Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

What’s the point of that, then? On defending the humanities in a post-PUS world.

“What do you do?” It’s a question that for many people has a straightforward answer. Of course, the unspoken suffix is “for a job”, and the fact that it’s unspoken speaks volumes about the slippage between work and self-identity. This is especially true of my profession. Being an ‘academic’ seems as much a description of my innate sensibility as it does a description of how I pay the bills.

I’m lucky enough to love what I do (casualisation, unpaid emotional labour, and pensions crises aside), but whenever someone asks me what I do I find myself preparing to defend my career. Should I give the short answer? the long answer? the easy answer?  I often find myself going for the latter because it’s sometimes easier to describe myself as a ’teacher’ (a much more familiar concept for most people) than to get into the details of university lectures, seminars, and research. This is especially true for those who have little experience of higher education, where the ivory tower seems unapproachable and self-indulgent. What is it you lecturers do all day? Isn’t it nice to get such a long summer break? You must enjoy all those holidays. This is an enduring misconception and one that teachers of all kinds will recognise. When the students are off, we will still be working. It might be marking, prepping classes, writing lectures, doing outreach, or going to conferences, but often the university ‘holidays’ are the times when we do the research that keeps us at the top of our field and gets those all important REF scores.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 21.28.21But when I talk about my research I am also primed for what invariably comes next: what’s the point of that then? We live in a society where ‘science’ holds a kind of universally accepted innate value (regardless of its actual contributions to society), while the humanities, or anything approximating them, are generally disciplines that must prove themselves. You would never ask a biologist to justify their profession, but for some reason I often find myself being asked to do exactly that.

I’m a postdoc on a fabulous research project, so my teaching at the moment is light and largely voluntary. Most of my time is spent writing a book about gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century from an interdisciplinary perspective. I look at changing understandings of digestion and digestive illness in the wider context of nineteenth century literature and culture (a time when the boundaries between disciplines were much less defined). This means that I explore developments in gastric biology, case studies from doctors, and interventions in patent or commercial medicine, alongside popular understandings that come from newspaper articles, opinion pieces, novels, poems, and satirical cartoons. Our understandings of science are rarely pure, but rather they are modified by our education, experiences, existing knowledge base, ideological belief systems, media narratives, and the sources from which we get our information.

In 2009, Dr Alice Bell described the emergence of a Post-PUS (public understanding of science) landscape, in which science talks ‘with’, not ‘at’ its publics.⁠1 This is largely a result of the ‘digital revolution’, where information is available with an unprecedented immediacy. How many times have you been in a conversation where someone has said, “I don’t know. Google it.” And this you can do from your smartphone – the answer to almost any question is literally at our fingertips. The comment boxes at the bottom of articles enable people to engage with science in new ways, to take part in the discourses of science and forge their own narratives on social media, blogging sites, and via the “retweet” feature.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 13.24.06

The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (31 Dec 1892)

This is in fact not a new phenomenon. Cheap mass publishing formats and emerging mass literacy in the nineteenth century facilitated a huge change in access to information for the general public. The periodical press, with its wealth of cross-disciplinary material enabled individuals to read fiction alongside scientific essays, to enjoy poems about the telegraph, alongside advertisements for everything from electropathic belts to expanding bookcases! And oftentimes readers would write in with their questions and stories. Some would carry out self experiments and regale other readers with their findings. The anecdotes of people who had given up cheese or potatoes for a week for example contributed to public dietetic knowledge just as much as doctors’ recommendations or patent advertisements did. Sydney Whiting’s hugely popular mid-century novel Memoirs of a Stomach (1853), which followed the life-story of the personified, ‘Mr Stomach’, was for many people a key source of information about digestive health.

As scientific knowledge travels through new mediums, it takes on new meanings, as I’ve written about elsewhere.⁠2 Even organisation likes the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention  have used new mediums to communicate with their readership in meaningful ways, such as when the CDC produced a “Zombie Preparedness Campaign” which included a graphic novel. This incredibly effective campaign used the cultural symbol of the zombie as a way of thinking about viral pandemics and natural disasters as situations that cause mass hysteria, panic, and secondary dangers from infection and the collapse of infrastructure. Ironically, the public found the idea of a Zombie apocalypse a much more relatable idea than a natural disaster, and it was certainly an illustrative one.

Curiosity Carnival 2017 by Ian Wallman

Curiosity Carnival 2017 photograph by Ian Wallman

My first degree was in biology, and I tend towards empiricism. However, literary and autobiographical narratives can tell us things, about experiences of pain for example, that physiological and neurological knowledge alone cannot. I’ve personally learnt a lot about my physical and emotional self through learning how to dance. I once heard my dance teacher say “I know my body” and it stuck with me because she is engaged with and listening to her physiology in ways that are very different to—and I would suggest—a lot more meaningful than might be achieved by studying an X-ray or MRI scan. Work by scholars like Susan Sontag and Charles Rosenberg (and many others besides) have shown us how the language and metaphors we use to talk about disease (the ‘war’ on cancer, she ‘lost her battle’) can radically affect a patient’s experience of illness.⁠3

It is not to devalue science to recognise that it is not the only form of knowledge that has value. If we really do live in a post-PUS world then the humanities has much to offer. They can help us navigate and engage meaningfully with the wealth of information available (#fakenews #posttruth). They can teach us how to interrogate the framing narratives that accompany science and also form deeper understandings of it. And the humanities can help practitioners understand their patients in new ways (even decoding the way a patient reports their symptoms—usually as a linear narrative—can be an exercise in what literary scholars call ‘close reading’).

For myself, I hope my research might shed light on ‘new’ understandings of the body informed by recent developments in the field of microbiome studies. Science and humanities are best when they work with, not against each other. As this humorous poster from the University of Utah jokes: ‘science can tell us how to clone a t-rex, humanities can tell us why that might not be a good idea.’


