Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

Archive for the category “Research Posts”

Ten Horse-Power Donkeys and “Plain Britons”: Thoughts on Brexit and Nationhood

The 23rd June 2016 represents a pivotal historic moment. The United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union and whether you voted for Brexit or Bremain that decision will define us globally, socially, economically—even academically— in the coming months and years. “Divorcing” from our largest trading partner and long-time political ally will have far-reaching consequences, many of which are currently unknown. Some voted for the Leave campaign in protest against—what they see as—the undemocratic and neoliberal politics of the EU, while others voted on issues of immigration and border control, however both camps were underpinned by a sense of national identity: a desire for “Britishness”, synonymous with a desire for political independence and control.

Amid calls to “make Britain Great again” and criticism of “little Englanders”, I can’t help but turn to the Victorians. Whether we celebrate their industrial and scientific progressiveness or lament their exploitative and imperial philosophies, we can all recognise their visibility in the cultural imagination, and appreciate the significance of their own attempts to negotiate what it meant to be British in an increasingly global world – a recent preoccupation of those interested in #globalvictorians. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the significance of the Victorians and (re)presenting them in contemporary culture, of international competition and rivalry in nineteenth-century science, and of the importance of collaboration, however today I want to talk about Nationhood.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the increasing specialisation of disciplinary science and the birth of new sub-disciplines concerned with situating humans in the natural world: evolutionary biology, psychiatry, neurology, genetics, bacteriology, immunology, and haematology, represent just a few of these. My research focus (and the subject of my PhD) provides another example of this specialisation. Parasitology—the study of parasites and parasitic disease—took on new significance in the late nineteenth century in light of Britain’s imperial expansion and desire to colonise more of the world. One obstacle to this imperial project was the imposition of tropical parasitic disease, which was increasingly being registered in the bodies of British missionaries, soldiers, and traders returning from the colonies.


[Image source:]

In order to legitimise the claims of their newly emergent profession on government funding, parasitologists consciously branded their discipline as a prerogative of the nation, their science as British imperial science. But more than this, conscious of the need to garner public support, they further bolstered their professional identities using British myths of nationhood. Using metaphors and images borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the tales of King Arthur’s knights, parasitologists framed their profession within the discourses of heroic chivalry. You can read more about this “branding” project in my article in the Journal of Literature and Science, (Re)Constructing the Knights of Science: Parasitologists and their Literary Imaginations“. In 1905, when Nobel Prize-winning parasitologist Ronald Ross eulogised fellow parasitologist Joseph Dutton in the British Medical Journal, he wrote:

He was a true Knight of Science […] the Galahad of that group of enthusiatic young men who, with so little recompense for themselves have pushed forward the cause of tropical medical science at such a rapid rate.⁠1

Taking part in this same discourse, and extending the mythology of fin de siecle parasitologists, newspaper articles reporting on Ross’s death in the 1930s still branded him as a knight and his work as akin to the heroic adventurers of British literature.

His fight against the malaria-carrying mosquito has been truly described as more romantic than any story of knight against huge dragon […] this kindly knight was to show himself possessed of patience, imagination, determined and highly-developed reasoning power, and above all faith and courage.⁠2

Beyond their public reception, this understanding of parasitology as a “British” science, fused with national identity, had both edifying and pernicious ideological consequences. On the one hand, it encouraged scientists to see their work as an extension of their identity, and to understand that identity as world-building and selfless. However, it also placed emphasis on maintaining this heroic narrative by any means necessary. When Ross was carrying out the work that would win him Britain’s first nobel prize, he and his colleagues had to negotiate between their desire to benefit humanity and their desire to gain credit and recognition. Tropical medicine giant Patrick Manson, when advising Ross, wrote:

It is evident the Italians are now on the scent. I do hope you will run into the quarry before them. Bignami is a clever little fellow and ambitious. Laveran is working up the Frenchmen. I do not hear that the Germans are moving, but they will and so will the Russians. Cut in first.⁠3

