Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

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.


Laughing in the Archives: The Quirks that make History of Science Worth Writing

Today’s long-overdue post is about silliness. In fact it’s about the human side of history, inspired by the many times I’ve spent on my own in the archives silently chuckling about something said or written over 100 years ago. This post is a compilation of those times when one glimpses under the veil.

As the proverbial ‘star’ of my research, it seems only fitting we start with Sir Ronald Ross, whose penchant for annotating in the margins of letters and articles makes him always a joy to read. 

Including these frankly childish drawings in his otherwise sensible research diaries… 


Ross’ Notebook: Precursor to DC’s The Joker?


Ross’ Notebooks: Classic ‘man with boob’

Music as Punishment 
In a letter to friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who is trying to convince him to study mesmerism as a science, Ross playfully threatens him with having to endure Ross’ musical compilations and pokes fun at his own overreaching ambitions:

“You are always asking me to attend to psychic matters, but I am not competent and have no time. […] How do you imagine that an old fellow of sixty-two can do this when he has to finish writing his memoirs and to bring out the completion of several mathematical works, not to mention masses of war office malaria work and some great masterpieces in poetry? Besides that I want to compose some more music, and if you do not stop trying to persuade me to be a psychiatrist, I will insist upon your coming to hear said music.” – 13th Jan 1919 

Lady Lever’s Lady’s Man


Invitation for Dinner held in Sir William and Lady Lever’s Honour

In a speech given at a dinner held in the honour of Sir William and Lady Lever, the rather amusing invitation of which is pictured right, Ross refers to Sir William as: a Chairman, Sanitarian, Humanitarian, Politician, Scientist, Artist, Author, Dramatist, Poet, Obedient Husband, Father and ‘Lady’s Man’.

Solemn Review; buy it, despite the colour, and the poetry.

Pictured here is a review of Ross’ poetry by John Maytime printed in Isis in 1898. The light-hearted text reads:

“I began by liking this book very much; and after a short period of disapproval I am trying hard to conclude now by admiring it. […] the best is the enemy of the good, and the best is the only possible criterion for criticising poetry. Therefore, I apologise for liking this book no more than I do, which is really the best compliment I can pay it. Also despite the fact that it is bound in salmon-pink, printed higgledy-piggledy, and ill-corrected as to the proofs, I solemnly advise you to buy this book.”

Childish moments

This newspaper article gives us an insight into the sillier side of Science.


Women being overwhelmed by Science.

With the exception of a few science-savvy women, mostly wives of parasitologists who are granted the ability to cope with scientific discovery by proxy, the fin-de-siècle trend is to represent women as being charmed or overwhelmed by science. Here are two examples.

The Manchester Dispatch reports on the opening of the Parasitological section at Russell Square, as part of the Institute of Public Health in 1906. Here is what it has to say about the many women present.

“Dainty ladies listened to learned explanations by immaculate gentlemen, who discoursed earnestly about the irrepressible penchant of the common fly and other creatures indicated by Sir Patrick Manson for picking up minute and undesirable acquaintances, cast enthralled looks upon pictures of the tiny scavengers, inspected bacilli through microscopes, and rewarded the amateur lecturers with such expressions as “Most awfully interesting, isn’t it?” “Dear me, how charmingly weird!” “Makes you wriggle to think of it” and so on.”

Example number two takes the form of a book review. When reviewing Gwendolen Foulke Andrews’ book, The Living Substance as Such and as Organism, the editor of the BMJ writes:

“This book is one long note of exclamation. The wonders of the microscope and the deep mysteries of life which it reveals have led the author into poetic flights and a wilderness of words.”

But instead of praising her enthusiasm, the reviewer dismisses her work by summarising it,

“The whole gist of the book might have been put into the following sentences – The author has wonderfully good eyes, a marvellously good microscope, [and] a lot of leisure time in which to peep through it.”

Poetic Puns

In my research I stumbled across many poems, some good, some bad, some just plain silly like this one by British entomologist Geoffrey D. H. Carpenter, written on his travels in Uganda. 



“The Disease of the Day”

And this poem entitled ‘The Disease of the Day’ published in the Times which parodies the saturated news coverage of parasitic disease trypanosomiasis, as well as attributing all the country’s problems to an infestation of government, interestingly compounding a ‘country as body’ metaphor. It includes the lines: 

We knew the Government must be
By some malignant germ infested;
Some secret malady we felt
Was by its reckless acts suggested:
But now the truth comes out at last,
And in its muddling course one traces,
Signs that it has this ailment new – 
And has it very badly too – 
Confirmed Try-pan-o-so-mi-a-sis!