1 Alice Bell, ‘Doing it by the Book: Introductory Guides for Twenty-First Century Science Communication’ Science as Culture 18.4 (Dec 2009) pp.511-514. (p.512).

2 Emilie Taylor-Brown, ‘Death, Disease, and Discontent: The Monstrous Reign of the Supervirus’ in Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity: the Birth of the Monster in Literature, Media, and Film eds. Andrea Wood and Brandy Schillace (Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014)

3 See: Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (London: Penguin, 2009)

Charles Rosenberg and Janet Golden eds. Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

And while you’re at it, check out:

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)

The Proof is in the Pudding: A Bah! Humbug! Victorian Christmas

I wrote a festive post for the Diseases of Modern Life blog on Dickens, Plum Pudding, and Christmas Indigestion!

Diseases of Modern Life

‘He is an utter and bombastic fraud. He rolls spluttering and crackling onto the English dinner-table at Yuletide, a sprig of English holly cocked jauntily in his cap, well nigh bursting his rotund body in swaggering sham patriotism.’1

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 13.22.32 From: L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68.

Thus begins an article published in The Windsor Magazine in 1897. The subject is the plum-pudding, a dish that the author calls a ‘genuine, rollicking comrade of the roast beef of Old England.’ A few years earlier, the English Illustrated Magazine had dubbed the pudding ‘our national heritage’ along with his ‘baked brother, the mince pie’.⁠2 And surely Christmas isn’t Christmas without Christmas Pudding? It certainly isn’t in our family, where, come 9pm, we will all undoubtedly be sitting beneath a bedecked and balding tree listening to Michael Bublé…

View original post 1,272 more words

Victorian Dietetics and Sugar-Free February.

It’s coming to the end of what has been for me, and for many other New Year’s resolution-keepers, “sugar-free February”. A whole month without any added or refined sugar. This move was partly inspired by my work, and partly inspired by a general commitment to self-care. I wasn’t ready to commit to “Dry-January”, but “Sugar-Free Feb” seemed manageable and aside from a few lapses (Valentine’s day for one), it’s been a successful experiment. I was dutifully horrified by all the things that have needlessly added sugar and so manage to sneak themselves into our diets, and I suspect I’m healthier for it – sugar certainly tastes sweeter now, no pun intended! Working as I do on gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century, I am regularly visited by contrition as I read periodical essays, short stories, poems, and medical tracts about how important it is to attend to one’s dietetic needs.

The Victorians were preoccupied by food and the practices of eating, and gastrointestinal health was privileged as a lens through which to measure society. This seems particularly germane at a time when we are now more obsessed with our own dietary choices than ever before. Consider the rise of gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, vegan, and organic options in the supermarket; consider the obesity and diabetes “epidemics” that feature in the news on an almost daily basis, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. Just this month, we had “roastie-gate” – or “toastie-gate”,  depending on your carby preference – where we were told that too crispy a roast potato (or too crunchy a PB and J) might pose a risk to our long term health – a panicked overreaction that appears to have little basis in the science.  Whether or not acrylamide poses a tangible risk to our health remains to be seen; however, the regimented attention to correct dietary practices might certainly be traced back to the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century brought us the beginnings of organised vegetarianism (for health and ethical reasons), the recognition of the dangers of sugar and fat—“Pies and cakes are poisonous”⁠1 (Bow Bells 1871)—and the developing recognition of allergies and intolerances. ‘Strawberries’ noted one writer, as early as 1868, ‘that are so delicious to almost everybody, are poison to many,’ also remarking that figs in some people give rise to ‘a sensation like the tickling movement of ants upon the palate’—a clear description of anaphylaxis.⁠2  Articles explored the value of now-recognised dietary vices with amusingly entitled pretexts like ‘Coffee, is it a food?’ and ‘Alcohol: food, drink or poison?’ In the early decades of the century, our attitudes to sugar were too very different. ‘The plentiful use of sugar in diet is one of the best preventatives that has ever been discovered of the diseases that are produced by worms’, claimed Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, ‘Nature seems to have implanted a love for this aliment in all children, as it were on purpose to protect them from those diseases.’⁠3 The article goes on to deem sugar an antidote to fever, disorders of the breast, and even styles it an antiscurbotic. But the interest comes when the article turns to the aesthetic implications of sugar. The Cochin Chinese, it claims, require the body-guard of the King to take daily amounts of sugar (gotten by a small allowance of money) in order to do honour to their master by their handsome appearance. Indeed, contrary to current trends, the corpulence of an individual was often deemed a measure of their wealth, worth, and beauty. As the century drew on this began to change and the relative desirability of fatness was fiercely debated in the medical and popular press.

‘Is there any harm in getting fat?’ asked articles about diet – a question that now seems bewildering in its naivety. One writer concluded that it is only a problem since the introduction of seats in assemblies and the confined spaces of vehicles (particularly public transport) where ‘fat men and crinolined ladies have become annoyances’.⁠4 In the 1860s, a plethora of articles addressed the ‘Banting method’, which might be taken as a model for the first fad diet. This diet, which will be familiar to you all in one guise of another, consisted of limiting one’s intake of sugar and carbs, and eating more vegetables. Although by today’s standards this “diet” seems more like sensible life style advice, some writers still warned against taking it to extremes and saw it as their duty to remind the public of the bodily requirements of some fat in the diet: ‘Like every man who rides a hobby, having mounted his Pegasus, he would rise till he scorches himself, or sink till he cannot recover. We shall endeavour to rein in this ill-regulated steed.’⁠5 This attitude is unsurprising given that contemporaneous opinion pieces were still celebrating the delights of sugar as ‘not only a condiment; it is a most important article in diet, and aid to digestion’.⁠6 This same article noted that ‘throughout the whole of the great class of animals headed by man, from elephant down to shrew mouse, there is one sort of tooth—the sweet tooth—common to all.’ ‘Even the canary bird understands sugar,’ writes the author, arguing for its function as a tool for garnering affection and training animals.

