Victorian Parasites

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Archive for the category “Prominent People”

A Taxonomy of Science: the case of an un-Wellcome portrait.

In July 1913 Sir Ronald Ross wrote to the Wellcome museum to ask to have his portrait removed from their collections. Why, you might ask. Was it an incorrect likeness, poorly labelled or badly painted? No. It was simply hung too close to someone he didn’t like.

As you are probably aware if you have read my blog before Ronald Ross was a phenomenally interesting character. Sharp-tongued and combative, he helped to revolutionise tropical medicine at the turn of the century. He was an experimental pioneer, championed scientific researchers’ rights – both financially and intellectually – and petitioned the African, Indian and British governments for sanitation and hygiene improvements in the colonies. His big project, for which he won the Nobel prize in 1902 was to prove that one of the colonies’ biggest killers, Malaria, was spread not by miasmas or contaminated soil, but by a parasite carried in the salivary glands of the anopheles mosquito.

This discovery was the result of months of hard labour, hours of microscope work and a fair amount of trial and error. He based his work on the theories of his forebears, Charles Laveran and Patrick Manson, and in 1897 successfully ‘followed’ the parasite from an infected patient into the stomach of an anopheles mosquito. He then , in 1898, successfully infected healthy birds (owing to a shortage in human volunteers and an unfavourable military rotation) with Avian malaria using mosquitoes. The series of experiments proved the theory that malaria was conveyed to their definitive host by a mosquito vector. He also identified, after much difficulty, that avian malaria was conveyed by “grey” mosquitoes and that human malaria was probably conveyed by “dappled-winged” mosquitoes. Italian zoologist Giovanni Battista Grassi would later confirm Ross’ findings and identify Ross’ “grey” and “dappled-winged” mosquitoes as Culex and Anopheles respectively. In collaboration with fellow researchers Bastianelli and Bignami, Grassi then demonstrated the infection of humans by the same method – a fact that Ross took as simply further confirmation of his groundbreaking discovery and Grassi took as the final stage and thus ‘clincher’ of the mosquito theory.

A fierce and very ugly rivalry ensued between the two men, with accusations of plagiarism and misconduct, as well as result-fixing and outright deception. Several publications in the BMJ, The Lancet and the Indian Medical Gazette dealt with the controversy, and a variety of scientists including Koch, Nuttall, Manson, Laveran, Mannerberg, and Lankester voiced their opinions in Ross’ favour. In a letter to Ross Koch ‘consider[s] Grassi to be a rogue and a robber in scientific domains’, and Charles T. Edmonston asks Ross, who wanted to publish his correspondence discussing Grassi, to do so on the proviso that ‘if in any allusion to Grassi [he] had spoken of his “childish” enthusiasm it should appear in print as “********” enthusiasm.’ This suggests that he had been rather more free with his tongue than he thought respectable. (He also refers to him, somewhat confusingly, as ‘a ten horse power donkey’.)

Among Ross’ papers I found several manuscripts dealing with the scandal, one of which, entitled ‘Some Italian Piracies in Science’, and later changed to ‘Italian Dishonesty in Science’, read:

“A group of Italian writers on malaria and parasitology have long been notorious in scientific circles for their persistent and clever attempts to acquire credit for discoveries not really made by them. They have seldom made important discoveries of their own; their work has generally consisted merely of obvious verifications of the labours of others; but whenever a new observation of importance is signaled, they at once commence their efforts to share in the credit of it.”

14 years later it was still a sore point for Ross, who vitriolically demanded his portrait, which was hung on the left of Manson, whilst Grassi’s was hung on the right, be taken down. He wrote: “I like neither the portrait nor the association”, insisting that the placement of the portraits was “made on purpose in order to perpetuate what [he], and most scientific men, regard to be a series of falsities regarding [his] work”. Despite Henry Wellcome’s best efforts to assure Ross’ that the museum remained impartial in the matter and that no attempts were made to ‘classify’ the scientists by such arrangements, Ross insisted that by placing the portraits in such a manner certain notions of priority might be inferred, and furthermore that left as it was, the connotations would be taken by visitors as representative of the museum, it’s benefactors and indeed the country.

Amusing story as this is, it offers a real insight into the competitiveness of a newly established profession (that of the [tropical] medical researcher) and raises interesting questions about the politics of historical collections. By placing collections in certain orders and establishments are we attempting to ‘classify’ history? Does the set up of the collection itself tell us something about its contents? These questions will certainly be flickering at the back of my mind next time I visit the Wellcome museum.


