History Carnival: People, Places, and Points in Time

So pleased to host an edition of the History Carnival! Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations as well as promoted the tweet asking for nominations. And I also apologize if this is being posted quite late in the day—I failed to realize December 1st fell on a Wednesday, which is my busiest day of the week.

Without further ado—enjoy this month’s History Carnival, a collection of fantastic posts from November: People, Places, and Points in Time!


Let’s start with This Day in History, as History Traven tells it: It was December 1, 1955 when seamstress Rosa Park refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. Her courageous defiance sparked a 381-day boycott of the busing system, led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. We should all remember that acts of civil disobedience are sometimes necessary to stand up to injustice.

On that note, let’s also tribute to the Danish pianist and humorist Victor Borge:

And now, in honour of the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, I would like to play “Clear the Saloon”, er, “Clair de Lune”, by Debussy. I don’t play Beethoven so well, but I play Debussy very badly, and Beethoven would have liked that.

Another significance on this date in 1539: Don Carlos Ometochtzin, an Aztec heretic was burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition for reverting to the pre-Columbian indigenous religion.

Science, as we know, is full of competing ideas. Thony C. describes how Galileo bluffed about the battle of the ‘two world systems’ of Ptolemy and Copernicus, when in fact there were seven different theories fighting for the “cosmic championship:” Copernican heliocentricity, Ptolemaic geocentricity, Gilbertian geocentricity with diurnal rotation, Tychonic geo-heliocentricity, Ursian geo- heliocentricity with diurnal rotation, the Heracleidian model and last but anything but least Kepler’s elliptical heliocentricity. All of these models had their own supporters during the 17th century.

Michael Robinson reviews a post by explorer Mikael Strandberg about Academics vs. Explorers :

The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Rethinking Newton Again?  Rebekah Higgitt questions how popular media interest in Newton has narrowed its focus to Newton’s dabbling in alchemy and prophecy, revealing these interests as a “surprising and novel revelation.” The real issue, she remarks, is not about Newton’s involvement with alchemy,

but the on-going efforts at transcribing Newton’s archive, which demonstrates just how much and for how long alchemy/chymistry was among Newton’s major activities, and the scholarship of Newman and others, which has shown jthat it was part of the intellectual scenery of the time. The news is that although Newton is a familiar name and a hero of modern science, the world he lived in and the ways he – and his contemporaries – thought are, by and large, very unfamiliar to us today…

…I don’t blame Newman and other scholars for using the media to their advantage. But what does our apparent inability to take on board Newton’s so-called ‘dark secrets’ – and to move on from the apparently constant need to re-reveal Newton’s interest in alchemy – say about us?

A letter from US Sgt Sam Avery, written from the new AEF training center at Neufchateau, France offers a glimpse of life while preparing to enter the lines on the Western Front during the Great War.

J.S. Plaskett (1865-1941) was a Canadian astronomer known for his design of the 72-inch long reflecting telescope (since dubbed the “Plaskett Telescope”) at the Victoria Dominion Astronomical Observatory, in Victoria, BC. But he also designed other “lowly” instruments, including a resistance box.

And finally, in 1641, London physician Thomas Sherwood wrote a book of cures for the plague. One such cure he suggested was “the puppy cure:”

If any that are ancient or weak shall be infected with the pestilence, it shall not be necessary to give them any purge, vomit, or sweat, or to let them bleed; because they cannot bare the loss of so many spirits as are spent by such evacuations. Therefore you may lay upon the pit of the stomach of the sick a young live puppy, and if the sick can but sleep the space of three or four hours, they shall recover presently, and the dog shall die of the plague. This I have known approved; and I do believe that it will be a cure for all lean, spare, and weak bodies both young and old: provided, that the dog be younger then the sick.

Poor puppies!


The 7 Most Advanced Ancient Civilizations in the World: this post offers an overview of some of the most incredible advances of the ancient world including medical knowledge and gender equality in ancient Egypt, sophisticated transportation from the Incas and and trail-blazing inventions in ancient China.

A town that went mad: Pont St. Esprit is a small town in southern France and in 1951 it became famous as the site of one of the most mysterious medical outbreaks of modern times.

Speaking some more about madness, Broadmoor Hospital (est. 1863) still maintains a celebrity status as the Victorian asylum for “criminal lunatics.” The institution can boast housing Edward Oxford, attempted assassinator of Queen Victoria, William Chester Minor, US army surgeon and murderer (and contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary), and Peter Sutcliffe, aka the “Yorkshire Ripper.”

Equindia, or a history of the trade of horses in India.

On the moon: Lunar Lost and Found, or the rediscovery of the rover and its retroreflector and how it will improve the precision of laser ranging experiments.