Along with the growing recognition of the dangers of excess fat, came a sense of social responsibility and a renegotiation of national identity. Depictions of John Bull were particularly controversial, a national representation that The Leisure Hour deemed a ‘sad relic’ at the end of the century.

‘This heavy overfed individual is still held up to our rising generation, and the world, as the type of British perfection […] surely there are members of the Royal Society who could undertake to give us some better representation of a physically perfect gentleman of the nineteenth century?’⁠7

As societal values began to shift, articles encouraged the public to ‘pity’ rather than ‘despise’ those who are overweight, ‘people are often too cruel to the fat person who helplessly plumps down upon them in the crowded ‘bus, or wedges them into a corner in some throng round the door of a place of amusement.’⁠8 However, sentiments like this did little to empower overweight individuals, who were framed as “jolly fat friends” or as miserable loners who lived in denial and helplessness. Both of these perspectives are showcased in a poem published in Fun in 1867, in which an unhappy sugar-broker piles on the pounds following hollow success.

His bulk increased—no matter that—
He tried the more to toss it—
He never spoke of it as “fat”,
But “adipose deposit”.
Upon my word, it seems to me,
Unpardonable vanity,


‘A Discontented Sugar Broker’ Fun 1(14 Dec 1867) p.137. 

(And worse than that!)
To call your fat,
An “adipose deposit.” 

The final lines reveal the bodily impact of his excess weight, as well the social judgement that follows.

Despite the stigmatisation of corpulence that accompanied changes in dietary knowledge, there were some positive lessons that we might benefit from remembering. Writers speculated on the importance of meal size, eating times, the quantity and quality of food, of exercise and of mental attitude in ways that ultimately paved the ways for a more personalised approach to health. Dietetic treatments enabled individuals to take control of their health in new ways, as is evidenced by the many letters written to the popular press reporting of self-experimentation.

In pursuit of the treatment of indigestion, headaches, and depression, the general public experimented with “free from” diets, and many with great success. However, as an article in 1886 highlighted, what was healthy for one person was not always the case for another, ‘in some cases abstention from pastry might be desirable, in others from cheese, and so on.’⁠9  In the Daily Telegraph today (21st Feb) one article criticised the ‘10,000 steps a day myth’ arguing that the one-size fits all rule could do more damage than good. Dr Steve Flatt of Liverpool University is even quoted as comparing the plethora of health-related apps to the ‘snake oil salesmen of the 1860s’. Another article, just below that in the print edition, claimed that even yo-yo diets are better than not dieting at all (despite the supporting study having only been carried out in mice). Thus, I think it behooves us all to listen to the good advice of All The Year Round who maintained that ‘in the matter of diet, everyone should be guided by experience and not rely on the experience of others.’⁠10 As I come to the end of what has been a (mostly) sugar-free February, I am pleasantly surprised by what self-experimentation has taught me about my own body. So I’ll cross my fingers for continued resolve in the spirit of being attentive to my dietetic needs, as I contemplate taking on “meat-free March.”

‘Notes About Health’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 13(18 Jan 1871)338 p.612.

2 ‘Facts About Food’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 8(15 April 1868)194 p.286.

3 ‘Medicinal and Nutritious Properties of Sugar Cane’ Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 25(21 Jul 1932) p.195.

4 ‘Corpulence’ The New Monthly Magazine 131(May 1864)521 pp.116-26. (p.116-17).

5 Ibid, p.116.

6 ‘Sweets’ All the Year Round 5(8 Jun 1861)111 pp.246-49. (p.246).

7 Alfred Schofield, ‘The Great Food Question’ The Leisure Hour (Sept 1897) pp.736-740. (p.740).

8 ‘Leaves from a London SketchBook’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 29(11 Jan 1895)367 pp.54-55. (p.54).

9 ‘Diet and Dyspepsia’ All The Year Round 37(6 Feb 1886)897 pp.545-48. (p.548).

10 Ibid, p.546.


On the 10th March 2017, the DLR LexIcon library in Dublin will be hosting an interdisciplinary medical humanities conference on mental health organised by my colleague at Oxford, Dr Melissa Dickson, and  Dr Elizabeth Barrett from University College Dublin.

Bringing together clinicians and academics from psychology. psychiatry, history, and general medical practice, as well as service users, the one-day programme of talks and workshops seeks to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day.

The workshops aim to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes, and will be asking questions about literature as a point of therapeutic engagement.

I will also be giving a talk about my current research project on the connections between digestive health and emotional wellbeing.

To find out more and book a place visit the event page here.

Comic Books, Astral Planes, and ‘Strange’ Biology.

Recently I watched Marvel’s Dr Strange, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a gifted and ambitious surgeon who suffers devastating neurological damage to his hands in a car accident. With an almost complete loss of dexterity, Stephen Strange is barely able to write his own name, never mind perform intricate surgical procedures. His life’s work and passion are suddenly rendered alien to him and he spectacularly fails to cope with the consequences. Finding no solution in modern Western medicine, he travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, to search of ‘Kamar-taj’—a fictional enclave. There he meets ‘the Ancient One’, a sorcerer who eventually agrees to train him in the mystic arts under the auspices of curing his condition. Their first conversation cleverly depicts the tensions between modern and traditional forms of medicine. Strange has heard that the Ancient One cured a paraplegic, allowing him to walk again. He asks her how it was done.

