Victorian Parasites

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Archive for the tag “19th century”

Gently Licking Worms & Preaching Mosquitoes: the Linguistic Dialogue Between Parasitology and Religion

NB. the linguistic relationship between parasites and religion is in fact at the very core of parasitology as a discipline and underscores the very concept of the parasite – see my earlier post on the parasite’s etymological heritage here

I was recently visited by two Jehovah’s witnesses. I opened the door to a little old lady and her younger friend, who greeted me with smiles and began to tell me about their religion. They asked if they could leave me their magazine to read, which I accepted, mostly out of the same crippling politeness that had kept me on the doorstep in the first place. The little old lady then, quite disarmingly told me, that it was “a lovely issue, all about THE END.” The front cover was a [badly] photo-shopped image of a young family amid plane wreckage, looking like they’d just stepped out of an episode of The Walking Dead—on the winning side. Nevertheless I opened it to find, amid the Bible verses, some very practical and thoughtful advice. The next month they brought me another issue—this time all about science, with, again, some very practical advice regarding sanitation and infection control. Despite treating science with a somewhat sceptical tone, the issue worked to demonstrate that science and religion could be productive bedfellows, and that science, far from contravening the teachings of the Bible, actually confirmed much of what the Bible already taught.

Although not one hundred per cent convinced that Pasteur’s Germ Theory and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation are encoded in Biblical texts (both things the younger friend had tried to demonstrate), I can see how post-discovery we interpret the Bible through those lenses. Equally, I do believe that quarantine practices, for example, which are described in the Bible, were practical, pre-scientific responses to the experience of disease. Just as the transmission of malaria parasites by mosquitoes—proven by Ronald Ross in 1898—had its roots in the theories of Varro, Vitruvius, Columella and Palladius, who all attributed malaria to ‘minute animals’ engendered in swamps, prime mosquito breeding grounds (116BC/4th and 1st BC), and in cuneiform scripts, which attribute malaria to the Babylonian god Nergal, who is pictured as a mosquito-like insect. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine made me think more broadly about the dynamic relationship between science and religion. One of my thesis chapters explores the relationship between parasitology and Christianity, 1700-1900, and charts the ways in which Christianity both opposed and supported theories concerning the transmission of parasitic disease.

One of the most high profile entanglements between religion and parasites in the eighteenth century concerned the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that some organisms could be generated from inanimate matter. The strongest argument in favour of this was the existence of parasitic worms inside the body, which prior to the elucidation of parasite lifecycles and transmission pathways, appeared to support the generation de nuovo of these organisms. However, many objected to this idea on the grounds that, according to the Bible, God created the world in seven days and no more organisms were created after this point. This led to the establishment of theories of preformation: the idea that within nature existed the “blueprints” for all organisms that had ever and would ever exist, and that these seeds or germs would, under the right conditions, turn into the corresponding organism. In regard to parasitic worms this necessitated Man to contain within him the blueprints for all his parasites, which would under the right conditions—immoral thoughts and behaviours—become these pathological organisms.

[via: seafoodpunch.com]

However this still didn’t adequately reconcile itself with the Bible, which taught that Man, created in innocence before the fall, was free of all diseases, and owing to the seven days of creation, no new species could have been created after him. Italian physician and biologist Antonio Vallisneri suggested that the worms might have originally served a beneficial purpose such as digestion aids and became parasitic only after the fall from grace: ‘Worms [which] God appointed to Man, while he preferred him in his first state of innocence, were to be useful to him and render his body more perfect’.[1] He went on to suggest an ordained symbiotic relationship in which Adam supported and fed ‘those insects, which had a mind to live together quietly and friendly’ who in turn would not ‘transgress their bounds or eat holes thro’ the sides of the guts […] but they would rather by gently licking the parts and by healing them do their Host a kindly office.’[2] After the Fall however, the worms became ‘Ministers of Divine justice’ mounting an insurrection upon man and given ‘leave to destroy and become a common Enemy of Mankind.’[3]⁠ 

This explanation correctly argued against spontaneous generation, and by theological analogy, hit upon an idea about the evolution of parasitic organisms that recognized the parasitic lifestyle as an evolutionary adaptation. However, the theologically ordained relationship between pathology and morality, was an association that focused on internal disorganization and ignored the significance of external sanitation practices. T. Spencer Cobbold lamented the persistence of this association as late as 1879: ‘some [people] still cling to the creed that the presence of parasites, of internal ones at least, betoken evidence of Divine disfavor.’[4] The relationship between religion and science then is complex, and can have lasting effects, which are to some extent, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mutualistic. Indeed even now scientists recognize their cultural relationship to religion, as evidenced in the nick-naming of the Higgs Boson, the ‘God particle’. While some may interpret this as a discovery that makes religious beliefs obsolete, others would more pantheistically argue that it simply demonstrates a reinterpretation of our fixed anthropocentric ideas about a Divine Creator.

