Laughing in the Archives: The Quirks that make History of Science Worth Writing
Today’s long-overdue post is about silliness. In fact it’s about the human side of history, inspired by the many times I’ve spent on my own in the archives silently chuckling about something said or written over 100 years ago. This post is a compilation of those times when one glimpses under the veil.
As the proverbial ‘star’ of my research, it seems only fitting we start with Sir Ronald Ross, whose penchant for annotating in the margins of letters and articles makes him always a joy to read.
Including these frankly childish drawings in his otherwise sensible research diaries…
Music as Punishment
In a letter to friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who is trying to convince him to study mesmerism as a science, Ross playfully threatens him with having to endure Ross’ musical compilations and pokes fun at his own overreaching ambitions:
“You are always asking me to attend to psychic matters, but I am not competent and have no time. […] How do you imagine that an old fellow of sixty-two can do this when he has to finish writing his memoirs and to bring out the completion of several mathematical works, not to mention masses of war office malaria work and some great masterpieces in poetry? Besides that I want to compose some more music, and if you do not stop trying to persuade me to be a psychiatrist, I will insist upon your coming to hear said music.” – 13th Jan 1919
Lady Lever’s Lady’s Man
In a speech given at a dinner held in the honour of Sir William and Lady Lever, the rather amusing invitation of which is pictured right, Ross refers to Sir William as: a Chairman, Sanitarian, Humanitarian, Politician, Scientist, Artist, Author, Dramatist, Poet, Obedient Husband, Father and ‘Lady’s Man’.
Solemn Review; buy it, despite the colour, and the poetry.
Pictured here is a review of Ross’ poetry by John Maytime printed in Isis in 1898. The light-hearted text reads:
“I began by liking this book very much; and after a short period of disapproval I am trying hard to conclude now by admiring it. […] the best is the enemy of the good, and the best is the only possible criterion for criticising poetry. Therefore, I apologise for liking this book no more than I do, which is really the best compliment I can pay it. Also despite the fact that it is bound in salmon-pink, printed higgledy-piggledy, and ill-corrected as to the proofs, I solemnly advise you to buy this book.”
This newspaper article gives us an insight into the sillier side of Science.
Women being overwhelmed by Science.
With the exception of a few science-savvy women, mostly wives of parasitologists who are granted the ability to cope with scientific discovery by proxy, the fin-de-siècle trend is to represent women as being charmed or overwhelmed by science. Here are two examples.
The Manchester Dispatch reports on the opening of the Parasitological section at Russell Square, as part of the Institute of Public Health in 1906. Here is what it has to say about the many women present.
“Dainty ladies listened to learned explanations by immaculate gentlemen, who discoursed earnestly about the irrepressible penchant of the common fly and other creatures indicated by Sir Patrick Manson for picking up minute and undesirable acquaintances, cast enthralled looks upon pictures of the tiny scavengers, inspected bacilli through microscopes, and rewarded the amateur lecturers with such expressions as “Most awfully interesting, isn’t it?” “Dear me, how charmingly weird!” “Makes you wriggle to think of it” and so on.”
Example number two takes the form of a book review. When reviewing Gwendolen Foulke Andrews’ book, The Living Substance as Such and as Organism, the editor of the BMJ writes:
“This book is one long note of exclamation. The wonders of the microscope and the deep mysteries of life which it reveals have led the author into poetic flights and a wilderness of words.”
But instead of praising her enthusiasm, the reviewer dismisses her work by summarising it,
“The whole gist of the book might have been put into the following sentences – The author has wonderfully good eyes, a marvellously good microscope, [and] a lot of leisure time in which to peep through it.”
In my research I stumbled across many poems, some good, some bad, some just plain silly like this one by British entomologist Geoffrey D. H. Carpenter, written on his travels in Uganda.
And this poem entitled ‘The Disease of the Day’ published in the Times which parodies the saturated news coverage of parasitic disease trypanosomiasis, as well as attributing all the country’s problems to an infestation of government, interestingly compounding a ‘country as body’ metaphor. It includes the lines:
We knew the Government must be
By some malignant germ infested;
Some secret malady we felt
Was by its reckless acts suggested:
But now the truth comes out at last,
And in its muddling course one traces,
Signs that it has this ailment new –
And has it very badly too –
And finally here’s a photograph of Mr and Mrs Ross at ‘Bicycle Club’ in Bangalore, 1896. There’s just something a bit lovely about great minds on bicycles. The “safety bicycle” being modelled here was developed in the 1880s by J. K. Starley as a precursor to the modern bicycle, and a breakthrough allowing women to join in with the fun. However, whilst popular among the middle classes, there was still some anxiety surrounding their use. The BMJ published an article devoted to them in 1898, entitled ‘A Form of Neuralgia Occurring in Cyclists’, and bicycles are a source of anxiety for English entomologist Ernest E. Austen when he accompanies Ross on an expedition to Sierra Leone in 1899. In what reads as a panicked stream-of-consciousness, Austen writes:
“I shall bring a gun. What about cartridges? Alas, would a service .303 rifle be of any use? I don’t quite know what to do about my bicycle; it has pneumatic tyres…”