Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Ancient Boats and Etruscan Vases: Parasite Poetry & Founding Figures.

Surgeon Major Ronald Ross K.C.B  F.R.S, Physician, Scientist, Mathematician, Novelist, Artist, Poet.

Yes you read that right. Impressive accolade isn’t it? Sir Ronald Ross, the first British person to receive a Nobel prize in Medicine for his discovery of the Malaria vector, awarded a knighthood, a lectureship, an honorary M.D…He is a seminal figure in scientific research, but what is little known about Ross are his other accomplishments. He was a successful novelist and a quite striking poet. The Ross institute at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine boasts a vast archive of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, letters from unlikely figures like H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, mathematic notebooks, research logs, poetry and even watercolour sketches of the Isle of Wight.[1]

How did this seemingly unconscious one-man attempt to ‘bridge the mutual gulf’[2] affect his life and work? Well for a start it wasn’t unconscious. Ross believed that art and science could, and did, work best together:

‘Science is the Differential Calculus of the mind. Art the Integral Calculus;      they may be beautiful when apart, but are greatest only when combined.’   –Sir Ronald Ross.[3]

He wrote poetry alongside his research, which often reflected his mood (increasingly Byronic descriptions of lost stars crying and blood red skies accompany his failed attempts under the influence of Malaria infection in India) and his poetry also narrated his ’heroic’ journey of discovery:

“I pace and pace, and think and think, and take
The fevered 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 through all this thing obscure
The unseen small but million-murdering cause.”[4]

Correspondence between Ross and his friend and guru, fellow researcher, ‘father of Tropical Medicine’, and first president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, nick-named ‘Mosquito Manson’, Sir Patrick Manson, reflects his artistic side – in one letter referring to a ‘fight’ between a flagellum and 3 phagocytes (under a microscope) as like ‘the three musketeers.’  His undeniable literary streak shines through in his scientific publications, where he describes mosquito eggs as ‘shaped curiously like ancient boats with raised stern and prow [with] lines radiating from the concave border like banks of oars’[5]. Even Manson indulges in this literary description, noting the similarity between mosquito eggs and beautiful ‘Etruscan vases’[6].

Too often such historical tributes to interdisciplinarity are overlooked; increasingly the two camps are recognising the benefits they can gain from traversing the gulf and my research is concerned with just that – the public understanding of science and how far scientific knowledge is shaped by cultural nuances. (Baited breath for future PhD progress blogposts!)

I’ll conclude this brief glimpse into the two cultures with a quote from Manson on the place of art in a scientific world, he says ‘Poetry never goes back on you. Learn as many pieces as you can, go over them again and again until the words come of themselves and then you have joy forever that cannot be stolen or broken […] The thing you cannot get a pigeon-hole for is the finger-point showing the way to discovery.’[7]

If you have opinions about the cross-over between science and literature and the public understanding of science why not send us a proposal or come along to our symposium. 

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[1] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Ross Institute at: http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/library/archives/ross/index.html

[2] See The Two Culture’s debate inspired by C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures. (1959, London: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

[3] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (1995, Winchester: Faber and Faber)

[4] Ronald Ross Memoirs, with a full account of the Great Malaria Problem and its Solution (1923, Kindle Edition, 2012)

[5] Ronald Ross, ‘On some peculiar pigmented cells found in two mosquitos fed on malarial blood’ British Medical Journal 2 (1897) 1786-88.

[6] Patrick Manson ‘On the development of Filaria sanguinis hominis, and on the mosquito considered as a Nurse’ Journal of the Linnean Society, Zoology 14(1878) 304-11.

[7] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (Winchester: Faber and Faber, 1995)

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3 thoughts on “Ancient Boats and Etruscan Vases: Parasite Poetry & Founding Figures.

  1. thanks for such a great post and the review, i am totally impressed!http://www.boliche.com.br/email.htm

  2. Pingback: Between Boundaries, Places and Cultures: Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity and Nineteenth Century Oneness. « interdisciplinarydialogues

  3. Pingback: (Re)presenting the Victorians: How contemporary popularity helps to balance a distorted cultural history. | interdisciplinarydialogues

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