Category Archives: Objects

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 18: a Cupboard of Dead Bugs

Cupboard of Dead Bugs: Life Lessons from Insects for Economics, Empire and Evolution By Emily Herring

October’s object was well-suited for the month of Halloween. They creep, they crawl, and, in this particular instance, they are very much dead. For the eighteenth lecture in the HPS in 20 Objects public lecture series, PhD students Matt Holmes and Alex Aylward chose to get historical and philosophical about a cupboard of dead bugs. More precisely, a teaching collection belonging to the Museum of HSTM at the University of Leeds. As both speakers demonstrated over the course of the lecture, there is a lot more to be learned from this collection of insect specimen than simply insights into natural history.

Matthew Holmes kicked off the lecture by reminding us of a very important anniversary: 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the science fiction/horror film Empire of the Ants. The film is very loosely based on a 1905 short story of the same title by H. G. Wells.


Both the film and the short story feature humans being tormented by organised attacks from super-intelligent ants. While the film, which was of the unintentionally-funny-0%-on-rotten-tomatoes kind, had one critic saying “you’ll be rooting for the ants”, Wells’ celebrated short story went beyond science fiction and tapped into late nineteenth century and early twentieth century fears about the viability of Western empires. The characters of the fictional world in Wells’ story, feared that the highly intelligent insects might eventually form cultures of their own and seek to start their own colonies. Around the time Wells published his ant story, more practical fears linked to agriculture and health encouraged the development of methods designed to control insect pests, also known as economic entomology. People like Bradford-born entomologist L. C. Miall started listing these different methods of control or extermination which included the not very effective “swatting the insects away by hand” technique and various kinds of noxious sprays which had the unfortunate side effect of killing not only the insects but everything surrounding them. Another method was the introduction of insect predators such as birds. In 1866 British sparrows were exported to New York in an attempt to deal with troublesome caterpillars.


The birds did not however limit themselves to the caterpillars and ended up eating the very crops they were meant to be protecting from the insect pests. Therefore, in his section of the lecture, Matt showed that beyond studies in systematics and comparative anatomy, the teaching collections, like the one we have at the University of Leeds, and the development of new forms of practical biology, cannot be separated from the history of the formation of, and attempts to maintain, empires.

In the second half of the lecture, conducted by Alex Aylward, insects, in particular social insects, were also portrayed as pests, but of a different kind. Alex was not referring to the terrible picnic etiquette of wasps but rather to the theoretical puzzles posed by wasps and other hymenoptera that have been pestering evolutionary biologists for decades. For instance, the division of labour between different members of a hive or a colony translates into differences in structure and behaviour. The queen is usually large and spends her life reproducing while some of the workers will usually be much smaller and sterile. Darwin himself worried that these differences in structure and behaviour between the different members of the society might undermine his theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, how do the sterile members of an insect society pass on their specific characters and behaviours? In addition, natural selection is often represented as gradually increasing the fitness – i.e. the ability for an entity to survive and to produce other entities similar to itself – of the entities it acts upon. The fitness of a sterile worker in a colony would therefore be zero. In many bee species, sterile castes possess a sting which they deploy in protecting the nest – bringing their own life to an end. Hence, they fail in achieving both aspects of fitness – survival and reproduction. How could natural selection have possibly allowed this situation to evolve?


In the 1960s and 1970s attempts to solve these problems involved using the language of economic thinking: costs, benefits, trade-offs, etc. By broadening the notion of fitness to include the reproductive success of others, especially of our close-kin, it might be possible to make sense of the self-sacrificing behaviour of the sterile workers. This was the theory put forth by English evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s. If we think of relatedness in terms of shared genetic material rather than simply in terms of parent-offspring, then it becomes apparent that most individuals share as much genetic material with their offspring as with their siblings. In the case of Hymenoptera, the amount of shared genetic material can actually be higher between siblings than between parent and offspring. Certain self-sacrificing behaviours might therefore actually pay off, in terms of extended fitness, by increasing the reproductive output of a close relative, even if the immediate cost is high. Hamilton expressed this in the form of an equation, known as Hamilton’s law, which states the relationship between relatedness, r, the benefit of a behaviour, B, and cost C, in terms of this broader notion of fitness. Hamilton’s work was famously popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976).