Today is also world AIDS day. The Wellcome Library published a selection of AIDS posters, based on its collection of AIDS posters, the fourth largest in the world. The posters range from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Emphasizing the power of images, these posters

contain many of the highly recognisable visual symbols that we have come to associate with the battle against AIDS: the red ribbon, the AIDS Quilt, and the imagery of HIV-positive artist Keith Haring, as well as reminders that the fight against AIDS has also often involved controversy.

Romeo Vitelli writes a great post on the Battle of Solferino on July 24, 1859, which became largely unexpected and chaotic and spread over fifteen kilometers. An eyewitness described the battle:

the unending combat rages incessantly and in every place with fury.  Nothing stops, nothing interrupts the butchery.  They are killing one another by the hundreds… A rain of cannon balls is sending death to the distant reserves of Austria.  Their ranks are ceaselessly reforming….The French cavalry flings itself on the Austrian cavalry…The rage is so great that in some places after the exhaustion of the cartridges and the breaking of the muskets, they fight with fists and beat one another with stones

An humorous article examining the Industrial Revolution from a gamer’s point of view.

General history gives us two posts, one on the British Intelligent Services and another on the American Civil War.

Also, there’s a great series of posts on heraldry and chivalry in the Middle Ages.

Where does the history of agriculture fit in our historical discourse? Will Thomas gives us a survey on the literature on Agricultural Research to 1945.

Finally, I would like to end this carnival with two thought-provoking posts from The Bubble Chamber on how the history and philosophy of science can engage with more modern debates on the role of science and policy making. In his post “On the Shop Floor,” Matthew Wallace writes:

One could even argue that the raison d’être of modern science policy lies in the realization that science itself does not operate as an isolated endeavour—it’s too important to be run only by practicing scientists. But can we say something more specific about what ties the history of science and science policy in the making? I hope to put forth a few partial suggestions to help answer this question or, at the very least, provide some food for thought.

He contends that there has been little thought or discussion given to how knowledge and skills from the history of science can be directly transferred to science policy, stating that

there is also much to be gained from both a better sociological or historical understanding of the science policy process, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of how the history of science as a discipline can be used on the policy “shop floor”.

And Curtis Forbes asks us to wonder whatever happened to the Science Wars? Once a great battle over boundary lines in interdisciplinary studies, has the war merely died out? Or did it migrate and evolve into newer forms of scientific explanation, even propaganda?

So thank you, Dear Reader! I hope you enjoyed this edition of History Carnival! Keep an eye out on the carnival website for announcements about 2011 hosts. In the meantime, feel free to submit nominations to the carnival using the nomination form on the website.

Happy reading!

Online: Sir Hans Sloane

As I’m finishing off a round of grading, re-writing a paper for publication, and planning the HAPSAT conference, I’m trying to find time to dig around for archival sources for my upcoming research trip to London. The National Archives can sometimes be difficult to maneuver, which is why I really appreciate efforts to catalog and organize historical correspondence for online access.

Having said that, I’ll like to thank a good friend for directing my attention to the launch of Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online. The pilot website provides access to the letters of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), famous physician, scientist and collector. Sloane’s letters cover a wide range of topics, such as science, travel, collecting and medicine, and provides another glimpse into the British historical past.

As it is now, the website is a repository for navigating through the Sloane correspondence, which is held at the British Library. Letter descriptions, transcripts, and commentaries are expected to follow on the website as they are added to the database.

So dear Reader, here’s another rich and valuable historical source for you! Happy reading!

History Carnival

With all the chaos in my life right now, I completely forgot to mention I’m hosting the next edition of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of blog writing about history. I’m SO sorry!

If you have a great historical piece to nominate, please send me an email or use the nomination form on the site.

Happy history reading!

UTSIC Website Active!

I’m pleased to announce that the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection Website is now active! The first post is an essay, “A Short History of the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, written by Erich Weidenhammer (IHPST, University of Toronto) & Michael Da Silva (University of Toronto Faculty of Law). The post is a reprint of the original article, published in the “Opinions” section of Spontaneous Generations vol 4, no.1 (2010) 255-261.

UTSIC has lots planned for contextualizing the various instruments in the collection and breathing life into their stories (of the historical past). Posts on the homepage will provide a narrative overlay about the UTSIC collection, the instruments, as well as the institutional history of science and technology at the University of Toronto.


Book Review: Janet Browne, “Charles Darwin: Voyaging” (1995)

I just recommended this book for a student who was interested in comparing another Darwin biography with Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1994). I then remembered writing a review of Browne’s book for a class on ‘Historiography in History and Philosophy of Science’ a few years ago and how much I liked her writing; I then thought I’d share my review with you, Dear Reader!

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), xiii + 547pp.