His preoccupation is here clearly with priority, rather than a solution to the problem—in this case the transmission route of malaria, a tropical disease that was responsible, directly or indirectly, for thousands of death a day in India alone. Upon his success, a friend wrote to congratulate him:

 You have done the trick and I congratulate you heartily and I congratulate ourselves for do you not belong to us? And you are no Italian, French, or German, but a plain Briton!⁠4

dyff-donkDespite this divisive rhetoric and petty name-calling—like when Dr. T. Edmundston Charles called Italian researcher Giovanni Battista Grassi a “ten horse-power donkey”⁠5—the progression of tropical medical science was a global affair, which relied on global collaboration.

This is exemplified in Imperial administrator William McGregor’s conception of the role that parasitologists played in facilitating Empire:

“It appears to me to be more or less like this: Manson⁠6 was the surveyor, Laveran⁠7 made the road, Ross⁠8 built the bridges and laid the rails, and Grassi,⁠9 Bastianelli,⁠10 Bignami, and Celli provided the rolling stock.⁠11

As the nineteenth century gave way into the twentieth, this global knowledge base played a greater role in medical paradigm shifts, including interventions in public heath. The competition between European powers trying to create world empires ultimately led to the blighting of the twentieth century with two world wars. The European Union was set up to prevent a third, and to prevent the breaching of human rights that would inevitably accompany it.  Whatever you voted in the referendum, with so many of our medical research initiatives, academic funding pots, student study abroad programmes, and maternity/paternity pay structures bound up with or facilitated by our EU membership, it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the importance of collaborative thinking. We don’t know what the future will hold, or what the consequences of the Brexit will be, but we should look on this as an opportunity to reconsider what our nationality means to us. What does it mean to be British in the twenty-first century? With the venom and ill-will generated by the referendum on both sides, let’s take this opportunity to re-brand our national identity and reclaim “British” as a moniker that celebrates collaboration, cultural exchange, and inclusivity.


NB. I don’t have the space here to address the troubling colonial and postcolonial narratives that pervade the politics of parasitology, but I recognise this as an aspect that hugely problematises the nationhood project. I ask you to forgive me the restrictive example, and think more broadly of the power of language and the utility of both “looking outwards” and working together, now exemplified in the global research initiatives that form part of so much of the academic output of UK HE institutions.


1 Ronald Ross, ‘Joseph Everett Dutton, .M.B., Ch. B.Vict, D.P.H.’ British Medical Journal 1(1905)2314 pp.1020-1021.

2 ‘Sir Ronald Ross’ Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 20 September 1932, p.10.

3 Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 48 02/018’ The Beast in the Mosquito, pp.124-25. (p.125).

4 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/48/36. Letter to Ross 31st September 1898.

5 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/52/12/03 Letter to Ross from T. Edmundson Charles, 1899.

6 Sir Patrick Manson discovered the mosquito vector for the parasitic disease Elephantiasis or Visceral Leishmaniasis. (Scottish-born)

7 Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran discovered the protozoan parasite responsible for Malaria. (French-born)

8 Sir Ronald Ross traced the life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite into the stomach of the mosquito and proved that it acted as a vector for Malaria. (British/Scottish, born in India)

9 Giovanni Battista Grassi demonstrated conclusively the vector transmission of malaria in humans, and established that only the female anopheles mosquito can transmit the disease. (Italian)

10 Giuseppe Bastianelli, Amico Bignami, and Angelo Celli studied the clinical symptoms of Plasmodium falciparum and recognised several stages in the development of malaria parasite within the blood. (Italians)

11 William MacGregor, ‘An Address on Some Problems of Tropical Medicine’ British Medical Journal.  2(1900)2075 pp.977-984. (p.980).

(Re)presenting the Victorians: How contemporary popularity helps to balance a distorted cultural history.

