions of these creatures in the middle ages as representing the sins of the dead.

Extending on my post on Hairy Women and Naked Truths, Homunculus Argument shares some thoughts of hisresearch on migratory legends and sexual motifs in images of wild men and wild women, and the meanings these images carried for sex, power, and prophecy.

A pure iconographic ornament: what goes on inside a dissection theater as mortal bodies and immortal souls are cut apart on the table for peering eyes? For that matter, why are the skeletons of Adam and Eve even in the theater?



Engraving by WiIllem Swanenburgh, 1616 (after the painting by J.C. Woudanus)

The wild and eerie Victorian world of Walter Potter! Morbid Anatomy previewed The Museum of Everything’s “Exhibition #3”, “a carnivalesque spree exploring all things collectory, side-show, circus, grotto, and taxidermological.” Totally fitting for October’s Giant’s Shoulders and other creepy and gruesome themes characteristic of..gasp!…Halloween!

Dear Dr. Skyskull, I apologize for this.

On a more gruesome–but medically fascinating–note…Here’s a case of “Inguinal hernia” of “69 years standing.” Beware: the image is not for the queasy.

Also not for the queasy (all from Morbid Anatomy):

  • bodies in jars. Images “Bocal I” and “Bocal II”, by Ludovic Levasseur, drypoint, 20th C.
  • Burns Archives: pictures of Irish patients from the 1870s pre and post-operation.
  • Birth and Resurrection in photos: based on an exhibit,“Memento Mori: The Birth and Resurrection of Postmortem Photography

Beautiful anatomical illustrations from Edo-period Japan (1603-1868). It’s incredible how colorful and richly detailed these drawings are and how the level of medical knowledge of bodies has changed over time.

Restoring sex power: Radioactive suppository sex aids & radium toothpaste for shining lethal nonsense. Seriously.



Shoebox letters for Magic Foot Drafts. This is awesome; the Quack Doctor blogged about Magic Foot Drafts, a remedy for rheumatism that required the patient to stick pine-tar-coated oilcloth plasters to the soles of their feet. One of the blog readers ran across the post while researching information for her grandfather’s collection of letters and then sent the letter to the Quack Doctor. What a historical find!

Thony C finally gives us an explanation of where (his) pictures come from, while narrating a brief history of the relationship between artistic representation and scientific illustration within developments made in print technologies.

Part one of The Munsterberg Connection: An examination of Hugo Munsterberg ‘s (1863-1916) ideas about psychology.

A biography of this guy:

Gauss Who? (terrible, I know!)

Also, who is Albert Einstein? (Really? How can you NOT know?!) *Blank face*

Come know who this is...

What did Darwin think about group selection? And Darwinius strikes back!!

But is Russell Crowe getting tired of donning gladiator armor? Who cares when it’s so fitting for his physique–here’s Michael Robinson’s teaser into his article on the Two Visions of Mars.

The “Disneyfication” of Wildlife films. No, it’s not about animating animals so they all look like Bambi.


Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flying shenanigans! As a member of the Royal Society, Franklin would have been obliged to publish in the Philosophical Transactions. Dr. Skyskull examines Franklin’s published accounts of his experiments with electricity.

From Natural Philosophy for Common and High Schools (1881) by Le Roy C. Cooley (source).

Does having fancy, shiny tools help the surgeon’s mood—or is cleanliness next to happiness? JF Ptak examines this strange relationship in “Ennui and Renaissance Surgical Tools”


A physician with things on/not on his mind, from Andrew Borde's The Breuiary of Healthe, for all maner of syknesses and diseases..." (1556)

Christopher Donohue discusses technological determinism and scientific reasoning within French philosopher Jacques’ Ellul’s Technique, in which technology has “defined the superstructure of contemporary society. A thought-proving blog on the theoretical elements of the history of technological determinism as discussed by great thinkers such as Leslie White and Lewis Mumford, among others. Donohue also has another great post on the various developing enterprises of “environmental determinism” in the 20th century foundation of the discipline of human geography.

