Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Geeks, Knights and Popular Science: The Commercialisation of the Scientist.

Like any good LitSci scholar the basis for much of my work stems from the notion that nothing occurs in isolation. Science and literature both take inspiration from the cultural zeitgeist, or as my supervisor recently put it ‘stuff that happens’. This may seem like an oversimplification, and it is, but there’s still no getting away from the fact that the things we do are influenced by the ‘stuff that’s happening’ or spirit of the times. The chapter I’m currently working on explores the professional identity of parasitologists in the late-nineteenth century and the ways in which they marketed themselves.

Interestingly, the period in which professional institutions were set up to study parasites coincides with the nineteenth century medieval revival, and this can be seen in their choice of language. Parasitologists are dubbed ‘knights of science’, their research expeditions: chivalric adventures into foreign lands. At his Nobel prize ceremony in 1902, Ross is described as ‘a hero from Africa […] occupied in a war against the most insidious enemy to mankind.’[1]  This battle metaphor works on multiple levels, particularly the polarisation of host and parasite. Host bodies are often understood in terms of geography in the nineteenth century, as T. Spencer Cobbold writes:

Each animal or ‘host’ may be regarded as a continent and each part or viscus of his body may be noted as a ‘district’. Each district has its own special attractions for particular parasitic forms; yet, at the same time, neither the district not the continent make suitable localities as a permanent resting place for the invader.[2]

This analogy might be seen as equating parasitic migration within the host body with colonial exploration; if the British Empire is seen in terms of a body, in a reversal of the analogy, then the tropics might be seen as organs infested with parasites. But I don’t want to get too bogged down in the contexts of interpretation, or indeed the framing of scientific narratives with cultural preoccupations [PhD Spoiler alert!]. What I’m interested in today is the use of zeitgeist to frame popular understanding.

What’s the modus operandi of 21st century science? No longer manipulated to reinforce British greatness, modern science is framed with modern concerns. The in vogue status of physics, with advocates like the eloquent and photogenic Prof. Brian Cox, or the notoriously brilliant Stephen Hawking, have made the celebrity scientist a very real figure in the public sphere. Cox’s involvement in BBC’s Stargazing live and educational television series like ‘Wonders of the Universe’ have led to the run-away success of amateur astrophysics. Award-winning American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, endorsed by Hawking with his multiple cameo appearances (The Hawking Excitation; The Extract Obliteration) has happily reinforced the scientist as a venerated, relevant and trendy figure consumed by a modern audience. The latest government funding directives, steering financial support away from the humanities, have instigated a push to get children interested in science, however – in tandem – science has been redefined as a discipline no longer in isolation. Science has a public face, appearing on television, radio debates, and social media sites; in comedy and documentary form. The scientist is no longer alone in a laboratory, but in front of a camera, evolving from chivalric agents of Empire to celebrity role models promoting a new tagline: science is sexy.

[1] ‘Liverpool’ British Medical Journal 1(1903)2192, p. 48.

[2] T. Spencer Cobbold, Entozoa: An introduction to the study of helminthology, with reference, more particularly, to the internal parasites of man. (London: Groombridge & Sons, 1864) p.4.

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