Tag Archives: HPS in 20 objects

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 2: Two-Headed Fish

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.


The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.


The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from http://legomenon.com/russian-matryoshka-nesting-dolls-meaning.html

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-2-two-headed-fish/

Matthew Holmes


Good things come in twenties (in HPS)

DSCF3548-Copy-604x1024This week my attention is turning to the contents of the Gillinson Room cases. As some of you might know, starting in January 2016, the Centre for HPS will be hosting a 20-month lecture series entitled “HPS in 20 objects”. At the risk of sounding like an advertiser; this series will use questions from HPS, along with objects from the Museum of HSTM to explore ideas and practices in science, technology and medicine from the ancient world to the present day. The lectures are for a public audience, and will assume no prior knowledge of the objects or subjects being discussed. Information about each object will be made available online, including podcasts and video recordings of each lecture. More information, dates, times etc will be posted here in the coming months: http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/hpsi20o/

By happy coincidence the rearranging of cases in the Gillinson Room, along with the new additions brought up from the store, have given us twenty display spaces (plus two that don’t match but will have information about the museum in them). So we will be designing the displays around twenty questions asked by people working in PRHS. We will then explore *some* of the ways these questions could be addressed by our colleagues and/or how they have been tackled in the past.

The challenge now is to come up with appropriate questions which reflect the school and can be answered using our collection. Equally, if not more importantly, these objects (and the accompanying text) need to be interesting, engaging and visual. And fit into our cases – which aren’t huge.

So, a call out to staff and students working in PRHS, if there are any objects which you think are particularly representative of a field or your own work please let us know so we can think about incorporating them into the displays.