Cartoons again! Is the image of the astronomer represented with a telescope out of (historical) style? Rebekah Higgitt examines how humor in print and cartoons portray a completely different picture of astronomers.

More on astronomy: a study by Professor Ray Norris, an astronomer for Australia’s science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO), reveals that Australian aborigines were the “world’s first astronomers.”

Newton’s early years playing with magic alchemy, or “Moonlighting as a Conjurer of Chemicals.”

Remember Futurama? The quirky offspring of Matt Groening, creator of The Simposons? Well, the show had a lot of futuristic technology that combined just the right elements of “sci-fi wit and humor.” Here we have the Top 10 “Futurama” inventions that should be real.
*Sorry fellow Canadians, but not all the videos are available for viewing. Or at least in Toronto. Maybe you Vancouver folks would have better luck.



British animal activism and legislation dates back as early as 1875. Guest blogger Eric Michael Johnson narrates how Charles Darwin was both a supporter of experimental physiology and against animal cruelty (especially vivisection).

The Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876

Relatively unknown texts written by those hiding in the shadows of giants can provide us with interesting sources for knowledge of 18th century experimental philosophy.  Alberto Vanzo narrates the views of Christian Wolff, a famous German philosopher, and explains Wolff’s knowledge of British experimental philosophy, especially against the views of Newton.

I still count with my fingers! But apparently Albert of Saxony wrote about the possibility of squaring the circle, in a little treatise called Quaestio de quadratura circuli (1350).

What does it take to discover a new particle? Read about the history of the neutrino.

A great piece by Boaz Miller on the science and politics of daylight savings time in Israel.

A satire: If you’re an STS scholar, how do you participate in a policy debate? Will Thomas discusses institutionalist studies and STS and examines how participation in public policy debates can lead to confusion–if not frustration–with the history of science.


Michael Barton over at The Dispersals of Darwin has compiled a “What’s New” on Darwin Online. Some of these were added to The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online and are useful teaching tools as well—I’ve actually recommended this site to my students in a course on the history of evolutionary biology.

NEW WEBSITE! Most Horrible & Shocking Murders: Murder pamphlets in the collection of the National Library of Medicine. Includes a selection of murder pamphlets from the late 1600s to the late 1800s.

Also, if you need a new reading list: The Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences series 4, v.61, supplement II has several articles on Darwin and the Galapagos. Also, the Journal for General Philosophy of Science vol.41, no.1 (June 2010) focuses on Darwin as well: “Darwinism and Scientific Practice in Historical Perspective). And one more: A recent PhD dissertation, by Alistair Sponsel, now with the Darwin Correspondence Project’s office at Harvard: Coral reef formation and the sciences of earth, life, and sea, c. 1770-1952 (Princeton University, 2009, 498pgs).

In or near NC State University? Be sure to check out evolutionary biologist Will Kimler talk about “Images of Darwin and the Nature of Science.” Bonus: Free pizza!

In or near University of Toronto? Aaron from “False Vacuum” is organizing a workshop on “Visual Representation in Science” (my heart just skipped a beat) with speakers Brian Baigrie (UoT), Bernie Lightman (York), Natasha Myers (York), Alison Syme (UoT), and Aaron himself. Drop Aaron an email if you’re interested in attending.

CALL FOR PAPERS!!!!! I’m organizing the 7th annual HAPSAT conference, “The Regimen of Bodily Health: Nutrition and Natural Knowledge” with Prof. Steven Shapin as the keynote. It’s going to be a fantastic conference, so if you’re a graduate student, be sure to send in submissions by December 1. Or if you just want to attend the conference, let me know so I can make sure you get an email when registration is open.


