Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

(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.

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