I recently wrote a post on Victorian Parasites & Dr. Who for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online, in which I explored the presence of authentic Victorian anxieties in modern representations of the nineteenth century. Far from playing to stereotypes, Mark Gatniss (the writer for the episode “The Crimson Horror”) embarked on an enlightened and jocular adventure into the Victorian psyche with a seemingly contemporary twist. However what appeared to be a modern addition (the threat of an alien parasite) was in fact, as I discussed, a cultural fantasy entirely at home in the 1890s setting.  Elsewhere on this blog I’ve addressed the modernisation &adaptation of Victoriana in the wake of the recent popularity for all things nineteenth century, and in doing so I find myself more and more intrigued by the concept of the Victorians re-lived.

Despite sometimes upholding Victorian stereotypes (think: stuffy & serious, top hats & monocles, joyless Dickensian workhouses) adaptations and modernizations are increasingly highlighting the fallacy of such overplayed notions. Gatniss’ “The Crimson Horror” (and in fact most of the recent flurry of ‘Victorian’ Dr. Who episodes) do just this by including ‘cheeky’ contemporary allusions and quirky characters that serve to subvert the very culture they appear to represent. In my other post, I talked about House and The Mentalist, shows which perform the same subversion by interrogating the fraught moralities of their nineteenth century-inspired protagonists.


[Photo source: E Taylor-Brown]

Amid all this cultural re-writing, sites like Smiling Victorians show us rare photos which undermine the stiff upper-lip rhetoric of yesteryear (note: the rarity of such images are not due to less happiness, but longer exposure rates!). Other sites celebrate their quirky and timeless sense of humour by finding congruence between the long-standing internet fascination with funny cats and the c19th equivalent . Other stories speculating on the Victorian origins of LOLcats can be found here and here.

It is this sense of humour and sharp-tongued wit which has always struck me about the Victorians, but which is often lacking in representations, except when used to poke fun in a post-modern aside. In my archival work, Ronald Ross’ wry tongue comes through in his annotations on news reports (“official tosh!”), his sarcastic scribbles on funding rejections (“The discovery of the causes of sickness and death is evidently not a ‘charitable object’!”) and his use of subtitles (A list of the causal agents of skin disease in his notebook is given the heading: ‘Villain Classification’). Ross’ doodle-ridden notebooks prove that people have been procrastinating with stickmen and silly faces for centuries, but moreover they expose the ‘man behind the myth’. He is a joy to read: sharp, scathing, poetic, a little neurotic, and disarmingly honest.

After a long series of colds he writes:

Sunday 22nd March: apparently influenza. Depressed. Wine for dinner.

His diaries expose a man who dined regularly with H. Rider Haggard at the Athenaeum Club, had tea with the Conan Doyle’s, loved fly-fishing and writing poetry, enjoyed spending time with his wife and children and made sure to mark the anniversary of his career-making discovery every year with the words “Mosquito Day”.


[Photo Source: E Taylor-Brown]

His heart-breaking words on the death of his daughter Sylvia:

Friday 9th October: …Saw my dear daughter dead but beautiful.

Are offset by his delight at seeing the sun “today is the most beautiful day!” and spending his 60th birthday having tea at the zoo. In short his diaries paint not a Scientist or a Victorian, a writer or a Nobel Laureate, but a man – something all too often lost when we teach history. Hats off to those screenwriters and directors who strive to (re)present the Victorians as more than two-dimensional stereotypes, and have the courage to paint history in all its unconventional honesty.

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.

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.

‘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’]


‘Are we in England Infested by Parasites?’ Historical reports from the BNA.

Yesterday, in the glorious 27 degree July sunshine, I visited the British Newspaper Archive at their reading rooms in Colindale, North London. After obtaining my newspaper reader pass, I settled down to see what the archive had to offer by way of nineteenth century curiosities and I wasn’t disappointed!

Although my main search was for ‘parasites in the news’, I stumbled – rather haphazardly – across a few unrelated entries that surprised me. The first of which was the publishing of multiple suicide notes (mostly from young women, ill-treated by men). What shocked me, other than the very odd and slightly distressing idea of publishing something so private and obviously meant for their families, was the type of language used. These women writing at the end of the nineteenth century were using the same language, feeling the same emotions and hiding the same anxieties that women use, feel and hide over a hundred years later. It’s not that I’m naïve enough to overlook human nature, or that I think suicide is, by any means, a new phenomenon; I think it’s just the levelling impact of strong emotion that made reading the faded sepia print detailing the deaths of Victorian twenty-somethings an uncomfortably uncanny experience.