Many thanks to everyone who sent in their posts–especially “serial commentator” Thony C! More thanks to Thony and Dr. Skyskull for their support. I enjoyed hosting my first carnival and look forward to doing it again in the future. For now, there’s only two more (!) Giant’s Shoulders for 2010. For November’s edition,Egil Asprem will be hosting an Esoteric Science special at Heterodoxology. As usual, send over your posts directly to Egil, or through the  Blog Carnival site. The chosen theme is explained as:

“To the layman, the natural sciences have become increasingly “esoteric” in the sense of being hard to access and difficult to understand. Throughout its history, science has been esoteric in other senses as well, connected with attempts to unravel the secrets of the book of nature, the understanding of occult properties and forces, and the quest for absolute, higher knowledge. This edition of Giants’ Shoulders is dedicated to all those esoteric pursuits of knowledge; a celebration of all strange, alien, and counterintuitive methods that have been attempted to dissect, read, or tame nature’s secrets, from renaissance natural philosophy to present-day Grand Unified Theories – whether cleverly inventive, hopelessly megalomaniac, or simply misguided.”

Happy blogging!

18th Century Medical Experts and Medical Expertise

A brief overview of three fantastic historical papers on eighteenth century expertise and experts:

Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific Expertise, Common Sense and Moral Authority in Early Eighteenth-Century Dietetic Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77(2): 263-297.

What gives a physician his expertise, and how does one trust that expertise? Shapin addresses this issue, by focusing on eighteenth century dietetics, an area that encompassed common sense, and yet was an aspect of medical authority; for Shapin, George Cheyne is a prime example of medical authority of the common culture between patients and physicians. Early modern dietetics and therapeutic self-knowledge was a result from habit and constitution; one became an expert on his own body merely through trial and error. This of course, derived from the ancient “Rule of Celsus,” whereby “a man in health, who is both vigorous and his own master, should be under no obligatory rules, and have no need, either for a medical attendant or for a rubber and anointer. His kind of life should afford him variety.” Dietetics was essentially management of the non-naturals, and the common culture between physicians and patients gave physicians authority, but only as long as their advice counted as common sense. This cultural sharing also undermined medical expert authority, a problem which did not change until the emergence of the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, Boyle, and Newton, which emphasized the invisible corpuscles. Shapin argues that this new philosophy led to new grounds of medical expertise (iatromechanism), as physicians spoke their authority from the invisible realm, and promoted the maintenance of health, the cure of disease, and the prolongation of human life, which was factored in Cheyne’s works. A fashionable physician, Cheyne was acclaimed for his dietetics, particularly his “lowering” diet, which emphasized moderation in food and drink, and advocated vegetarianism (especially his weird milk-and-seed diet). As an expert of authority, Cheyne counselled many members of high society, and a large number of letters survive from his correspondence with Samuel Richardson, and Selina, countess of Huntingdon, which are the case studies Shapin focuses on during the third half of his paper. Cheyne was a trusted physician, not only due to his expertise and knowledge of the invisible world, but because he was a patient of his dietetics as well, an aspect which became a strategy in gaining a patient’s trust.

Shapin’s paper wraps up by analyzing two kinds of experts: the prudential, who bases his expertise based on an accumulation of experience, and whose judgements are informed by those experiences, and the ontological, whose authority is derived from the possession of a special kind of knowledge. Of course, we see instances whereby the polarization is diffused, but it seems that the ontological expertise may distance the patient, due to lack of trust – why should the patient trust the physician, especially in cases where the physician’s advice seems contrary to common sense (think of being given antibiotics and being told that this will make you feel better)?

Andrea Rusnock, “The Weight of Evidence and the Burden of Authority: Case Histories, Medical Statistics and Smallpox Inoculation” in Roy Porter, Medicine in the Enlightenment (Rodopi, 1995), pp.289-315.