SS: “How did you correct a complete C7, C8 spinal cord injury?”
AO: “I didn’t correct it, He couldn’t walk, I convinced him that he could.”
SS: “Your not suggesting that it was psychosomatic?”
AO: “When your reattach a severed nerve is it you who heals it or the body?”
SS: “It’s the cells.”
AO: “And the cells are only programmed to put themselves back together in very specific ways.”
SS: “Right.”
AO: “What if I told you that your own body could be convinced to put itself back together in all sorts of ways?”
SS: “You’re talking about cellular regeneration! That’s leading edge medical tech, is that why your working here without a governing medical ward? Just how experimental is your treatment?”
AO: “Quite.”
SS: “So you figured out a way to reprogram nerve cells to self heal?”
AO: “No Mister Strange, I know how to reorient the spirit. To heal your body.”

Here Strange tries to understand the mystic arts by translating them into western medical language. The implication here is that what might be termed by some people ‘magic’, is simply yet to be fully articulated by modern medicine. However, when the Ancient One makes it clear that her ‘treatment’ relies on a more holistic understanding of the body, he can no longer accept its veracity, despite having seen it with his own eyes. “I don’t believe in fairytales about chakras or energy or the power of belief,” he responds, and she is forced to resort to pushing his astral form out of his physical form in a bid to prove to him that the spirit exists. He quickly rationalises this as an effect of the psychedelic tea he assumes she has given him. She then sends him reeling into the many time-and-space-bending dimensions of the multiverse, to which he returns visibly disturbed and begging to be taught.

This significant exchange underpins the entire film, in which Strange must learn that his own knowledge is not absolute, and critically, that ‘it’s not about [him].’ ’You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your life trying to widen it,’  asserts the Ancient One, and yet when presented with this widened view, he is dismissive and closed minded. Given the tone of the rest of the film, this seems like a striking indictment of the dismissal of traditional forms of medicine by the western world. Dr. Strange bullishly insists on maintaining his title, correcting enemies mid-fight when they mistakenly call him Mr. For Strange, his medical education is part of his social identity, and his subsequent introduction into the world of the mystic is predicated on these same lines. When baffled by his inability to master sorcery, the Ancient One reveals that the methodologies of both are the same. “How did you become a doctor?” she asks. “Study and practice, years of it,” replies Strange. Although much of the film is really about manipulating time and space—or as the members of Kamar-Taj explain: harnessing energy to shape reality—the basic theme of completing systems of knowledge persists throughout.

Being a nineteenth century scholar this reminded me of the changing landscape of medicine in the Victorian period and how successive paradigm shifts throughout the century highlighted the tensions between Western and alternative forms of knowledge. Support for the humoral model of health, for miasmatism, and for contagionism, waxed and waned as the British were brought into contact with other cultures, landscapes, and disease experiences.  Germ theory in the late nineteenth century appeared to supplant discourses about pathogenic ‘Eastern’ climates and landscapes (now considered to be unempirical beliefs); however, these were really part of complex disease aetiologies that were yet to be fully appreciated. The belief largely held in malarious countries that miasma from swamps caused malaria, for example, was in part vindicated by the discovery that mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant swamp water, are vectors for this disease. Thus as Ronald Ross wrote in 1900, ‘Malaria is due to a miasma given off by the marsh, but the miasma is not a gas or vapour—it is a living insect.’⁠1 In fiction, ‘Eastern superstitions’ were paired with ‘Western empiricism’ to demonstrate the tensions between these two competing and often complementary forms of knowledge. This latest Marvel blockbuster explores these very same tensions.

Given that much of the film is concerned with Strange getting to know and so mastering his own body, it is perhaps unsurprising that the film makes so many ideological and visual dialogues between the micro- and the macro-cosmic. The Ancient One reveals to Strange that there are in fact multiple co-existing worlds or dimensions, including ‘the mirror dimension’ and the ‘dark dimension’. This latter world is home to Dormammu, a god-like tyrant with a narcissistic desire to possess all the realms in the multiverse. Most striking to me were the similarities between the dark dimension and depictions from cellular biology. One wonders whether director Scott Derrickson in designing this dimension was inspired by SEM images of phagocytosis…


These parallels between the microscopic and the macrocosmic were also being made in the nineteenth century. English scientist Giddeon Algernon Mantell, when viewing microorganisms under the microscope in 1846 asserted, ‘the air, the earth, and the waters teem with numberless myriads of creatures, which are as unknown and as unapproachable to the great mass of mankind, as are the inhabitants of another planet’⁠2—a statement that was echoed by colonial administrator William MacGregor’s comparison of the discovery of the life cycle of the malaria parasite, with the pinpointing of the position of neptune⁠3 in 1900,⁠ and by H. G Wells’ famous opening to his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. Wells invokes both the telescope and the microscope when he writes that

As men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.⁠4

The imaginative connection between astral and somatic space then—and the anxieties that accompany the systems of knowledge that elucidate them—have long been and continue to be concerns that preoccupy our thoughts. Stories like this one demonstrate the heuristic power of comparative metaphor, whether exploring alternative therapies or alternative dimensions.

1 London, LSHTM. RC. Ross/105/06/50. ‘The Practice of Malaria Prevention by Ronald Ross, Major I.M.S. Ret. Professor of Tropical Medicine, University of Liverpool’, pp.3-4. [emphasis his own].

2 Gideon Algernon Mantell, Thoughts on Animalcules, or, a Glimpse of the Invisible World Revealed by the Microscope (London: John Murray, 1846) p.7.

3 William MacGregor, ‘An Address on Some Problems of Tropical Medicine’ British Medical Journal. 2(1900)2075 pp.977-984.

4 H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds ed. Patrick Parrinder (1898; London: Penguin Books, 2005) p.7.