Over the course of this lecture, insects went from being portrayed as agricultural pests to theoretical pests. Over the past few decades they can also be seen as having gone from being associated with a threat to humankind which needs to be contained, to a man-made ecological disaster in the making. Efforts to contain insect pests led to the development, in the twentieth century, of synthetic pesticides which have not only contributed to endangering many insect species but have also had a detrimental effect on human health. Recent studies have shown that the alarming rate at which the flying insect biomass is dropping puts us on track for an “ecological Armageddon”. Some of the insects in the Leeds teaching collection can no longer be found in nature. Alex therefore concluded the lecture by drawing attention to calls from environmentally-minded commentators for cooperation on a grand scale in order to tackle the problems flagged up by these recent alarming studies.


The video of the lecture is below


HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 9: Anthrax Finger. Or, ‘Death in 24 Hours’: The Making of Modern Anthrax

By Alex Aylward

The ninth instalment of the HPS in 20 objects lecture series centred upon easily the most gruesome artefact yet: a dismembered finger of an Anthrax victim, preserved since 1914 in formaldehyde. Dr Jamie Stark and PhD student Richard Bellis were our expert tour guides through time and across space, as we learned―through the lens of this grisly digit―about: the history of a disease (or, indeed, diseases); the birth of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical specimens; the politically-charged negotiations of medical expertise amongst a wide variety of peoples, and most importantly; the infectious mohair of Turkish Angora goats.


Professor Greg Radick introduces the speakers, with the gruesome Anthrax finger to his right, and pictured on the screen

Jamie’s narrative began locally, with the case of the sudden death of James Greenwood, a Bradford wool-sorter who, in July of 1880, complained of an “aching in his bones” as he returned home from another gruelling day in the factory. Within 24 hours, he was dead. Reported in the local newspaper, Greenwood’s death was attributed to “Wool-sorters disease”. Nowadays, we would simply classify this malady as “Anthrax.” And we might think that by 1880, amid the so-called “bacteriological revolution” (the period in which medical practitioners began attributing causal status to specific microorganisms in the development of particular diseases), that Greenwood’s contemporaries would have been beginning to do the same. However, Jamie did a wonderful job of emphasising the protracted nature of the negotiations over the identity of this particular ailment; though the term “anthrax” was used at this time (and long before) to describe the symptoms presented in Greenwood, it was far from universal. For workers in the wool factories, branding the disease as their own, one specific to their working conditions, would provide leverage in bargaining for the improvement of these conditions. The establishment were sceptical, attributing the cases to the kinds of conditions found in workplaces everywhere, or even to the drinking habits of the workers. Disagreement over the cause, nature, and identity of this disease, which presented itself through sores and pustules on the skin (thus providing the excuse for our speakers to display numerous grim pictures), raged throughout most of the latter half of the 19th, and into the 20th century.


Dr Jamie Stark explains the representations of anthrax symptoms used to raise awareness among wool factory workers

Zoning in on the finger itself, we heard from Richard about the beginnings of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical and pathological specimens in the 18th century. What with corpses being relatively difficult to come by, and possessing a limited shelf-life, the preserving of dismembered body parts was a flexible tool for building up a large catalogue of reusable specimens in teaching. Samples could be prepared in different stages of the decay process, or utilising various techniques to emphasise particular aspects of the specimen. The impact of these practices, Richard explained, extended beyond the realm of science and medicine, inspiring the innovative floral arrangements depicted in the paintings of figures like Rachel Ruysch.

   big-bird-anthraxRichard Bellis explains the drawbacks of using cadavers in demonstration; seven of the Sesame Street gang have to crowd around one specimen, as Big Bird orates