One of the chief architects of the use of statistics into medicine was the physician James Jurin, who sought to quantify the benefits of smallpox inoculation, by collecting and evaluating case studies through correspondence. Jurin’s numerical rations eventually became a feature of expertise, through the accuracy and trustworthiness of testimonies. The first step in Jurin’s statistical research was to establish a correspondence network, which in turn, presented complete, faithful and accurate case histories of cases of smallpox inoculation (to be compared with cases with natural exposure to smallpox, or cases without inoculation); it was the details, and Jurin’s questioning character, which presented accurate information for him to analyze. Any odd cases of inoculation were privy to Jurin’s judgement, as he challenged cases that did not fit with his research. Jurin also downplayed difficult cases (such as if the inoculation did not lead to a case of smallpox) by reducing the variety of inoculation experiences to a limited number of categories for statistical analysis. The individual case histories became powerful tools for convincing others, and at the same time, they questioned the validity of authority and trustworthiness (e.g. how do we regard the case histories as accurate information?). Rusnock points out that although many agreed with Jurin’s application of a numerical approach to medicine, many in turn questioned the validity of his correspondence research, particularly in regards to the use of inoculation.

Rusnock notes that only the healthy and wealthy were inoculated, while most deaths attributed to smallpox were recorded among the poor. How does one advocate the numerical approach when there are obvious demographic constraints to the research? Does this in any way deter the validity of the statistical approach for providing medical authority?

Roy Porter, “Consumption: Disease of the Consumer Society?” in John Brewer & Roy Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1994), pp.58-81.

“Did the wealth of nations secure the health of nations?” The paradox of health and wealth was captured by early modern economists, who viewed the wealth of the nation not in measure of dollars, but by “money in motion,” the labor and consuming populations. Placing the body politic upon the body human, “high living” became a means for preventive medicine, a way to ward off the diseases in an age where hunger stalked the land. Essentially, the health of the people was defined by the consumption of rich food and drinks, which in turn, reflected the wealth of the nation. However, as the experience of George Cheyne demonstrates, high living erodes health, as Cheyne’s diet and obesity led him to question the relationship between civilization and health; he argued that despite England’s increase in wealth, a large portion of her people became vulnerable to the “English Malady,” which was a result not just of the high living, but the disproportioned spread of wealth. Further, Porter outlines three features that allowed Cheyne to become such an authoritative figure: Cheyne set himself up as a dietary apostle, challenged the popular “high diet,” and he advanced a lifestyle designed to refine the grossness of waste by “lightness” of the body. In the second part of his essay, Porter argues that the consumer revolution led doctors to judge the new consumption patterns as threatening to health, as the consumption factors led to deeper pathological forms contrary to the advice set out by Cheyne. Thomas Beddoes was a foremost critique to the light and lowering diet arguing that the rise of chronic diseases was not due to any dietary factor, but rather the result or the new snobbish aspirations to sensibility. Propriety and the fashionable created a deficit (as opposed to Cheyne’s excess) of health, as the body was disregarded for a sort of “fetishism of culture.”

Mind & Body: The Philosopher’s Body as a Subject

I’ve been doing a lot of (re-)reading lately on ideas of the body and the embodiment of  knowledge on the body–mainly because I was aiming for some background reading as I prepared the CFP for the 2011  HAPSAT Conference. Some of these were based on reading summaries I prepared for Prof. Lucia Dacome’s “Body and Medicine in Early Modern Europe” course at IHPST. So if you’re tired of these article summaries, please let me know!

Article Summaries:

Paula Findlen, “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy” in The Faces of Nature in Enlightment Europe (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003), pp. 211-236.

Simon Schaffer, “Regeneration: The Body of Natural Philosophers in Restoration England” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1998), pp.83-120.

The philosopher’s mind in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often perceived in close relation with his body. Could there be a separation between the ideas of the mind and carnal knowledge associated with the body? Could knowing bodily secrets hold the key to philosopher’s knowledge and its interpretations in the mind? Paula Findlen and Simon Schaffer bring these issues into light, Findlen narrating the story of eighteenth century Bologna’s “Virgin Doctor,” Laura Bassi, and Schaffer presenting perspectives on regeneration within the Royal Society in Restoration England. Both Findlen and Schaffer analyze the ways in which natural philosopher’s knowledge and integrity is explored through perspectives of their body and bodily functions.