Containing Our ‘Multitudes’ and Negotiating Gastrointestinal Health in the Modern World

‘Even when we are alone, we are never alone,’ writes award-winning science writer, Ed Yong, in his new book I Contain Multitudes. ‘We exist,’ he argues, ‘in symbiosis […] every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.’⁠1 His new book […]

via Containing Our ‘Multitudes’ and Negotiating Gastrointestinal Health in the Modern World — Diseases of Modern Life

Ten Horse-Power Donkeys and “Plain Britons”: Thoughts on Brexit and Nationhood

The 23rd June 2016 represents a pivotal historic moment. The United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union and whether you voted for Brexit or Bremain that decision will define us globally, socially, economically—even academically— in the coming months and years. “Divorcing” from our largest trading partner and long-time political ally will have far-reaching consequences, many of which are currently unknown. Some voted for the Leave campaign in protest against—what they see as—the undemocratic and neoliberal politics of the EU, while others voted on issues of immigration and border control, however both camps were underpinned by a sense of national identity: a desire for “Britishness”, synonymous with a desire for political independence and control.

Amid calls to “make Britain Great again” and criticism of “little Englanders”, I can’t help but turn to the Victorians. Whether we celebrate their industrial and scientific progressiveness or lament their exploitative and imperial philosophies, we can all recognise their visibility in the cultural imagination, and appreciate the significance of their own attempts to negotiate what it meant to be British in an increasingly global world – a recent preoccupation of those interested in #globalvictorians. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the significance of the Victorians and (re)presenting them in contemporary culture, of international competition and rivalry in nineteenth-century science, and of the importance of collaboration, however today I want to talk about Nationhood.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the increasing specialisation of disciplinary science and the birth of new sub-disciplines concerned with situating humans in the natural world: evolutionary biology, psychiatry, neurology, genetics, bacteriology, immunology, and haematology, represent just a few of these. My research focus (and the subject of my PhD) provides another example of this specialisation. Parasitology—the study of parasites and parasitic disease—took on new significance in the late nineteenth century in light of Britain’s imperial expansion and desire to colonise more of the world. One obstacle to this imperial project was the imposition of tropical parasitic disease, which was increasingly being registered in the bodies of British missionaries, soldiers, and traders returning from the colonies.


[Image source:]

In order to legitimise the claims of their newly emergent profession on government funding, parasitologists consciously branded their discipline as a prerogative of the nation, their science as British imperial science. But more than this, conscious of the need to garner public support, they further bolstered their professional identities using British myths of nationhood. Using metaphors and images borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the tales of King Arthur’s knights, parasitologists framed their profession within the discourses of heroic chivalry. You can read more about this “branding” project in my article in the Journal of Literature and Science, (Re)Constructing the Knights of Science: Parasitologists and their Literary Imaginations“. In 1905, when Nobel Prize-winning parasitologist Ronald Ross eulogised fellow parasitologist Joseph Dutton in the British Medical Journal, he wrote:

He was a true Knight of Science […] the Galahad of that group of enthusiatic young men who, with so little recompense for themselves have pushed forward the cause of tropical medical science at such a rapid rate.⁠1

Taking part in this same discourse, and extending the mythology of fin de siecle parasitologists, newspaper articles reporting on Ross’s death in the 1930s still branded him as a knight and his work as akin to the heroic adventurers of British literature.

His fight against the malaria-carrying mosquito has been truly described as more romantic than any story of knight against huge dragon […] this kindly knight was to show himself possessed of patience, imagination, determined and highly-developed reasoning power, and above all faith and courage.⁠2

Beyond their public reception, this understanding of parasitology as a “British” science, fused with national identity, had both edifying and pernicious ideological consequences. On the one hand, it encouraged scientists to see their work as an extension of their identity, and to understand that identity as world-building and selfless. However, it also placed emphasis on maintaining this heroic narrative by any means necessary. When Ross was carrying out the work that would win him Britain’s first nobel prize, he and his colleagues had to negotiate between their desire to benefit humanity and their desire to gain credit and recognition. Tropical medicine giant Patrick Manson, when advising Ross, wrote:

It is evident the Italians are now on the scent. I do hope you will run into the quarry before them. Bignami is a clever little fellow and ambitious. Laveran is working up the Frenchmen. I do not hear that the Germans are moving, but they will and so will the Russians. Cut in first.⁠3

His preoccupation is here clearly with priority, rather than a solution to the problem—in this case the transmission route of malaria, a tropical disease that was responsible, directly or indirectly, for thousands of death a day in India alone. Upon his success, a friend wrote to congratulate him:

 You have done the trick and I congratulate you heartily and I congratulate ourselves for do you not belong to us? And you are no Italian, French, or German, but a plain Briton!⁠4

dyff-donkDespite this divisive rhetoric and petty name-calling—like when Dr. T. Edmundston Charles called Italian researcher Giovanni Battista Grassi a “ten horse-power donkey”⁠5—the progression of tropical medical science was a global affair, which relied on global collaboration.

This is exemplified in Imperial administrator William McGregor’s conception of the role that parasitologists played in facilitating Empire:

“It appears to me to be more or less like this: Manson⁠6 was the surveyor, Laveran⁠7 made the road, Ross⁠8 built the bridges and laid the rails, and Grassi,⁠9 Bastianelli,⁠10 Bignami, and Celli provided the rolling stock.⁠11

As the nineteenth century gave way into the twentieth, this global knowledge base played a greater role in medical paradigm shifts, including interventions in public heath. The competition between European powers trying to create world empires ultimately led to the blighting of the twentieth century with two world wars. The European Union was set up to prevent a third, and to prevent the breaching of human rights that would inevitably accompany it.  Whatever you voted in the referendum, with so many of our medical research initiatives, academic funding pots, student study abroad programmes, and maternity/paternity pay structures bound up with or facilitated by our EU membership, it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the importance of collaborative thinking. We don’t know what the future will hold, or what the consequences of the Brexit will be, but we should look on this as an opportunity to reconsider what our nationality means to us. What does it mean to be British in the twenty-first century? With the venom and ill-will generated by the referendum on both sides, let’s take this opportunity to re-brand our national identity and reclaim “British” as a moniker that celebrates collaboration, cultural exchange, and inclusivity.


