Cabinet of Natural History – Easter Term Card 2015

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Free School Lane

Contact: Margaret Carlyle,

All seminars begin at 1pm in Seminar room 1, with the exception of Monday 8 June, which begins at 12:30pm.

Monday 27 April 2015

Kathryn Schoefert (HPS, Cambridge), Beavers, brains, behaviour: the natural histories of 1950s psychiatry

In 1956 officers of the Air Research and Development Command in the United States Air Force visited the Institute of Brain Anatomy in Bern to discuss possible collaborations. They rejected proposals to investigate aging, the effects of high altitudes on pain perception, and a comparative study of human and dolphin brains. Within months researchers came to settle on a mutually attractive research project: the investigation of beaver brains and behaviour. This paper argues that the beaver study exemplified certain preoccupations in 1950s anatomy and ethology beyond the American military fascination with bats, dolphins, and other extraordinary mammalian species. It places the project within the Institute’s research programmes in clinical psychiatry and neuropathology, highlighting contemporaneous attempts to trace the “natural history of laughter and crying” in case studies. Bern’s highly particular confluence of beavers, brains, and behaviour showcases the significant enthusiasm about ethology as an auxiliary science in psychiatry, and it illuminates the resonance of naturalist traditions in post-war medicine.

Monday 11 May 2015

José Beltrán (European University Institute, Florence), The hand of the naturalist: Charles Plumier, images, and overseas natural history in late-seventeenth-century France

At his death in 1704, Father Charles Plumier—Minim friar, accomplished draftsman, and Royal Botanist to King Louis XIV of France—left more than forty volumes of drawings and descriptions of the American plants and animals that he had observed during his three journeys to the West Indies. Only a little part of this work was printed, mainly by the Royal Press and under the form of lavishly illustrated folios serving the self-celebratory purposes of the monarchy. This paper aims at exploring how images of nature were translated from manuscript to printed media, interrogating the extent to which the printed milieu imposed certain formal characteristics on them. The involvement of Plumier in most of the stages of his images’ printing can be traced even in the ways in which visual information was placed on the page. Rather than being an example of a pervasive concern for credit in the history of science, such a presence of the author in the printing of his images reveals his struggles and negotiations to succeed in what is still among the main goals of the scholar today: getting his work printed.

Monday 18 May 2015

Melanie Keene (Homerton College, Cambridge), The elephant in the room: presence, practice, and pachyderms in Victorian education

Throughout the nineteenth century, object lessons had been celebrated as the most novel and effective way of entraining young minds and bodies with vital scientific skills and knowledge. Basing educational experiences around particular artefacts, it was argued, provided unparalleled opportunities for visual appeal, sensory investigations, and cohesive storytelling. By the last decades of the century, ‘object-teaching’ became a standard part of school curricula around the globe; yet with its expansion in scope and topics the approach was a victim of its own success: inspectors bemoaned the farcical recital of properties that accompanied the presentation of each object; government circulars denounced ‘information lessons’ which privileged storing the memory with ‘interesting facts’ over ‘firsthand’ knowledge. In this talk I will explore the promises and problems of this type of pedagogy as it entered the classroom. By taking as my focus the elephant, I will reveal the limitations of teaching all subjects through object lessons (the elephant in the room was the fact that there was no elephant in the room at all); the visual, metonymic, and imaginative strategies deployed by teachers and authors to circumvent such limitations; and how wider natural historical and imperial meanings were put to work.

Field trip – Friday 22 May 2015

Down House, home of Charles Darwin                                                     

Monday 8 June 2015, 12.30pm-2pm

Film on the life of John Milne, “The man who mapped the shaking earth,” with an introduction by and discussion with Anita McConnell

John Milne (1850–1913) studied geology and engineering in London and undertook some practical geology in Germany and Canada. In 1875 he was appointed professor of engineering at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. The devastating Yokohama earthquake of 1880 fired his interest in the causes of earthquakes and the means of measuring and recording them. With his engineering colleagues various seismographs were tested; their pendulums recording by pen on paper, but in 1896 Milne constructed the first reliable friction-free apparatus, consisting of a horizontal pendulum with a mirror which reflected light on a photographic paper drum. It was capable of recording major earthquakes anywhere in the world. Milne returned to England in 1895. He established an observatory at Shide, on the Isle of Wight; the seismograph was manufactured commercially, and through the British Association for the Advancement of Science, these instruments were distributed worldwide and their records coordinated, leading to a great understanding of the geology of the interior of the Earth. After his death, Oxford University took over this work, which in due course passed to the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

Seismograph design soon passed to those regions that are earthquake-prone. A good collection of early historical apparatus belongs to the Science Museum and is in store, while the archive materials are widely dispersed. Milne’s work has been recognised by the Italian Institute of Geophysics, which has included him among the most revered pioneers of seismology. Today’s film was made by an Australian descendant of Milne’s mother’s family, to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Garden party – Friday 12 June 2015


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