Pulling the Lion’s Tail: Competition & Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Science.

For the past week I have had the immense pleasure of working on the Ross Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  With 19,000 items in the archives I have my work cut out for me! Among the beautiful and sometimes frankly illegible handwritten letters, photos and telegrams (which unfortunately I cannot include photos of due to copyright agreements) I have found some truly exciting insights into the lives of nineteenth century scientists.

Something that struck me particularly was the sense of competition.  We may be familiar with the concept of scientific rivalry, even with the pettiness of bids for priority or recognition – many historical claims to fame are ruthless – but to see this played out in real time, not relayed through a textbook or journal is irreplaceable. Ross’ dispute with Italian parasitologist Giovanni Battista Grassi is well-known, both men researching the mosquito theory of malaria in the 1890s,[1] however to my knowledge less well known is the rivalry (or rather fairly one-sided hatred) of George Nuttall and Robert Koch. You may be familiar with Koch as the Nobel prize-winning German bacteriologist who isolated the bacilli responsible for Anthrax, Tuberculosis and Cholera. However you might not be familiar with the eminent parasitologist George H. R. Nuttall who, among other things, identified the organism responsible for gangrene, the importance of intestinal bacteria in digestion, and  established the first British Journal dedicated to Parasitology. Despite their seemingly mutual interests, Nuttall gossips, undermines and bad-mouths Koch in a series of letters written to Ross in the late 1890s, and with apparent conviction.

In one of Nuttall’s first letters to Ross dated 13th August 1898, he describes how in Koch’s publications he ‘ignores your [Ross’] work completely’, and goes on to say ‘I have [first] written a review of his publication and have drawn attention to this. Koch is rather an unscrupulous individual I feel […] I am sorry to say this of him [here] there was a time when I stood him on a pedestal.’[2] From this we have the impression of a prior relationship turned sour, but this subtle undermining only escalates as the correspondence continues. In September he informs Ross in postscript that Koch has been in German East Africa, reporting on malaria, texas fever and ‘tsetse disease’. Nuttall says: ‘His [anticks] are a bit of trumpet blowing, but contains little that is [refined].’[3] As Nuttall relates the publications and research in malaria circles for Ross’ information, sometimes with hints and the addition of his own observations, his letters become peppered with scathing asides reporting on Koch’s movements and scientific contributions. In a letter dated 21st December 1898 he congratulates Ross on his recent work on avian malaria in grey mosquitoes, but ever the controversialist he adds:

I heard the other day that the Koch institute is full of birds and mosquitoes! But this was a private tip – it may interest you? They are awfully suspicious and secretive at the institute. The [report] I sent you has rather upset them and my paper on malaria will do still more as it [proves pretty] distinctly that they are not “in it” as the Yankee says.[4]

The glee he takes in this spying on a rival is evident, and climaxes in a heated letter of March 1899 where he encloses a copy of a damning report on Koch’s apparent bad behaviour; ‘The following pages will interest you, I have written them in duplicate as I think some leading men should know about the abominable way some people are behaving.’[5] The subversive ‘some’ clearly refers to Koch, whom he accuses of ‘scientific pirating’ and the claiming of others’ discoveries for his own, ignoring their contributions and unfairly claiming credit. He relates a particularly shocking dispute between Koch and Grassi, where Koch allegedly tries to sabotage Grassi’s experiments by spying on his assistants, collecting all his specimens, placing official restraints on non-German commission mosquito collecting in Rome (which is only repealed when Grassi threatens to go to the Italian newspapers) and generally not giving credit where credit is due. He rouses others to protest against what he gleefully dubs “new Koch methods” – making his name synonymous with ‘scientific brigandage’. He then adds ‘though for that matter they [Koch methods] are not so very new either’ suggesting that nothing Koch does could ever be original.

Nuttall gets his way when Ross diligently shows the transcript to Manson and others, the wording of which he finds ‘highly amusing’. Having not made it through all of the correspondence, or heard Koch’s side of the story, I don’t know how far these events reflect the historical reality, but they certainly illustrate a deep professional hatred between scientific colleagues of opposing nationalities (Nuttall is British-American, Koch is German) and perhaps a fierce and admirable defence of the right to intellectual property. He laments (perhaps ironically in light of Ross’ later rather messy disputes with the Italians) that [Ross is] ‘the only man who shows the proper spirit of fair play. All the rest want to bag each others’ game in a manner that disgusts me.’[6] And in defence of Grassi he says ‘Koch has got hold of the wrong lion by the tail in Grassi, as he is known in Italy to be a terror with tongue and pen. If there is a fight on, he is well prepared.’[7] This is a fight Ross may have found amusing then, but would undoubtedly have felt the full force of in later years when he himself had a tug on the Italian lion’s tail.

