Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the category “Conferences”

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!

Planes, Panels and Pastries: thoughts on NAVSA 2013


Kunstformen Der Natur, Ernst Haeckel (1874) [image source]

When I told friends and family that I was spending two weeks of October in sunny California at NAVSA, most of them misheard me and thought I was training to be an astronaut. (The recent reveal that NASA have been sending jellyfish into space in order to study the impact on their development, might have intrigued Victorian physiologist George Romanes who described them as ‘the most delicately lovely creatures in the world,’[1] so there are connections here somewhere!) Paper written, teaching seminars covered, VISA, passport and boarding pass in hand, I boarded the plane along with a friend and colleague, ready for a transformative LA experience. The following 11 hours consisted of stuffiness, exhaustion and tots reacting badly to air pressure, but finally we arrived in  Pasadena.

The conference theme was “evidence” and was to include papers ranging from the ‘specimen poem’ to the origins of the Rorschach test. I gave a paper on the significance of evidence to nineteenth century understandings of parasitic disease. This “evidence”, I argued, was subjective and imbrued with interpretive bias; what was it that made some parasitologists see bacilli, others see protozoa, and others still, like Ronald Ross, see “beasts”, “rogues” and narrative stories beneath the microscope?

Laura Otis gave a paper detailing her qualitative research on the diverse reading experiences of individuals, including interviews with biologists, physicists and novelists alike. She explored the relationship between thought and language, ultimately concluding that there is no ‘right’ or unified mode of reading. This struck a chord with my research, which in part explores the use of imagination by nineteenth century parasitologists, both in proving their theories and in branding the discipline.

Christy Reiger and David Agruss, raised ethical and political concerns in relation to the economy of medical evidence and the practice of vivisection respectively, Agruss drawing parallels between geographical fluvial description and medical accounts of the circulatory system.

Erin Wilson discussed the figure of the Doctor in late-nineteenth century vampire fiction, arguing that, in line with scientific specialisation, the physician was increasingly taking on a new narrative role in such novels. She suggested that their position as doctor gives them unparalleled medical and narrative authority, however that the accuracy of their diagnoses depends on their worldly medical experience, rather than prior training, using Dr Philips (Of Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire, 1897) and Drs Seward and Van Helsing (Of Stoker’s Dracula, 1897) as examples.

A panel which really intrigued me was one entitled ‘Evidence of Other Worlds’, which explored the unconventional alternative spheres of nineteenth century imagination. Bradley Deane started us off with a bogus dinosaur video shown at the Annual Meeting of Magicians by Arthur Conan Doyle. He then went on to analyse the seeming paradox between Doyle’s love of mysticism and pseudo-science and his creation of the most logical detective in literary history. He did this by questioning the logic behind the franchise’s deductive reasoning and taking a closer look at the ‘Holmesian clue’, which he constructs as a fusion of Realism and Romance. Jules Law’s paper employed Holmes’ mental map of London to aid his discussion of medical cartography and its artistic license, and Deanna Kreisel explored Victorian geometry and the multiple (cultural) dimensions of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884).

bicycleOther highlights included learning about ‘bicycle face’ – a nervous disease thought to be contracted by young women who spent too much time riding bicycles! And a paper investigating the feminine wiles of the Lady detective.
In summary, my first NAVSA experience was a good one; if I had to provide evidence for my enjoyment, it would be laid out thus: new friendships, inspiring papers, lots of bagels.

Of Further Interest:

‘A List of Don’ts for Women on Bicycles’ (1895) <;

‘Everything is Interconnected’ an Artist’s material culture project making statements with Book Art  <;

[1] G. J. Romanes, Jellyfish, Starfish and Sea Urchins, being a research on primitive nervous systems (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1885) p2.

Hic Dragones – Monsters: Subject, Object, Abject.

Last week (12th-13th April 2012) I travelled to Manchester Museum for the much anticipated Hic Dragones conference on the new in vogue topic of ‘the monstrous’.

Conferences seem to be popping up all over to address the idea of the monster and the monstrous in 2012 so I was expecting rather a lot from the ram-packed 2 day schedule. And boy did it deliver! From monstrous houses to monstrous narrative, Japanese Kappa myth to the quantum immortal, there were a diverse range of enthralling and exciting papers. Talks from literary scholars, artists, performers, and a museum curator branded the conference appropriately interdisciplinary.

Matthew Freeman of the University of Nottingham presented a paper on the figure of the child in Doctor Who, sparking an interesting debate about the evolution of children’s television from the innocuous PG-rated Goosebumps of the 90’s to the sometimes quite terrifying Sci-Fi of Dr. Who. Notably Goosebumps  was marketed as ‘horror fiction’ whereas Dr. Who is ‘science fiction’ – does this indicate the infiltration of horror to other genres? Matthew’s paper discussed the figure of the child in conjunction with that of the monster, arguing very competently for a narrative and conceptual connection between the two.

James Campbell’s paper on the portrayal of mental illness in DC Comics’ Batman franchise, Tracy Fahey’s paper on the diabetic body, and Michel Delville and Andrew Norris’ joint-paper on hunger and resistance all discussed the (mis)representations of stigmatised illness in popular culture.

Papers on the self-constructed monstrous facade (Lisa Temple-Cox’ Making myself a monster, Rosie Garland’s The girl you never loved but always looked for, and Susanne Hamscha’s Gaga, Oh La La: Lady Gaga and the pleasures of being a freak) sparked hot debate concerning society’s willingness to accept the monstrous aesthetic – artificial versus natural, and drew our attention to the parameters of monstrosity. This primed us to receive papers dealing with less conventional subjects like Ersi Ioannidou’s Dismembered Domestricity: the House as Monster, David Allen’s Expedition Everest and Garfield Benjamin’s Virtual Monsters: Becoming Death and the Quantum Immortal. 

A whirlwind of talks on monstrous: choices, spectatorship, politics, tradition and even cuteness over the two days kindled controversy, dispute and constructive dialogue – punctuated by two beautifully prepared lunches and, of course, plenty of tea and coffee!

This well-structured and intellectually intriguing conference brought together kindred spirits for refreshingly interdisciplinary discussion – choosing between parallel sessions was truly crippling!

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