NB. I don’t have the space here to address the troubling colonial and postcolonial narratives that pervade the politics of parasitology, but I recognise this as an aspect that hugely problematises the nationhood project. I ask you to forgive me the restrictive example, and think more broadly of the power of language and the utility of both “looking outwards” and working together, now exemplified in the global research initiatives that form part of so much of the academic output of UK HE institutions.


1 Ronald Ross, ‘Joseph Everett Dutton, .M.B., Ch. B.Vict, D.P.H.’ British Medical Journal 1(1905)2314 pp.1020-1021.

2 ‘Sir Ronald Ross’ Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 20 September 1932, p.10.

3 Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 48 02/018’ The Beast in the Mosquito, pp.124-25. (p.125).

4 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/48/36. Letter to Ross 31st September 1898.

5 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/52/12/03 Letter to Ross from T. Edmundson Charles, 1899.

6 Sir Patrick Manson discovered the mosquito vector for the parasitic disease Elephantiasis or Visceral Leishmaniasis. (Scottish-born)

7 Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran discovered the protozoan parasite responsible for Malaria. (French-born)

8 Sir Ronald Ross traced the life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite into the stomach of the mosquito and proved that it acted as a vector for Malaria. (British/Scottish, born in India)

9 Giovanni Battista Grassi demonstrated conclusively the vector transmission of malaria in humans, and established that only the female anopheles mosquito can transmit the disease. (Italian)

10 Giuseppe Bastianelli, Amico Bignami, and Angelo Celli studied the clinical symptoms of Plasmodium falciparum and recognised several stages in the development of malaria parasite within the blood. (Italians)

11 William MacGregor, ‘An Address on Some Problems of Tropical Medicine’ British Medical Journal.  2(1900)2075 pp.977-984. (p.980).

Gently Licking Worms & Preaching Mosquitoes: the Linguistic Dialogue Between Parasitology and Religion

NB. the linguistic relationship between parasites and religion is in fact at the very core of parasitology as a discipline and underscores the very concept of the parasite – see my earlier post on the parasite’s etymological heritage here

I was recently visited by two Jehovah’s witnesses. I opened the door to a little old lady and her younger friend, who greeted me with smiles and began to tell me about their religion. They asked if they could leave me their magazine to read, which I accepted, mostly out of the same crippling politeness that had kept me on the doorstep in the first place. The little old lady then, quite disarmingly told me, that it was “a lovely issue, all about THE END.” The front cover was a [badly] photo-shopped image of a young family amid plane wreckage, looking like they’d just stepped out of an episode of The Walking Dead—on the winning side. Nevertheless I opened it to find, amid the Bible verses, some very practical and thoughtful advice. The next month they brought me another issue—this time all about science, with, again, some very practical advice regarding sanitation and infection control. Despite treating science with a somewhat sceptical tone, the issue worked to demonstrate that science and religion could be productive bedfellows, and that science, far from contravening the teachings of the Bible, actually confirmed much of what the Bible already taught.

Although not one hundred per cent convinced that Pasteur’s Germ Theory and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation are encoded in Biblical texts (both things the younger friend had tried to demonstrate), I can see how post-discovery we interpret the Bible through those lenses. Equally, I do believe that quarantine practices, for example, which are described in the Bible, were practical, pre-scientific responses to the experience of disease. Just as the transmission of malaria parasites by mosquitoes—proven by Ronald Ross in 1898—had its roots in the theories of Varro, Vitruvius, Columella and Palladius, who all attributed malaria to ‘minute animals’ engendered in swamps, prime mosquito breeding grounds (116BC/4th and 1st BC), and in cuneiform scripts, which attribute malaria to the Babylonian god Nergal, who is pictured as a mosquito-like insect. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine made me think more broadly about the dynamic relationship between science and religion. One of my thesis chapters explores the relationship between parasitology and Christianity, 1700-1900, and charts the ways in which Christianity both opposed and supported theories concerning the transmission of parasitic disease.

One of the most high profile entanglements between religion and parasites in the eighteenth century concerned the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that some organisms could be generated from inanimate matter. The strongest argument in favour of this was the existence of parasitic worms inside the body, which prior to the elucidation of parasite lifecycles and transmission pathways, appeared to support the generation de nuovo of these organisms. However, many objected to this idea on the grounds that, according to the Bible, God created the world in seven days and no more organisms were created after this point. This led to the establishment of theories of preformation: the idea that within nature existed the “blueprints” for all organisms that had ever and would ever exist, and that these seeds or germs would, under the right conditions, turn into the corresponding organism. In regard to parasitic worms this necessitated Man to contain within him the blueprints for all his parasites, which would under the right conditions—immoral thoughts and behaviours—become these pathological organisms.


However this still didn’t adequately reconcile itself with the Bible, which taught that Man, created in innocence before the fall, was free of all diseases, and owing to the seven days of creation, no new species could have been created after him. Italian physician and biologist Antonio Vallisneri suggested that the worms might have originally served a beneficial purpose such as digestion aids and became parasitic only after the fall from grace: ‘Worms [which] God appointed to Man, while he preferred him in his first state of innocence, were to be useful to him and render his body more perfect’.[1] He went on to suggest an ordained symbiotic relationship in which Adam supported and fed ‘those insects, which had a mind to live together quietly and friendly’ who in turn would not ‘transgress their bounds or eat holes thro’ the sides of the guts […] but they would rather by gently licking the parts and by healing them do their Host a kindly office.’[2] After the Fall however, the worms became ‘Ministers of Divine justice’ mounting an insurrection upon man and given ‘leave to destroy and become a common Enemy of Mankind.’[3]⁠ 

This explanation correctly argued against spontaneous generation, and by theological analogy, hit upon an idea about the evolution of parasitic organisms that recognized the parasitic lifestyle as an evolutionary adaptation. However, the theologically ordained relationship between pathology and morality, was an association that focused on internal disorganization and ignored the significance of external sanitation practices. T. Spencer Cobbold lamented the persistence of this association as late as 1879: ‘some [people] still cling to the creed that the presence of parasites, of internal ones at least, betoken evidence of Divine disfavor.’[4] The relationship between religion and science then is complex, and can have lasting effects, which are to some extent, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mutualistic. Indeed even now scientists recognize their cultural relationship to religion, as evidenced in the nick-naming of the Higgs Boson, the ‘God particle’. While some may interpret this as a discovery that makes religious beliefs obsolete, others would more pantheistically argue that it simply demonstrates a reinterpretation of our fixed anthropocentric ideas about a Divine Creator.