[1] Ernesto Campana, ‘Grassi versus Ross: Who Solved the Riddle of Malaria?’International Microbiology 9(2006) 69-74. Reproduced online:

William F. Bynum and Caroline Overy (eds.) The Beast in the Mosquito: The Correspondence of Ronald Ross and Patrick Manson (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B. V., 1998) pp.xxi-xxiii exert available:

[2] George H. R. Nuttall, Letter to Ronald Ross, 13th August 1898.

[3] Nuttall to Ross, 25th September 1898.

[4] Nuttall to Ross, 21st December 1898.

[5] Nuttall to Ross, 19th March 1899.

[6] Nuttall to Ross, 13th April 1899.

[7] Nuttall to Ross, 19th March 1899.

‘A Sacred Passion for Discovery’: Bad Students & Great Scholars.

“Our books of science are records of results rather than of that sacred passion for discovery that leads to them”.[1]


A brief post – I was perusing Ronald Ross’ Memoirs and was struck by the unconventional honesty with which he relates his medical training as a young man. Moreover I discovered (to my delight) that students really never change and that despite his nobel-prize winning successes in later life, he initially considered himself an ‘uninteresting pupil’.

He tells us of his dreamy disposition – unsuited to science – preoccupied with daydreams of ‘golden cities, galleons on rolling seas […] mighty warriors and great victories’, and insists that he was ‘absolutely without conscious desire to become accomplished in any line.’ He remembers ‘study-parties’ and ‘wine-parties’ and relates animatedly how those eager to learn would sit at the front, whilst those ‘bad students’ would sit at the back and make noise, their boots resting on the benches in front of them. The ‘dull’ medical lecturer Dr Callender would reproach them with witticisms: ‘Ah, I have always heard that civilisation spreads from the centre outwards’. His memories are full of friendships with ‘better’ men and the secret solace of poetry, which he deems ‘word-music’. He jokes about a patient seeing ‘ter die’ on his bedhead ticket and running from the hospital in terror (abbreviation of ‘ter in die’ meaning ‘three times a day’). Another time he relates the story of a snowball fight which gets out of hand – one of the students accidentally hitting a policeman ‘full in the face’. The resulting confrontation ends in the outnumbered group of policemen being overpowered by the medical students and thrown out of the hospital gates. Ross laments his missing out on ‘most of the fun’ and the ‘resulting punishments’.

He tells of ‘less studious friendships’, annoying the neighbours with his piano-playing, neglecting his studies and his friend slowly pouring a glass of beer into the mouth of a trombone at the music-hall, their box being situating just above the unsuspecting trombone-player. The german musician was enraged, the audience ‘delighted’ and the pair expelled from the concert. He recounts boating on the Thames, discussing philosophy with beer and tobacco and ‘experience[ing] “life” ’. He wrote plays, composed music, painted, sculpted, secretly penned verse and all the while his mind grew ‘like a plant’ in the ‘soil of experience’ formed from the seed of medical inquiry.

But it was not all care-free – Ross warns of arrogance. Luck and coaching from a friend allowed him to pass the M.R.C.S exam with only 3 days reading, however this encouraged him to neglect his studies. He began his reading for the L.S.A. (Society for the Apothecaries in London) exam on the very morning he was to sit it, and quite predictably failed. This weighed heavily on his conscience because he knew he could have passed ‘easily’ had he ‘really tried’.

NB. This man would go on to serve as a physician in the Indian Medical Service, publish novels, plays and poems, become a well respected mathematician, be appointed as the first lecturer and professor of parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, vice-president of the Royal Society, a Companion and Knight Commander of the Most Royal Order of Bath, and the first British man to win a nobel prize in medicine.

[1] Ronald Ross, Memoirs, with a full account of the great malaria problem and its solution (London: John Murray, 1928) Kindle E-Book Facsimile.

No Man is an Island, Tropical or Otherwise.