And finally here’s a photograph of Mr and Mrs Ross at ‘Bicycle Club’ in Bangalore, 1896. There’s just something a bit lovely about great minds on bicycles. The “safety bicycle” being modelled here was developed in the 1880s by J. K. Starley as a precursor to the modern bicycle, and a breakthrough allowing women to join in with the fun. However, whilst popular among the middle classes, there was still some anxiety surrounding their use. The BMJ published an article devoted to them in 1898, entitled ‘A Form of Neuralgia Occurring in Cyclists’, and bicycles are a source of anxiety for English entomologist Ernest E. Austen when he accompanies Ross on an expedition to Sierra Leone in 1899. In what reads as a panicked stream-of-consciousness, Austen writes: 

“I shall bring a gun. What about cartridges? Alas, would a service .303 rifle be of any use? I don’t quite know what to do about my bicycle; it has pneumatic tyres…”


Bicycle Club, 1896 – Sir and Lady Ross are marked with crosses.

(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.

Top Doctors & Police Psychics: A Victorian Legacy.

I had a conversation recently with a friend and colleague about Victorian legacies. Whether subtle or overt, echoes of the nineteenth century are found everywhere in the twenty-first. The contemporary penchant for Victorian adaptations, Dickensian-inspired dramas and facsimile Victoriana reflects the modern obsession with a time rich in cultural intrigue. But some of these engagements are less conspicuous, elegantly paying homage to the era, all the while maintaining a separate and complex identity.  One such example is the celebrated American television show, House. This 8 season medical drama takes its premise from Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective, paying homage to Sherlock Holmes with the programme’s title character. His kindred sidekick Dr John Watson is reimagined as Oncologist Dr James Wilson, continuing the ‘true friend’ motif and position as some-time flatmate. Watson’s psychosomatic leg pain is transferred to House and made a very real injury, which provides the basis for his addiction to the painkiller Vicodin (parallels here with Holmes’ Cocaine use). Holmes’ distaste for people and awkward social skills are inflated to almost sociopathic levels, underscored by his love of puzzles. His musical talent is upheld, exchanging the violin for the dulcet tones of the piano and the more rock and roll appeal of the electric guitar. The iconic pipe is usurped by a now equally iconic cane, and the deerstalker replaced variously with a backwards baseball cap and motorcycle helmet.

Interestingly, the programme inverts the protagonist’s occupation, paying homage to its original inspiration. In a voice recording held at the British Library, Doyle credits his conception of Holmes to his Edinburgh medical mentor’s ‘great powers of observation’. Noting the prominence of detection in scientific inquiry and the absence of methodology in detective fiction, he decided to combine the two, successfully reinventing the figure of the detective as an enlightened and starkly scientific icon: ‘…the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease, and science would take the place of chance.’[1] Thus Holmes’ was to treat crime as disease, in the same way that House treats disease as crime. House’s patient histories are more like witness statements, searching their homes for clues and interrogating their alibies with the supposition (and show’s tagline) that ‘everybody lies’.

Further parallels might be drawn between Holmes’ rocky relationship with the police and his interactions with Princeton Plainsboro’s Dean of Medicine. His position as ‘consulting detective’ could almost replace ‘head of diagnostics’ on House’s office door. This hired-out consultancy puts me in mind of another US television show, The Mentalist. Returning to the realms of solving crime, Patrick Jayne is an independent consultant to the fictional California Bureau of Investigation. Jayne’s powers of deduction are exaggerated to the point of psychic powers, the extent of which is never fully ascertained. This might be interpreted as a reference to Doyle’s later interest in spiritualism.[2] Nevertheless, a rational explanation accompanies Jayne’s apparent mind-reading, the suggestion being that he is an incredibly intuitive reader of body language and like Holmes’ reads people and situations like a doctor might read symptoms. The eponymous Sherlockian figure ‘Professor Moriaty’ might even be found in Jayne’s archenemy ‘Red John’, a serial killer with intelligence and cunning to rival Doyle’s criminal mastermind. However, Jayne’s character is softened by his subversive charisma, and the replacement of cold truth-chasing for a personal vendetta (Red John killed Jayne’s wife and daughter five years before the setting of the show).

These brief examples go some way to exposing the wealth of historical literary engagement in the twenty-first century and the ingenuity of classic adaptations retuned for modern audiences. Engagement with the cultural products of the nineteenth century continue to find new and diverse forms, and Victorian legacies persevere with meaningful poignancy. If this teaches us anything, it’s that a well-written narrative, regardless of cultural context, really is, timeless.

[1] A. Conan Doyle, Early Spoken Word Recordings (1930) Published online by the British Library; available at: <>

[2] David Oldman, Spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle: An Online Exhibit published online by City of Westminster Libraries at: <>

Between Boundaries, Places and Cultures: Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity and Nineteenth Century Oneness.