Although now in the Western world commonly considered to be a replacement for religion, even to be a new religion, science also functions to reaffirm faith. Albert Einstein famously asserted that the more he studied science, the more he believed in God, and argued for a symbiotic relationship that saw one lame and the other blind in isolation. This perhaps conflates wonder at the universe with teleology, however is something I often come across in my research. Certainly the argument that science is religion is found in the correspondence between two physicians in the 1890s: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Patrick Manson, two epoch-making

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

scientists who specialized in tropical medicine. They both use religious language to discuss their research, and in the process equate the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria (which Ross won the Nobel Prize for in 1902, and which saved thousands of lives through preventative sanitary measures in the colonies) as on a par with the coming of a biblical prophet. Ross (working in British India) prepares to send Manson (working in London) some mosquitoes containing malaria parasites to dissect, and Manson responds:

I shall welcome the twelve apostles –I mean the twelve mosquitoes in glycerine, for I hope to make them apostles in a malarial sense—preachers of the gospel of Laveran and of the cause you and I have at heart.[5]

The ‘Gospel of Lavernity’ is mentioned in other letters in the five-year correspondence, and refers to Alphonse Laveran’s discovery of the Plasmodium parasite and his postulation that it was responsible for the disease Malaria. The religious framework is continued. When discussing Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrie, who disbelieved in the malaria parasite, instead believing Laveran’s organism to be degenerated protoplasm, Manson writes: ‘these are thy prophets O Israel’[6] referring to Ezekiel 13 and the reproof of the false prophets. Indeed, it is not just Christian terminology that they borrow to express their ideas. When discussing the aetiology of Plague and its potential connection to a mammalian vector, Ross asserts: ‘If I were Surgeon General Cleghorn, the first thing I would do would be to bring a Jehad against the rats and I would kill all the rats in and around Bombay’.[7] Manson and Ross use religion to lend authority to scientific endeavour, however, in doing so they do not belittle its authenticity, nor dismiss its claims to truth.  During Ross’s years spent dedicated to the malaria problem he wrote research poems, some of which are discussed in earlier posts. These explore and catalogue his emotional response to his research and his troubled relationship to theology. In an 1890-3 poem entitled ‘Indian Fevers’ Ross recounts his experience as a colonial physician and his frustration at being unable to provide effective treatment. He entreats God to enlighten him.

            In this, O Nature, yield I pray, to me.
I pace, and pace, and think and think, and take,
The fever’d hands, and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

The painful faces ask, can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure
The unseen, small, but million-murdering cause.[8]

Elsewhere he talks about ‘gazing worn and weary from this Dark world’ and again asks help from the ‘steadfast eye of God’. His Romantic tradition poetry, borrowing from the likes of Keats and Shelley retains a pantheistic outlook and worships Truth, Wisdom and Nature as readily as a single deity. In his frustrations he often questions organized religion, and the politics of imperialism.

            The lordly anthem peals
The while the people rot
The gilded church reveals
The penury of their lot.

No matter—let them starve!
The gorgeous mass atones;
These glorious arches serve
To sepulchre their bones.[9]

His poem ‘Reply’ from ‘In Exile’ written in India is his most famous poem, composed upon finding the proof for his discovery. The first part is often quoted as his ‘malaria day poem’ and is as follows:


This day relenting God
Hath placed with in my hand
A wonderous thing; and God
Be praised. At his command

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad man will save,
O Death where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?[10]

He attributes his findings to divine intervention, but understands this intervention in terms of patience and faith. Ultimately he advocates an understanding of religion that celebrates human endeavour and rather beautifully illustrates the divinity within the human:

The voice of God is heard,
Not in a thunder-fit;
A still small voice is heard,
Half-heard, and that is it.[11]

In an increasingly secular time, many people still find wonder in the power and beauty of the universe. Whether we attribute that feeling of awe, privilege, and emotion to its divine creation, to a Romantic sense of pantheism, or simply to an attempt to impose meaning on an otherwise chaotic world, it still remains significant that the cultural dialogue engendered by this functions as a space in which we can ponder our practical and moralistic identity as human beings.

[1] A. Vallisneri, New observations and experiments upon the eggs of worms found in humane bodies (London, 1713) quoted in Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms: Bred in the Bodies of Men and Other Animals (London, Printed for J Wilcox at the Green Dragon, 1721) reproduced online: [accessed July 2015] p.352.

[2] Daniel LeClerc adds the suggestion that other parasites like lice might be explained in a similar manner, having a use which is now impossible for us to discern and appearing innocence to innocent Adam under the auspices of a holy symbiosis, ‘the Lice which we now seem to have such an abhorrence of […] might [have been] very serviceable to [man], in gently opening the pores of the skin.’ A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms, p.354.

[3] Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms pp.352-3.

[4] T. Spencer Cobbold, Parasites; a treatise on the entozoa of man and animals including some account of the ectozoa (London: J & A Churchhill, 1879) reproduced online: [accessed July 2015]

[5] Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 32 02/011’ The Beast in the Mosquito: the Correspondence of Ronald Ross and Patrick Manson eds. W.F.Bynum and Caroline Overy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) p.92.