Historians of Medicine frequently tell the story of the nineteenth century as one of scientific and medical revolution. The century in which modern medicine was born – or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say: in which it matured from gangly adolescence into a socially promising young adult. Although it is just as true to call it a century of continuity as it is to call it one of change, the rise of science and its application in unprecedented intensity certainly had an impact on the elucidation and treatment of disease. The birth of hospital medicine, the standardisation of medical training and the increasing authority given to medical science shifted sites of ill-health, of diagnosis and of treatment, away from the home and into the new sphere of the institution. In tandem an often under-played rise occurred, the rise of laboratory science. Laboratory science manifested and still manifests in varying ways: from diagnostic tests to prescription drug manufacture; from biomedical research to medical training and demonstration. The laboratory is an important space for experimentation, empiricism, and ultimately progression. I won’t attempt to negotiate the pitfalls of the search for ‘objective truth’ or even try to analyse the relative merits (or otherwise) of scientific approaches to medicine; what I would like to look at is the collaborative opportunities of the laboratory.

When the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was set up in 1898 it was a coordinated response to the increasingly pressing problem of tropical disease. These diseases (claiming the lives of colonisers and colonised alike) were no longer diseases of the ‘tropics’ that could be ignored by Westerners, but were increasingly being registered in the bodies of military officers (undermining notions of national security and colonial identity) of workers in the colonies (affecting British imports) and of sailors returning from Africa (jeopardising trade and economic prowess). These factors prompted Joseph Chamberlain – then Secretary of the State for the Colonies – to appeal to the newly formed university college in Liverpool (a thriving trade port) to set up a school dedicated to the study of tropical diseases. This school would use experimental methods to help understand and treat such diseases, complete with the first laboratory to hold live specimens of human and animal parasites! A group of ship-owners led by Alfred Lewis Jones (of Elder Dempster & co.) and John Holt (of John Holt plc.) pledged £350 per annum for 3 years to support the school, recognising mutual benefit in ensuring the health of their sailors and of their profits. The school’s first lectureship was given to Ronald Ross, soon to be the first British person to win the Nobel Prize for medicine, and the position of demonstrator to H.E. Annett. Other members of the school included physicians Joseph Dutton and John Todd, city bacteriologist Rubert Boyce and museum curator and farmer Robert Newstead. These men, hailing from very different backgrounds, all worked individually and collectively to help elucidate the burdens of parasitic disease, participating in practical expeditions and laboratory research. They belonged to an emerging discipline with a new public and professional face; the Liverpool and soon after London School(s) of tropical medicine were just two of the many institutions popping up across the colonial globe in response to the increased need for specialised disease knowledge. Much of the key work has been done by individuals in laboratories – toiling away with microscopes, slides, participants, patients and infectious agents as their tools of discovery. Their experiments were repeated and corroborated (or not) by others, theories proposed and disseminated, contested and confirmed; and although not always in direct contact with others in the field, they maintained a strong network of correspondence. Ross and Manson represent a famous example of this collaboration – exchanging over two hundred letters between May 1895 and Manson’s death in 1922. These two men forged a complicated relationship as colleagues, friends, advisors and rivals, but ultimately the support Ross gained from Manson’s tutoring and encouragement led to his discovery that the anopheles mosquito acts as a vector for the human Malaria parasite. Joseph Everett Dutton and John Lancelot Todd also collaborated in the endeavours to elucidate parasitic disease via experimentation, accompanying each other on dangerous expeditions. Both men would contract Trypanosomiasis – the very disease they had helped to investigate – and Dutton would die from it, at just 29 years of age.

Parasitologists employed laboratory and experimental science in their attempts to contribute to understandings of, and solutions to, the problem of tropical diseases. The practical, theoretical and philosophical approaches required of them often placed them in isolation, either physically or professionally; however a strong connection to an emerging research community pushed them to persevere. This conceptual network of parasitologists reminds me of the PhD student – often lone researcher powered by sheer enthusiasm, a sense of duty – and usually a disproportionate amount of caffeine! – who belongs to a wider research institute and, if switched on, collaborates with other researchers, helping to realise the full potential of their own discoveries and with any luck providing the intellectual foundation for future ones.

NB. This unwittingly turned into a blog-post about the importance of collaboration, but I would have also liked to have spoken a bit about influences, academic or otherwise, on ways of thinking about research. Thus NNDB mapper has enabled me to create a rather crude and very brief map of Ronald Ross’ social and scientific connections which demonstrates quite appropriately the many connections that can be forged through participation in institutions of research. [apologies for the misalignment, diagram just for ‘overall effect’]


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. 


[1] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Ross Institute at:

[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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