Findlen tells us that eighteenth century fascination with Laura Bassi was not only due to her role as one of the first female graduate of the University of Bologna and its most celebrated professor, but rather due to Bassi’s merging of two distinct types of knowledge: scientific knowledge associated with the philosopher, and carnal knowledge of the woman’s body. Prior to her marriage to Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was perceived as a virginal icon of knowledge, dedicated to the glory of the city as its Minerva. Successfully defending forty-nine theses by the time she was twenty years old, Bassi was highly regarded as an intellectual as much as a woman, especially within the cultural movement of “modern conversations.” During the 1730s, Bassi continuously tested her intellectual mettle within public settings, often engaging in discourses with scholarly men, sparking rumours sexual misbehaviour within the groups. Continuous jokes and satire circulated within the city, since as Findlen explains, Bassi’s high intellect embodied a masculine state of mind, which her body was expected to reflect. Bassi’s mixed reputation – as a philosopher, and a sexual woman – often centered her in city gossip, alluding damage to her reputation; public perspectives of Bassi’s closest supporters were often viewed as her lovers, or at least admirers (e.g. Zanotti, Beccari, Bianchi).

There was as much interest in Bassi’s sexual life, if not more, as in her choice to focus on modern issues of Newtonian philosophy and physics, rather than restricting herself to ancient texts. Findlen argues that the extreme interest in Bassi’s body essentially was due to the fact that Bassi’s body was distinctively a female one, and it embodied potential for a maternal image of knowledge. The possibility that Bassi could be the new Galatea – a woman shaped and molded by men – also caused problems for her reputation, and reminded the public that Bassi’s mind simply could not be separated from her body. Despite being an object of envy and ridicule, Bassi eventually provided a solution of the problem of her female body: she decided to take charge of her own sexuality, restricting it to the boundaries of marriage in order to remove it from public scandal. She believed this to be the only way to ensure her reputation and allow her to teach in public. Bolognese citizens, however, were shocked at her decision, for many expected her to maintain the image of the virginal Minerva. As Findlen argues, “Once a man had dominion over her body, what would happen to her mind?” Nevertheless, Bassi eventually gave birth to eight children, and taught a successful physics course in her home, though her frequent pregnancies continued to remind males of her differences.  The plain awareness of her sexual difference is also reflected in debates as to whether Bassi was allowed to join the Academy of the Institute of Sciences (she did, in 1734). Bassi is a reflection of one of the rare women who succeeded, though the distinction between her mind and body never really disappeared.

Schaffer on the other hand, examines the close relation between instrumental use of the body, and traditions of “magical, religious and symbolic action.” He provides three instances upon which the idealized philosopher’s body was used, or viewed, for scientific experiments by the Royal Society in Restoration England: the blind Jan Vermassen, who could discriminate colors by touch, the sheep’s blood transfusion into Arthur Coga, and “stroker” Valentine Greatrakes’ miraculous cures. The Royal Society (especially Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle) emphasized the exploration beyond bodily limits of knowledge; the use of instruments – e.g. the eyeglasses, the microscope – could expand the frontiers upon which knowledge was obtained. The idea that formulated was whether through the body politic, the regeneration of bodies could be possible through natural or spiritual powers, in order to distance the world of refined bodies (and thus reliable facts) from the grotesque. Schaffer provides the example of the “royal touch,” which presented the monarch as the spiritual healer of the nation’s wounds and the embodiment of its restored health. The royal touch to cure King’s evil, an old tradition that emphasizes the idea that the king’s touch could cure King’s Evil, a disease known as scrofula, which caused hideous boils. Thousands knelt before Charles’ I, and each time he did so, he demonstrated his divine right to rule. After the Commonwealth, Charles II continued the practice – though it was also illegal for anyone else to claim cure for the disease. The insecurity of the monarch and elaborate processions towards the use of the royal touch seemed to remind him of the clear contrast between angelic and monstrous bodies, a gesture that carried implications upon natural philosophy within the idea of regeneration.