So I’m sitting in Birmingham International airport, waiting for a flight to Sydney.  In front of me are: a caramel latte, and a variously annotated script for the paper I will present at a conference there in 4 days time. The paper is on the figure of the parasite in nineteenth century culture, an adapted version of the founding prequel for my PhD. In it I discuss the boundary and identity concerns which accompany parasitic discourse, and the evolution of the ‘literary parasite’ which combines the historically social, and newly biological, to create a compelling gothic hybrid.

As I go over the main points, check my cues and jot down significant dates in the margins, I am struck by the overwhelming (perhaps poetic) theme of liminality. I am at an in-between point, waiting both to leave this country and arrive in another, indulging half in business, half pleasure, diligently scribbling in the margins of a paper about boundaries. Moreover the research I do, resists the very boundaries it writes about –drawing from both literature and science, and united by history. But my refusal to stay within boundaries is a strength not a weakness, to my mind. Lit-Sci scholars are not new by any means, but I hope that my Biology degree will enable me to truly transcend boundaries. Rather than be a literary scholar tentatively looking across at science and admiring, I propose to use my background in science to actually cross the gulf. I believe this interdisciplinary approach is particularly important for nineteenth century scholars; the scientists I’m researching would have been well versed in the Arts and writers often had scientific training or experience – think H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, to name but a few.

To understand their multi-layered allusions, one must understand the zeitgeist in which they lived and worked. Science and Arts were not seen as the separate cultures they are today, but simply different ways of interpreting the world. These two methods are, however, united by common ground: ‘The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure,’ says Wordsworth, and the dialogue between them was considered fruitful and two-way. Both are considered fitting activities of discovery indulged in by all. Coleridge talking of Chemistry says ‘I will attack it like a shark’ and even mentions the desire to set up a laboratory in the lake district with fellow poet Wordsworth.

Ronald Ross demonstrates a literal transfer between the ‘science’ of maritime mastery and Art when he writes, in his memoirs, of a sailor whom he ‘rewards’ for his expertise by immortalising him in literature, ‘An old sailor […] taught me the name of every spar, sail, and line […he] was tattooed all over and told me many tales; in return for which I put him into my novel The Child of the Ocean.’ Ross is famous for his work on parasites and tropical diseases, remembered for his perseverance, scientific mind and finesse with a microscope, but his love of literature and poetry was born long before his passion for science, and when he made his Nobel-prize winning discovery, he expressed it how he knew best – with poetry:

This day relenting God
Hath placed with in my hand
A wonderous thing; and God
Be praised. At his command

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad man will save,
O Death where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?

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.

The Story of Mistletoe: A Christmas Parasite.

It’s that time of year again, full of food and cheer and deep-rooted traditions. A kiss under the mistletoe will result in marriage, fertility, true love…and yet this romantic Christmas symbol is in fact – you guessed it – a parasite. Viscum album is the name of the European mistletoe that parasitizes host trees, particularly the Oak tree, using the host water and nutrients to aid its own growth. However the leaves do perform photosynthesis and so it is considered a hemi-parasite, cultivating some of its own energy.

The Druids were the first to lionise the mistletoe, revering it for its alleged healing properties; the ever-green colour of the plant led them to associate it with fertility and vitality. In fact its success as a parasite led them to believe that, thriving as it did on otherwise barren and bare tree limbs, it had some sacred property, compounding its position as a potent symbol of fertility.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it made its way into our homes as Christmas decoration, its kissing connotations referenced in Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers in 1836. This tradition may have come from a Norse myth involving Frigga, the goddess of Love and Marriage, whose son Baldur was killed by a spear of mistletoe. Some versions say that the tears she shed over her son changed the mistletoe’s red berries to white and brought him back to life. Frigga then reversed the bad reputation of the mistletoe by kissing everyone who walked beneath it in gratitude. Others simply suggest that the Gods kissed under the mistletoe in remembrance. This story also alludes to the dangers of mistletoe, the berries of which can be poisonous!

Christmas Cracker Bonus Parasite

On the subject of Christmas parasites, my little sister made me one for Christmas. Meet Ancylostoma duodenale, the human Hookworm parasite.


This charismatic-looking beastie is a parasitic nematode with a mammalian definitive host. It has a free-living stage where it dwells in the soil; it will burrow through the skin between the toes of anyone who walks barefoot, and from thence enter into the bloodstream. Migrating to the lungs, the larvae are then coughed up and swallowed into the small intestine where they develop into adults. Yummy!


‘Hookworm’ PubMed Health online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘Mistletoe: A Parasite with Kissing Powers’ Chron online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘Parasites and Health: Hookworms’ DPDx online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘The Death of Baldur’ Classic Literature online at:

‘What’s the deal with mistletoe?’ Slate online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

And this post wouldn’t be complete without a gruesome video!

Eastern Religion versus Western Science: Thoughts on Not Eating Cows and Re-writing Histories

Much of we might take to be ‘Western’ science, it now seems, emerged out of a dialogue—albeit often an unequal one—between different traditions, Indian and European.[1]

As part of my PhD research training, I audit a Medical History masters seminar once a week; this is somewhat of a whistle-stop introduction to writing histories of medicine. This week’s seminar was about the development of colonial medicine in India – a topic intimately related to my research.