Surprise find #2, on a lighter note, was the discovery (in papers like the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1882) of curiously satirical fables. One of which was about a wolf, drinking from a stream, who tried to provoke a nearby lamb, only to get into a series of erroneous conversations to prove his ‘insanity’ so that he wouldn’t be held accountable for later eating said lamb. The moral of this one rather escapes me![1]

And so to parasites! Among the, not insubstantial, accounts of parasites and parasitic diseases, there were a few things I found of particular interest. The first (as I suspected) was the in vogue status of the parasite at the end of the nineteenth century, not only as a signification of colonial anxiety but also as a strong marker of social unrest. The public are conscious of, not only biological parasites, but of parasitism in social, intellectual and political life. Given the social origin of ‘parasite’ this may seem inevitable, however this social parasitism is framed by discourses of evolution and degeneration. ‘There are parasitic peers, bishops, rectors, curates, doctors, school-masters, editors, hedgers, and ditchers, bell-ringers, and beadles, all evading the trouble and risk of independent thought and speech for sordid comfort and small ambitions,’ says Rev. T.W. Holmes in a lecture reprinted in the Sheffield Independent in 1887. This demonstrates the infiltration of ‘parasites’ to all aspects of society. Among these parasites he identifies the novelist who steals his plots and the lecturer who doesn’t acknowledge the source of his quotations and has ‘bad framework’ bulging with the ‘stolen thoughts of other men, and resembling a very thin chicken very badly stuffed.’[2]

This and similar reports concentrate on the dangers of parasitic lifestyles, for the parasite and the host. The Leicester Chronicle of 1883 further links the biological and the social by ranking man among well-known parasites: ‘The parasite may be a plant, an animal, a man, a class, a society, a church or a nation. The mistletoe is parasitic on the oak or apple tree; the thread-worm on animals; the tapeworm on man; man, on other men.[3] The piece goes on to warn of degeneration: ‘having nothing to do, the power of doing eventually departs. Limbs shrivel up, organs disappear, activity becomes almost extinct. The creature sinks in the scale of life as much in some cases as if a crab were to degenerate into a jellyfish.’ Fears of social behaviour directly affecting physiology stems from the anxiety surrounding Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, a concept explored in works like H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine published in 1895. In Wells’ novella the exploitative relationship between the educated and working classes evolves into a complicated parasitic relationship between two degenerate species with man as their common ancestor. Wells’ even suggests that society is heading that way in 1895 with the working classes barely ever seeing the light of day and so primed to become their subterranean Morlock descendants.

Other references to parasites included the use of parasitic diseases to excuse immoral behaviour: ‘During the day he drank four or five bottles of champagne. “If I had not done so” he said, “I should have died of Malaria.”[4] And the farrago of miracle cures for various diseases, ‘Collins’ disinfecting powder’ one advert boasts ‘is of more worth than the united labours of Boards of Health, Sanatory Inspectors, Health committees, Commissioners of sewers &e., &e.,&e., all put together’ and will make even the most sordid and unsanitary conditions smell ‘as sweet as a lady’s dressing room!’ Quite a feat!

[1] Editor, ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (Mon 2nd Jan. 1882)

[2] The Rev. T.W. Holmes, ‘The Political Parasite’ lecture reprinted in The Sheffield Independent (Wed 30th Nov. 1887)

[3] Editor, ‘Parasites’ Leicester Chronicle (Sat 17th  Nov. 1883)

[4] Editor, ‘The Superintendent’s Sad Story’ Sheffield Evening Herald (Fri 28th Aug. 1903)  

An extraordinary Instinct for the Horrible.