[6] Patrick Manson, p.77.

[7] Ronald Ross, ‘Letter 50 02/021’ Beast in the Mosquito, p.149.

[8] Ronald Ross, ‘Indian Fevers’ Philosophies (London: John Murray, 1911) p.21.

[9] Ronald Ross, ‘Lies’ Philosophies, p.43.

[10] Ronald Ross, ‘Reply’ Philosophies, p.53.

[11] p.54.

(Re)Imagining Insects: friends? foes? food sources?

My research involves a type of organism that was given a new focus in the late nineteenth century. Described as “beautiful”, as like “etruscan vases”, but also like “serpents”, “brutes” and “sausages”, these organisms come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are responsible for millions of deaths a year, inhabit the intestines, lungs, blood, liver, muscle tissue, even brain. Of course I’m talking about parasites. My work focuses on protozoan (single-celled) parasites – newly visibly to the microscopist – and their role in tropical diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness (human african trypanosomiasis), and kala-azar (visceral leishmaniScreen Shot 2014-12-17 at 12.37.22asis).

At the turn of the century these microorganisms held cultural significance for the British public, especially in light of Britain’s Imperial possessions, where such diseases had a direct impact on commercial trade, on military service and on colonial life. The discovery that mosquitoes act as vectors (carriers) for filariasis by Patrick Manson in 1877; that they carry the parasites responsible for malaria by Ronald Ross in 1898; as well as the discovery that tsetse flies transmit trypanosomiasis by David Bruce in 1903, that blackflies transmit onchocerciasis in 1917, and that many bacterial diseases are transmitted by insects, reconfigured the way that humans thought of such organisms. Articles like the one these photos are from renegotiated the relationship between humans and nonhumans, setting up dichotomies that used imperial and military rhetoric as a way of processing the damage caused by such seemingly insignificant creatures.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 13.12.44

However, while insects were being vilified by imperial articles concerning disease transmission, elsewhere they were being lorded as miniature examples of human society. Articles concerning the “gentleman bee” and working class ant attempted to reconnect disparate taxonomies through social understandings of the natural world. Elsewhere still animal rights activists (The Society for the Protection of Animals was established in 1824 and granted its royal status in 1840) were ushering children to be kind to all animals, including insects. From just these few movements we can see that insects held varying cultural significances in the nineteenth century and contributed to disciplines as diverse as tropical medicine, social theory, and animal welfare.

In 2014, programmes like David Attenborough’s Life Stories give us groundbreaking HD footage of the secret lives of underground colonies of insects and ask us to reconsider their, and our, place in the Natural world. Gastronaut Stefan Gates has recently, in the wake of a UN report that highlights insects as a sustainable food source, even made insect mince pies!

These differing interpretations of the importance of the insect, which have their origins historically, but are still being realised today, struck me as significant – if not simply interesting. So together with a colleague in French studies, who works on Insects in the Enlightenment, we decided to organise a conference discussing the ways in which insects impacted human life and culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The conference, entitled “(Re)Imagining the Insect: Natures and Cultures of Invertebrates, 1700-1900” will take place at the University of Warwick on 7th March 2015 and invites scholarship from a variety of disciplines including science, history, literature and languages. The cfp deadline is 19th december 2014, so there’s still time to submit something if this speaks to your research! More information can be found on our website. If an eye on our twitter hashtag #insectconf in March for more discussion and live-tweets!

You can read a more in-depth discussion about our conference in an interview at the Learned Pig.

Cadaver Speak, Arabic Science and Antediluvian Monsters at #BSLS2014

Just returned home from a scintillating three days at BSLS2014 hosted by the University of Surrey, where I met (and re-met) a whole host of kindred spirits working on things as diverse as surveillance fiction, Victorian toxicology, the Scottish new woman doctor, and dinosaur archaeology. Over the course of teas, coffees, lunches, papers, questions and plenaries I enjoyed the truly interdisciplinary spirit of lit/sci scholars. I gave a paper entitled “(Re)constructing the Knights of Science: Parasitologists and their Literary Imaginations,” heavily featuring my favourite research subject: Sir Ronald Ross.


From the collection “Cadaver Speak” by Marianne Boruch

Conference highlights for me included a particularly well put together panel discussing (among other things) the cultural significance of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, and another discussing the parallels between bodily and social toxicity, as well as a thoroughly engaging tour of historically founding Arabic science by Jim Al-khalili. Julia Boll read out some haunting poetry as part of  a collection that attempts to reinvest medical bodies with subjectivity, which led us onto a Medical Humanities inflected discussion about the work that Art does in relation to medicine. Bernard Lightman used a rather Holmesian method to deduce the connection between Arthur Conan Doyle’s eponymous hero and Georges Cuvier, taking us via Voltaire, Edinburgh Medical School and T.H.Huxley, and the conference was rounded off with a trip to the beautiful Down House.
Darwin’s home and gardens provided plenty of interesting artefacts as well as cream teas, garden walks and origami dinosaurs.


Darwin’s Mysterious Illness by Robert Youngson

And I bought this exciting book (left) about Darwin’s mysterious illness by Robert Youngson which investigates the historical and medical evidence for the various theories (one of which, excitingly for me, includes the suggestion that he suffered from the parasitic infection Chagas’ disease!). It ultimately concludes, however, that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the most likely candidate.


Origami Dino tyrannising the BSLS conference pack


I’ll conclude with Three interesting things I learnt at BSLS:

– the word gibberish is attributable to the C9th chemist from Baghdad, Jabir ibn Hayyan, and his famously obscure prose

– H. Rider Haggard wrote books about farming

– The pterodactyl’s apparent universality of adaptation was described by victorians using references to Milton’s Fiend!

With thanks to Dr. Gregory Tate and all the members of BSLS for such a brilliant conference. I’m certainly looking forward to next year!

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