Janet Browne is currently the Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. After receiving her PhD in the history of science from Imperial College London, much of her research has been focused on Charles Darwin and his work. For eight years, she was formerly the associate editor of the multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin, which allowed her to study more than 14,000 letters from Darwin and his networks. This project builds the foundation for Browne’s biography of Darwin.

Voyaging is the first volume of Browne’s two-part biography on Darwin, following him from his birth to the 1850s, as he develops and tunes his scientific ideas on species adaptation and natural selection. The second volume, The Power of Place, traces Darwin’s struggle to finish the Origin of Species, the resulting revolution and controversy that followed its publication, and Darwin’s eventual status as a celebrity scientist.

Like other biographies that followed the centenary of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, Browne combines biography and cultural history to weave a profile of Darwin within the ethos of Victorian England; she even states that her book might as well been called Darwin: Another Biography. Drawing upon her work with the Darwin correspondence, including rare archival material, Browne constructs a collective biography that merges the social, intellectual, and political networks of the Victorian scientific community, and Darwin’s place in it. This biography does more than just outline the development of Darwin’s scientific ideas and the resulting fame. In order to provide a full assessment of Darwin’s profile, Browne declares that Darwin’s story is the story of the era: “of the different ways in which a man could emerge as a profound thinker in Victorian Britain, of the way that someone could take up and turn around the assumptions of the age and become a hero for doing so. It is the story of the transformation, in a particular time and place, of an amiable but rather aimless young man into a scientific giant whose intellectual heights have scarcely ever been rivaled” (xiii)” In short, Browne wants to argue that the science known as Darwinism—that is, evolution by means of natural selection—was made by Darwin and Victorian society.

The book is divided into three main parts:

(1)   Collector, which chronicles Darwin’s early years as a student, his relationship with his family and their influence, and his budding love for collecting and natural science. We also get a full picture of Darwin’s relationship with his professors at Edinburgh and Cambridge—especially Robert Grant, John Henslow, and Adam Sedgwick—and how these relationships contributed to his understanding of natural science.

(2)   Traveller, the largest section which follows Darwin on his five-year voyage on Captain FitzRoy’s H.M.S. Beagle. Much of Browne’s detail and research is reserved for this section, and she shows how Darwin grows from a passionate collector to a meticulous observer of the natural world.

(3)   Naturalist, recaptures Darwin’s return to England and his growing fame as a scientist as his observations and ideas spread through scientific circles. We are able to see how Darwin applied the knowledge gained from his voyage into constructing a theory that could explain some of the variances he observed in species population and geographical distribution. In addition, we see how Darwin became a family man and struggled with an intellectual isolation as he developed his theory.

In my opinion, nearly all 547 pages of this book are well justified as Browne beautifully matches the intellectual setting of Victorian England with her voluminous sources on Darwin and his social circle. She makes use of an abundance of primary source material, everything from manuscripts, correspondence and private letters, journals, scientific papers—not only from Darwin, but also from his family, his scientific circle, those alongside the Beagle voyage, and even from other students during Darwin’s days in Cambridge. I was incredibly impressed with not only the richness of the sources, but also the way she supported them in the text and made use of minor protagonists. For instance, she narrates how John Maurice Herbert, a lame acquaintance of Darwin in Cambridge, once gave Darwin a microscope as a gift; yet their friendship—if we can call it that—didn’t appear to be mutual, since Darwin was more amused by Herbert’s attention and appeared to treat him shabbily: he occasionally forgot Herbert’s first name and his lameness despite the fact Herbert followed Darwin on 10-mile walks across the hills. This minor story is well-used by Browne to humanize Darwin’s character.

The notes in the book have been kept as brief as possible to supply only the material she integrates with in the text; Browne also provides a few pages of secondary sources, but she makes it clear that it was impossible to mention all the detailed studies provided by Darwin scholars, and limits her listing only those recent and relevant to her work. In addition, she provides a family tree of the Darwin and Wedgwood clans, a few maps of the Beagle voyage, and several pages of rich images which support the text and provide a visualization of the history Browne narrates.

As Voyaging generally focuses on Darwin’s growth as an individual and his development as a scientist, several major themes arise throughout the work:

Family Influences

Browne argues family support was immensely important throughout Darwin’s life and influenced the development of his ideas just as much as his fellow scientists did. As Darwin’s family liberal sentiment influenced his politics—for instance, his stance on slavery—he also relied on their support and encouragement into social and scientific circles: his Uncle Jos granted permission to board the Beagle, his brother Erasmus introduced him to a wide variety of social networks, and his wife Emma provided him with moral and emotional support when he struggled with his work.