My research concerns things generally best not talked about at the dinner table (a resounding irony I will elaborate on later). From Trypanosomiasis to Ticks, parasites come in all forms but usually they’re unsavoury. At a recent paper I gave, concerning the figure of the parasite in contemporary popular culture, I was jocularly informed that my meagre warning that ‘there are some pretty gruesome pictures coming up’ was not warning enough.

John Ruskin writing in the nineteenth century has a very similar attitude toward parasites, he writes deprecatingly of ‘this extraordinary instinct for the horrible, developing itself at present in the English mind […] so that sensation must be got out of death, or darkness, or frightfulness.’ This instinct for the horrible describes a duality that often surrounds the literary parasite. Examples can be found in figures like Dracula who both mesmerises and disgusts his victims, or Miss Penclosa in Conan Doyle’s The Parasite, who causes Prof. Gilroy to act as if besotted, whilst internally sickened by the thought of her. Further examples can be found in Mr Hyde who both intrigues and frightens Dr Jekyll; even the tentacular Martians in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds cultivate fierce scientific intrigue.

Clarify and Classify – what’s in a name?

Parasite, n. a person who lives at the expense of another, or of society in general; esp. (in early use) a person who obtains the hospitality or patronage of the wealthy or powerful by obsequiousness and flattery; (in later use, a person whose behaviour resembles that of a plant or animal parasite; a sponger. Chiefly derogatory.[1]

Parasite, originally from the greek parasitos – one who eats at the table of another – was historically a positive name bestowed on temple assistants who helped to select the sacred grain for religious ceremonies. It was a vocation and a privilege.  As the vocation evolved (forgive the pun) parasites would receive free meals in exchange for entertainment at dinner parties as companions to the rich. Greek comic tradition made a caricature of the parasite, emphasizing their ambitions for free meals and their willingness to do anything to get them.

(A)  Oh Stratius, dost thou love me?

(B)  Aye, I do.  More than my father, for he does not feed me;

But you do give the best of dinners daily.

(A)  And do you pray the gods that I may live?

(B)  No doubt I do; for how should I myself
Live if misfortune happened unto you?[2]

The word parasite then came to apply to anyone who exploited the wealthy or flattered their way into dinner invitations. Over time the term was appropriated by botanists and naturalists – eventually biologists – and applied to the natural world. At first organisms were described as ‘parasite-like’ or had ‘parasitical habits’ but slowly the word ‘parasite’ took on a biological meaning in its own right, one which would come to eclipse the original.

Thus, quite naturally, biological parasites are endowed with human attributes, anthropomorphised and given agency, but this was a two-way dialogue for the historical parasite too came to take on attributes of the biological. This is represented in the composite literary figure, which is both social and biological. The literary parasite often has the flattery and obsequiousness of the historical parasite whilst possessing the somatically destructive influences of its biological counterpart. Figures like Count Dracula, Miss Penclosa and Mr Hyde harm their hosts materially and physically, taking away not just their health, but their morality, reputation, money and even threaten the very culture in which they live. The figure of the parasite is an abject figure, cast out to reflect the incongruous aspects of society.

Propagating notions of disease and degradation associated with their place in the natural hierarchy, the parasite also represents social anxiety concerning overpopulation, social mobility and colonial expansion. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided much of the anxiety that pervades the fiction of the fin-de-siècle; ‘the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, which then comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.’[3] This interconnectedness emphasized the interdependence of the struggle; the resemblance ‘is obvious in the structure of the teeth and talons of the tiger; and in that of the legs and claws of the parasite which clings to the hair on the tiger’s body’.[4] The positing of the parasite and predator side by side in the natural hierarchy is problematic. Darwin’s theory suggested that it wasn’t the big and strong that necessarily survived, but the best adapted, providing the parasite with unprecedented power as a locus of anxiety.

SEM photo of a Hookworm – I think he’s rather cute!

[1] ‘Parasite’ OED Online (2012) [accessed May 2012]

[2] C. D. Yonge, trans. (1854) Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists Book Six (circa. 3rd Century AD) pp 234-248 [accessed May 2012]

[3] Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)p138

[4] ibid. p139

Amphibious Monsters and the Great Moon Hoax.