Vermassen’s case raised a philosophical debate of whether “color” was confined to the body, igniting questions between real colors inherent in bodies, and imaginary ones (e.g. Descartes). Boyle and Descartes denied this distinction, and Boyle himself argued that different bodily states produce different colors, demonstrating that bodily sensations could not reliably be trusted. He emphasized the use of instruments as a way of perfecting the human fallacies in order to restore man to Eden. Thus, following Boyle, to test on one’s own senses became a moral duty of the natural philosopher, and is demonstrated by Coga’s transfusion with sheep’s blood. Schaffer argues that like optical and philosopher’s instruments, the idea of transfusion was perceived by seventeenth century natural scientists as a way of restoring prelapsarian man’s perfection, by reversing some of the Fall’s effects. Experimental philosophy also subjected itself to human conditions, using the saint as a subject. The idea of regeneration was also spread to debate about the roles of mundane bodies and divine spirits, as with continuous observations and experiments on Greatreakes’ hands, which were believed to exhibit some divine conditions, or at least a divine spirit in Greatreakes’ body.

Both Schaffer and Findlen’s arguments presents a historical picture upon which ideas about the body were closely tied to ideas of the mind, even within natural philosophers themselves, representing idealized beliefs about the process in obtaining knowledge. What we receive from their arguments is that social meanings of bodily techniques often is reflected in the philosopher’s use of representation of the body – knowing the body reflects the mind’s status, the philosopher can thus use it to explore and expand knowledge itself.

Article Summary: Harold Cook, “Time’s Bodies: Crafting the Preparation and Preservation of Naturalia.”

Harold Cook, “Time’s Bodies: Crafting the Preparation and Preservation of Naturalia,” in Merchants and  Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge 2002).

Harold Cook’s (Brown University) article takes place in sixteenth and seventeenth Netherlands, and ties together the market economy and its capital investments, with an increase in naturalia. The financial world of society, dependent on economy and commerce, included methods of accumulation, preservation, and calculation of future value that was necessary for the merchant’s benefits. Investments, as well, not only reflected the stability of market economy and society, but also spilled over to intellectual culture, as an increase in wealth led to an increase in travel, voyages, and collection of “curiosities.”

As a steady trade in naturalia developed, so did notions of preservation of inventory, as collectors and merchants strived to preserve time to maintain the shape of their collected specimens. Drying only went so far, as collectors were only able to see the shapes and forms, and not so much the inner structures of their collections. A need for new methods of preservation was required, especially for those who were interested in investigating the inner structures of the (human) body, and those interested in the prolongation of life for forestalling time’s natural processes for further study. Since seventeenth century methods of preservation were viewed as miraculous, Cook describes the motivations and processes developed in the Netherlands for preserving a lifelike body. Louis de Bils, one of the first to figure the secret of “balsamising,” preserved dead human bodies to maintain their lifelike form, by looking at examples from mummified Egyptian bodies. While the Egyptians only preserved the external form of the body, de Bils developed methods of preservation that held the whole body in a lifelike manner, through a long and complicated process. Yet although he received initial support, de Bils eventually faced hostility from others, including Van Horne, who raised the fraudulent possibility of de Bils’ work. As de Bils’ method of preservation was valuable, he closely guarded his secret, eventually selling it to Van Gutsochoven. Nevertheless, de Bils died before his methods could be fully explained, and others had to either guess or experiment with the means themselves.

Jan Swammerdam, for one, experimented with different preservatives and injections, and Dr. Hubertus of Leiden experimented with oil of turpentine. These experiments and the work of de Bils spread through Europe, even reaching and exciting Robert Boyle and other members of the Royal Society of London. The key importance of methods of preservation was its ability to allow development of other techniques of anatomical investigations, even to inspect and study individual organs before they decayed. The need for preservation then, represented not only a cultural need to preserve trinkets and collections from voyages of discoveries, but to also preserve knowledge itself; for the sake of future generation, knowledge, through curiosities and investments, through bodies and organs, was captured and maintained in its form, a method that reflects the process of capturing time.