An interesting relationship that emerges is that of Darwin and his father, Robert Waring Darwin. While other biographies on Darwin have explored Robert’s overwhelming influence on Darwin’s studies and career choices, Browne explains that there was nothing to suggest that Robert Darwin was an oppressive father. Rather, Browne ties his patient (and often frustrating) attitude with Charles’ idleness with Robert’s own experience with a pushing and disappointing father who eventually abandoned him. I found that Browne brilliantly explores this psychological angle by giving minute details of Robert’s financial support for, and during, Darwin’s voyage: 1200 pounds, a colossal sum at the time, and nearly twice the cost of Darwin’s studies at Christ College Cambridge.

Darwin’s Geological Lens

A biography on Darwin surely must explore the scientific foundations of Darwin’s theories, and Browne brilliantly does so by giving a thorough examination of his five-year expedition on the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836. In doing so, Browne shows how Darwin transformed from a sea-sick, Cambridge-educated scientist, who was overwhelmed with the opportunity, into a keen observer of nature. By following Darwin’s explorations within South America’s coastal lines, Browne shows how Darwin’s mind was dominated more so by geology and anthropology than biology; in fact, she states that Darwin initially approached the species question as a way for explaining geological discrepancies. As Darwin’s explorations taught him to think big and think differently from those who had taught him, Browne also cautiously points out that it would be wrong “to suggest that Darwin came to his conclusions unaided or that his future progress was always so briskly positive” (186). Darwin’s understanding of natural history, in particular, the formation of geological rocks, was drawn from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and Browne explicitly states that it was Lyell’s book that taught Darwin how to think about nature. “Without Lyell, there would have been no Darwin: no intellectual journey, no voyage of the Beagle as commonly understood.” Armed with Lyell’s principles, Darwin viewed his natural surroundings through geologically-tinted goggles, a point Browne readily emphasizes even influenced Darwin’s experiences on the Galapagos: ‘it is often forgotten just how intently he looked forward to investigating the geology of the island” (298). Geography and geology thus became an integral part on Darwin’s ideas of transmutation.


In one review of this biography, the writer states that Browne’s book might as well have been called Darwin: Networking. Browne explicitly states: “Darwin’s greatest gift [during the time at Cambridge] was not so much the ability to understand nature’s secrets, if he had it to any degree as an undergraduate, but a capacity to identify the people capable of giving and inspiring him in the loyal affection he desired. On such affections his ultimate success as a naturalist depended” (124). Clearly, Browne discredits the picture of Darwin as a lonely figure working within an intellectual vacuum, arguing instead that his social and scientific networks were necessary for establishing his reputation as a man of science. The “Cambridge Network” which included Henslow, Sedgwick, and Francis Beaufort, was essential in getting Darwin on board the Beagle. The same network was also responsible for publishing and advertising Darwin’s writing even before he returned to England.

Browne also constructs Darwin as a man who forged relationships and relied on them, though at times took them for granted. She hints, for instance, that Darwin’s experience of betrayal and scientific jealously at the hands of Robert Grant, might have influenced Darwin’s lifelong habit of guarding his scientific discoveries from others. It also made him wary of who to trust. When Darwin felt ready to reveal his “secret” to others, he deliberated carefully who to include, smartly going for younger men …who he know were skeptical or detached from the relationship between science and religion, including Lyell, Hugh Strickland and Joseph Dalton Hooker. In addition, Browne also provides several occasions when Darwin’s relationship with his networks border upon ingratitude; nowhere is this more evident than in FitzRoy’s anger over Darwin’s failure to acknowledge the support of the Beagle’s crew in Darwin’s preface to his account of the voyage.

Other minor themes that occur: Victorian Class Arrangements, Scientific Culture and Correspondence, Science and Morality, Process of Scientific Discovery

Our readings this week raise the question whether biographies are books about the scientist or books about the science. In my opinion, Browne nicely weaves in the science without distracting or overwhelming the reader; she provides enough scientific explanation for the reader to understand the context of Darwin’s ideas, and in construction Darwin’s thinking, she shows the reader how Darwin came to the conclusion he did. I found this to be one of the finest biographies of Darwin, meticulous in scope and research. I admire the depth of Browne’s scholarly analysis, her interpretation of the significant events in Darwin’s life and his relationships with others and his society, and her use of a massive amount of primary sources.

I feel like she masterfully creates not only the cultural and intellectual matrix surrounding Darwin, but she personalizes him, in a sense grounding him from his scientific legend and presenting to us a complex, and multidimensional individual who was more than just a scientist or a family man: he was an individual with a fierce personality, a child who lied and created stories and games for attention, an idle student, a fantastic hunter, a drinker, and a man who was enthusiastic about life. As Browne explains, the robust side to Darwin’s character during the voyage was an important feature of his day-to-day mode of living, and facilitated his integration into the Beagle’s company: “With my pistols in my belt & geological hammer in hand, shall I not look like a grand barbarian?” (222)