The discussion centred largely on an idea of traditional Indian practices and the ways in which they complimented, opposed, or collaborated with developing notions of Imperial medical science. Did the onus placed on religion weaken medicine in the eyes of the British? Strong religious faith certainly influenced the types of profession considered proper to indigenous people, determined the relative confidence in certain medical practices and shaped their approaches to health and the body.

We talked a lot of about the development of Imperial medicine against the backdrop of Indian cultural heritage, a heritage that attached religious significance to healing, in stark contrast to Europe’s more secular outlook in the nineteenth century. Part of this discussion concerned Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that heavily influences Buddhism and latent cultural beliefs concerning religious and moral practices. Jainism teaches complete non-violence and upholds that no living thing should be harmed or caused suffering. Coming from my tropical medicine perspective, I would love to explore the implications this might have had for parasitic infections. If a region had a large Jain population who all eschew the killing of insects, many of which, like the mosquito, are vectors of parasitic diseases, are they more likely to become infected with these diseases? On the other hand many practicing Jains would cover their faces or wear masks to ensure that they did not harm insects by breathing them in! If they were adequately covered, would this reduce exposure to insect bites and thus instances of parasitic infection?

Another related intrigue is the switching by Brahmins from animal sacrifice and meat consumption to vegetarianism under the influence of these Jainist teachings. Considering the link between the consumption of undercooked meat and tapeworm infestation, I would be interested to note whether a vegetarian diet reduced instances of this and associated diseases. The sacred position of the cow in Hinduism, and consequent refusal to eat beef, could have impacted on instances of taenia saginata, the beef tapeworm. Perhaps this even accounts for the global spread of taeniasis (a disease caused by tapeworm infestations). Taeniasis caused by beef tapeworm (as opposed to pork tapeworm) occurs particularly in Eastern Europe, Russia, Eastern Africa and Latin America; [2] perhaps instances are low in India due to the tapeworm’s life cycle being disrupted by the would-be definitive host (humans) not eating the intermediate host (cattle). Is this an instance of religious practices being formed in part by cultural pragmatism?


(Re)Writing Histories

Traditionally in histories of science, Indian medicine was posited as ‘backward’ and unscientific, their holistic approach relegated to superstitious naivety. Imperial measures introduced European approaches that superseded Indian medical practices. However, upon reflection, these practices were not so different from late eighteenth-century western medicine, and increasingly, modern histories suggest that they represent precursors to more ‘scientific’ outlooks. Indeed they already had raw versions of western specialisms in the form of barber surgeons, potters who set bones, nomadic eye doctors who removed cataracts, specialists dealing with sword wounds, variolation as a less-well developed version of inoculation, and primitive forms of gynaecology. 

In the 1970s Johnson and Robbins postulated two ideal types of scientific research: collegiate-controlled which was said to produce more autonomous disciplines, involve technical resources and produce universal theoretical knowledge, and patron-controlled which was said to involve more isolated and local disciplines, and produce problem-based or empirical knowledge. A specialism might transform from patron to collegiate-controlled as it became more established and widely accepted. [3] The similarity between early nineteenth century Indian medicine and eighteenth century European medicine suggests that Indian medicine had the potential to evolve in line with western advances; Christopher Bayly makes an interesting point when he highlights his unease with the vehement rejection of Indian humoral medicine by Europeans, given that they had only recently themselves abandoned Aristotelian humoral notions in favour of systemic approaches.[4] The bid to maintain authority in all spheres of knowledge stems from the use of imperial medicine as a colonizing tool – particularly in light of its relations to politics and the military. Perhaps this undermining of Indian medicine stemmed from an anxiety about the authority of European knowledge in the face of an increasingly global world.

NB. A fun example of Eastern trailblazing comes from impromptu surgery practices done to restore noses that had been cut off for punishment. (Cutting off the tip of the nose was a common punishment, especially for women, to indicate dishonour or disgrace). The restorative procedure was usually performed by low caste muslims due to the associations with bodily fluids and was not considered a high class profession, but represents a distinct precursor to modern-day practices of cosmetic surgery in the western world!

[1] Mark Harrison, ‘Social History of Science in Colonial India. Themes in Indian History (review)’ Journal of Social History 43(2009)1 pp238-240.

[2] ‘Taeniasis’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [accessed Dec 2012]

[3] Michael Worboys, ‘Manson, Ross and colonial medical policy: tropical medicine in London and Liverpool, 1899-1914’ Disease, Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion (ed.) Roy McLeod (London: Routledge, 1988)

[4] C. A. Bayly, ‘Colonial controversies: Astronomers and Physicians’ Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India 1780-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

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