We were then transported from the local to the global (and back again), as Jamie resumed his story by telling us about Friedrich Wilhelm Eurich of Bradford, also known as “Professor Anthrax”. Eurich, we heard, was instrumental in putting measures in place to prevent wool-sorters from becoming victims of the disease, such as a system for wool disinfection, and the introduction of into factories of “cautionary notices” advising workers to seek medical advice immediately should any of the described (and colourfully pictured) symptoms present themselves. Leaving Yorkshire behind, we were taken across the globe to learn about some of Anthrax’s other alter egos. In Australia, the “Cumberland disease” ravaged livestock in the region of modern-day Sydney, prompting numerous attempts to provide cures or vaccinations for this economically detrimental illness, some more successful than others. We then moved on to Turkey, where the mohair of Angora goats living around lake Van was pinpointed by Bradford journalists as carrying the much-feared disease (known locally as “Dallack”) on its way to British shores.


The Angora Goat, in all its glory

The lecture ended with some provocative reflections. We tend to think of diseases as being well-defined, and the expertise upon them belonging to an exclusive and highly-trained medical elite. Dr Stark demonstrated how little over 100 years ago, the picture looked very different indeed. The diseases discussed in this lecture were defined divergently based, not just on symptoms and causes, but also on location, and even the occupation of the patient. Farmers, workers, employers and journalists joined physicians in offering their own thoughts on the nature of diseases. Later in the twentieth-century, the cultural authority of medical practitioners reached what may be seen by future historians as its peak. I can’t help thinking that today, as we increasingly consult search-engines and our fellow internet-users concerning matters medical, and the spectre of a “post-truth,” “post-fact,” “post-expertise” world looms, we are particularly well-placed to appreciate the fragility of the authority of medicine and science, and thus to uncover the historical and social processes through which that authority was achieved in the not-so-distant past.


Next month’s lecture sees the series reach its halfway-point. Professor Gregory Radick will introduce us to the Newlyn-Phillips Machine, and use it to show us “How Money (with Help from Models and Maths) Makes the World Go Around”. With the lecture taking place on 13th December, and thus well into the notoriously pocket-emptying festive season, I’m sure few of us will be able to disagree.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 8 – Brain Knife

The second HPS in 20 Lecture of this academic term has kept to the exceptional standard we have come to expect from this series. Like all of these talks, one central object was used to catalyse a discussion that ended up being extremely wide-ranging; taking us to considerations of the very nature of our being. However, the lecture began with PhD researcher and museum expert Laura Sellers explaining how the museum had come into possession of what initially seemed to be a rather ordinary looking Knife. Rather like the ones my Gran used to keep. However, this was in fact a knife used for dissecting the brains of the dead. Laura pointed out that it had been designed with a small horn handle and a disproportionately long blade in order that its users could wield it with the requisite delicacy for long cutting strokes through soft tissue. And who were these delicate users? Most likely, they were teachers and researchers working in Pathology at Leeds in the Algernon Firth Institute or Thoresby Place.


School of Pathology on St. George Street opened in 1933 by Algernon Firth

We were then shown images of the places and contexts in which these tools would have been used, leading up to the site of the current Medical School in the ‘concrete extravaganza’ that is the Worsley Building. I had just the week before started working in administration in the medical school and delighted at telling my new colleagues the next day that the Medical School had just had its 850th birthday on the 25th of October. Turns out I had misheard this and it was actually 185 years old.  They were either too polite or too sorry for me to point out my ridiculous error. Luckily there was nothing ridiculous in the main body of the lecture, which was given by Marie Curie Fellow Dr Sean Dyde.


Van Aeken, Cure of Folly or the Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1485

Sean began his discussion of the brain knife by giving some context about why people have traditionally cut into brains and indeed into skulls, and pointed out that the notion of the mind being connected to the brain isn’t actually an especially Western idea. He then moved onto explain how he would situate the mind brain dichotomy in a particular discussion of the Age of Enlightenment, that is, the eighteenth century. Sean was clearly passionate about this subject matter and he really came into his own here, with some really lovely turns of phrase used to describe this period: ‘an Age of Improvement, an Age of Refinement, an Age of absolute monarchs, an Age of Enlightenment. A time of new wealth, paper money, stock bubbles and market crashes; Greco-Roman architecture, English gardens and Gin Lanes.’