After a not insubstantial break I have finally composed another post for your perusal – the theme this time is something to do with monstrousness and nineteenth-century imagination.

On reading Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, I was struck by a passage concerning the fossil remains of dinosaurs:

The animal to which the name ichthyosaurus has been given, was as
long as a young whale, and it was fitted for living in the water,
though breathing the atmosphere.  It had the vertebral column and
general bodily form of a fish, but to that were added the head and
breast-bone of a lizard, and the paddles of the whale tribes.  The
beak, moreover, was that of a porpoise, and the teeth were those of a
crocodile.  It must have been a most destructive creature to the fish
of those early seas.[1]

What Chambers describes here is a monstrous aquatic chimera; straddling definition as part fish, part reptile (ichthyosaurus literally meaning fish-lizard) the ichthyosaurus represents a candidate for science fiction. In a somewhat dismissive review, Francis Bowen refers to such creatures as ‘amphibious monsters’.[2] Chambers’ successive linear development theory, from animalcules to perfect man, not only posits these monsters as a ‘necessary step’, but also uncomfortably creates an evolutionary link between monsters and man. This very link is a popular source of anxiety in the late nineteenth century, whether as the transitory monster of Jekyll and Hyde, or the degenerated Morlock of The Time Machine.

So I was thinking about this evolutionary monstrousness (largely in relation to parasites – my raison d’être) and I stumbled across what is now one of my favourite anecdotes concerning nineteenth century imagination. In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of hoax news stories[3] in an attempt to boost circulation (it worked!) The stories reported the advancement of a telescope that enabled  the discovery of life on the moon. Falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, the series depicted a colourful landscape with white beaches, hills topped with quartz crystals, glades studded with vermillion amethysts, a bay of rainbows, lunar palm trees, unicorns, goats, biped beavers, and bat people. There were even ‘strange amphibious spherical creatures’ that rolled around the pebble beach.

The author then begins a description with this curious sentence: ‘The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster.’ I was surprised by the relatively tame description that followed. The ‘monster’ was described as a bluish creature like a goat or an antelope with a perpendicular horn and beard. It was agile and ran at great speed, ‘springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten.’ The agility of a kitten hardly strikes fear into my heart and the implication of a monstrous hybrid loses gravitas in light of the winged bat hominids whose cultural practices are described at length. Indeed even the authors concede that the kittenish behaviour of ‘this beautiful creature afforded [them] the most exquisite amusement’. The article goes on to describe intelligent creatures similar to human beings (but with wings) and even identifies two races of this new species, which appear to possess language and notions of etiquette. They build temples, are vegetarian and share all they have – a utopian vision. The authors even go as far as to say:

The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the
apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creatures, gave us the
most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal
companion of our larger, but less favored world.

The Great Moon Hoax, New York Sun Lithograph (1835)

Though perhaps little more than a really good read, the series does demonstrate the evolutionarily monstrous, made good. The Derridean notion of ‘turning them into pets’[4] holds true and dispels the myth that an alternate path of evolution would produce anarchy. As the theme of the ‘monstrousness’ seems in conference vogue this year (themes for two I’ve been to already) I hope I’ll hear more about this in September when I present a paper on the fictional pandemic at the 10th global conference for ‘Monsters and the Monstrous’.


My paper will be entitled: Death, Disease and Discontent: The Monstrous Reign of the Super-Virus.

[EDIT: The Great Moon Hoax is mentioned by Augustus de Morgan in A Budget of Paradoxes p 337. <> with details about circulation, publication, speculations on the author and similarity to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Adventures of Hans Pfaal’.]

[1] Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) transcribed from the John Churchhill Edition. e-book #7116 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2004)

[2] Francis Bowen, ‘A Theory of Creation. A Review of “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” (Boston: Otis, Broader and Company, 1845) e-book #24648 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2008)

[4] ‘Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say “here are our monsters” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.’

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