At this point, perhaps predictably, but clearly necessarily, Descartes came in. It would be bizarre indeed to describe conceptions of the mind in the 17th and 18th century without resource to the Cartesian method. However, Sean did not relate the brain knife to philosophy in isolation; he took us on a fast paced tour of literature, politics, drugs, and science.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli



Sean was able to condense a great deal of complicated ideas into an entertaining and provocative lecture, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. My favourite parts probably centre round his discussion of Tristram Shandy (a book I have not read, but now intend to) and his ideas about the relationship of the romantics to God, art, and opium. The link between nineteenth century phrenology and a recent paper in the journal Nature, in which its authors highlighted 360 localised areas of the brain, provoked the most questions from the audience. There was in fact so much in the lecture that I’m really struggling to provide a succinct summary of the diverse areas it touched upon. Of course it was a subject area that I am well familiar with, but my friend Amy (a physiology researcher) said that she had loved learning about medicine in such a different way. It should not only be recommended for its variety, but also for the elegant prose Sean used throughout. I suppose what I want to get across is how interesting and entertaining this was, and highly recommend that anyone reading this should also watch the recording below.

As always though, these lectures are best experienced live, and the selection of objects on display at this one was particularly fascinating (or particularly disgusting depending on your sensibilities). A preserved sheep’s brain and wax models of embryonic development of the brain were used to good effect to illustrate points in the lecture, and we were invited to take a closer look at the end. On Tuesday the 22nd of November we are going to be treated to an Anthrax ridden finger floating in a jar, and I, for one, cannot wait.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 7: Biblical Herbarium

By Clare O’Reilly

A large late nineteenth century mahogany box with a collection of dried plants inside – a herbarium – is not the most obvious object that we today would associate with science. More surprising still, this single object unifies science with religion.


Dr Jon Topham began by explaining how important herbaria were in the practice of Victorian science by describing the contents of the box and its 38-page descriptive pamphlet. It was produced, at considerable expense, by Southhall Brothers, druggist and medical suppliers, in 1897. Herbaria like this were used as educational tools. Botany had a long association with medical studies, and students learnt plant identification and their medicinal uses from dried specimens. In schools, herbaria were used to illustrate God’s creation through the study of the natural world and ultimately brought biblical stories – of the reeds surrounding the hidden baby Moses, of the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion, – to  life.

A now-familiar and pervasive view is that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection marked a turning point in the history of science, and was a major cause of conflict between science and religion. Evolution is often cited as the best example of the irreconcilability of science and religion, for example, by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Blind Watchmaker (1986).   Jon argued that Victorian science and religion were not so in conflict as we are led to believe by those who use this historical myth to suit their own agenda in the present.


Perhaps the most famous historical clash between science and religion was the 1860 debate over evolution in Oxford, between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and public intellectual, Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Jon dramatically challenged our popular understanding of this event, showing how it has been told and re-told to emphasise far more of an intense spectacle than actually took place, and that it was portrayed as establishing a straight choice between science or religion as polar opposites. Nineteenth century historians started this rhetoric and histories of this sort have been debunked by recent scholarship. The dispute was actually part of a wider struggle over who should ultimately be *the* authority on the natural world: the scientists or the clergy. At stake, for the new men of science like Huxley, was the professional status of scientists, who got to be professors, and how to free science from the influence of the Churches. Huxley himself was agnostic – he coined the phrase  –  and many scientists at the time took intermediate positions on evolution, reconciling their Christian faith with evolution by God acting through natural laws like Darwin’s natural selection.

picture1The lecture then moved on to far less-familiar people and more unexpected stories connected with the biblical herbarium, to show how religious belief has long been part of scientific practices, and scientific practices – specifically an interest in natural history and botany – was part of a good Christian lifestyle.

Science and religion was particularly intertwined in education, with educational organisations, like Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, producing scientific publications with a religious tone. Even at the end of the century, many of the most successful popular science books were produced for a Christian audience. Jon used the story of Ellen Parry, daughter of a fashionable Bath physician, to show how science, “rational accomplishment”, was used by people to enhance their faith.

thumbnail_220px-hbtristram1908Jon then masterfully brought the lecture to its finale, by linking back to the biblical herbarium itself. The author of the pamphlet accompanying the box, Henry Baker Tristram, was a Fellow of the Royal Society but also a clergyman and Church Missionary Society activist. He was, perhaps most surprisingly, the first naturalist to apply Darwin’s theory in print. He embodied how, for many Victorians, the practice of religion and the practice of science were mutually supportive. He later opposed the Darwinians, but largely because of how they behaved, sneering and putting down their opponents, and because natural selection was inadequately supported, rather than because he regarded Darwin’s theory as atheistic.

This lecture was a fantastic demonstration of what professional historians do in challenging misinterpretations by those unwittingly back shadowing today’s debates on to the past. The history of science and religion is far more rich and complex than the popular polarising myth suggests.

Lecture 6: Midwifery Forceps

By MA Student Caz Avery

The 6th HPS in 20 Objects lecture too place on the 7th of June, it focused on the use of instruments in midwifery – when it began and the effects it had on the traditional structures of childbirth. The lecture was given by Dr Adrian Wilson and PhD student, and trained midwife, Louise Jenkins.

louise 1

Picture: Louise Jenkins explaining different complications and obstructions which can occur during labour and giving birth.

The lecture began with an outline of the possible complications which can occur during birth, it was emphasised that childbirth is generally very safe. The three main complications discussed were Transverse presentation, Breach presentation, and general head obstructions. Transverse presentation is when the baby is lying horizontally rather than vertically and it occurs in roughly 1% of all births, it is not possible to give birth with the baby in this position. In Breach presentation, which occurs in roughly 4% of all births, the baby is lying with its feet (rather than the head) towards the pelvis, in these deliveries the baby will typically come out presenting their feet or bottom first. Finally, there was a discussion of general head obstructions, these also occur in roughly 4% of all births. Head obstructions can occur for any number of reasons: one of the most common was rickets which causes the mother to have a pelvic deformation making natural childbirth almost impossible. So how were these births dealt with during the 1700s?

In the 17th century, normal births were attended by midwives only – men were completely excluded from the birth process. A woman would lie in a darkened room with the midwife and her Gossips (a corruption of the word ‘God-Sibs’ or God-Siblings) her closest group of female friends and family. On the rare occasion that there was an obstruction a doctor would need to be called. If the baby could not leave the mothers body, then it was simply a matter of time until both child and mother died. The doctor would use a crochet or sharp hook to remove the (already dead) child from the mother in an attempt to save her life. Doctors did not deliver live babies.

louise 2

Picture: A range of midwifery forceps, showing their development.

However, this began to change due to the use of midwifery forceps. The forceps are believed to have been created by the Chamberlen family, who kept them a family secret, passing them down the family line and very occasionally selling them to private physicians for a high fee. The forceps are one of the most well-known instrument for labour intervention, a version of them is still used to this day. Forceps require a certain amount of training in order to use them well, there is a level of skill involved which cannot be learnt simply through reading about them.

louise 3


Picture: Dr Wilson attempting to use the forceps on a model, emphasising how difficult they were to use.

There were two other instruments which appeared at around the same time as the forceps: the Vectis – similar to the forceps but with only one blade, and the Fillet – a strap of material (usually leather or silk) which was looped around the child in order to pull it out. Neither was as successful as the forceps, the Fillet especially required a large amount of skill to use and was dropped from use fairly early on.

The lecture ended with three concluding questions:
– How did the forceps impact the trend of male midwifery? They allowed a man to deliver a live child, something previously only done my midwives. However, forceps cannot be the sole cause, as male practitioners reported not using instruments very often.
– Which instrument was best? This seems to be a rather modern question; at the time it is likely that the decision of which instrument to use would be situational.
– What caused the invention of the forceps? They did not appear in any other countries, nor did any other instruments, so what were the factors that caused the Chamberlen family to create them? Unfortunately, this is currently unknown. It is a point of on-going research.

*The Lecture series is now taking a break for the summer, it will restart at the beginning of the next academic year.*

All picture credit goes to Polina Merkulova and Emily Herring.