Although now in the Western world commonly considered to be a replacement for religion, even to be a new religion, science also functions to reaffirm faith. Albert Einstein famously asserted that the more he studied science, the more he believed in God, and argued for a symbiotic relationship that saw one lame and the other blind in isolation. This perhaps conflates wonder at the universe with teleology, however is something I often come across in my research. Certainly the argument that science is religion is found in the correspondence between two physicians in the 1890s: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Patrick Manson, two epoch-making

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

scientists who specialized in tropical medicine. They both use religious language to discuss their research, and in the process equate the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria (which Ross won the Nobel Prize for in 1902, and which saved thousands of lives through preventative sanitary measures in the colonies) as on a par with the coming of a biblical prophet. Ross (working in British India) prepares to send Manson (working in London) some mosquitoes containing malaria parasites to dissect, and Manson responds:

I shall welcome the twelve apostles –I mean the twelve mosquitoes in glycerine, for I hope to make them apostles in a malarial sense—preachers of the gospel of Laveran and of the cause you and I have at heart.[5]

The ‘Gospel of Lavernity’ is mentioned in other letters in the five-year correspondence, and refers to Alphonse Laveran’s discovery of the Plasmodium parasite and his postulation that it was responsible for the disease Malaria. The religious framework is continued. When discussing Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrie, who disbelieved in the malaria parasite, instead believing Laveran’s organism to be degenerated protoplasm, Manson writes: ‘these are thy prophets O Israel’[6] referring to Ezekiel 13 and the reproof of the false prophets. Indeed, it is not just Christian terminology that they borrow to express their ideas. When discussing the aetiology of Plague and its potential connection to a mammalian vector, Ross asserts: ‘If I were Surgeon General Cleghorn, the first thing I would do would be to bring a Jehad against the rats and I would kill all the rats in and around Bombay’.[7] Manson and Ross use religion to lend authority to scientific endeavour, however, in doing so they do not belittle its authenticity, nor dismiss its claims to truth.  During Ross’s years spent dedicated to the malaria problem he wrote research poems, some of which are discussed in earlier posts. These explore and catalogue his emotional response to his research and his troubled relationship to theology. In an 1890-3 poem entitled ‘Indian Fevers’ Ross recounts his experience as a colonial physician and his frustration at being unable to provide effective treatment. He entreats God to enlighten him.

            In this, O Nature, yield I pray, to me.
I pace, and pace, and think and think, and take,
The fever’d hands, and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

The painful faces ask, can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure
The unseen, small, but million-murdering cause.[8]

Elsewhere he talks about ‘gazing worn and weary from this Dark world’ and again asks help from the ‘steadfast eye of God’. His Romantic tradition poetry, borrowing from the likes of Keats and Shelley retains a pantheistic outlook and worships Truth, Wisdom and Nature as readily as a single deity. In his frustrations he often questions organized religion, and the politics of imperialism.

            The lordly anthem peals
The while the people rot
The gilded church reveals
The penury of their lot.

No matter—let them starve!
The gorgeous mass atones;
These glorious arches serve
To sepulchre their bones.[9]

His poem ‘Reply’ from ‘In Exile’ written in India is his most famous poem, composed upon finding the proof for his discovery. The first part is often quoted as his ‘malaria day poem’ and is as follows:

                  I

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?[10]

He attributes his findings to divine intervention, but understands this intervention in terms of patience and faith. Ultimately he advocates an understanding of religion that celebrates human endeavour and rather beautifully illustrates the divinity within the human:

The voice of God is heard,
Not in a thunder-fit;
A still small voice is heard,
Half-heard, and that is it.[11]

In an increasingly secular time, many people still find wonder in the power and beauty of the universe. Whether we attribute that feeling of awe, privilege, and emotion to its divine creation, to a Romantic sense of pantheism, or simply to an attempt to impose meaning on an otherwise chaotic world, it still remains significant that the cultural dialogue engendered by this functions as a space in which we can ponder our practical and moralistic identity as human beings.


[1] A. Vallisneri, New observations and experiments upon the eggs of worms found in humane bodies (London, 1713) quoted in Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms: Bred in the Bodies of Men and Other Animals (London, Printed for J Wilcox at the Green Dragon, 1721) reproduced online: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Fwz6h7oaoHQC [accessed July 2015] p.352.

[2] Daniel LeClerc adds the suggestion that other parasites like lice might be explained in a similar manner, having a use which is now impossible for us to discern and appearing innocence to innocent Adam under the auspices of a holy symbiosis, ‘the Lice which we now seem to have such an abhorrence of […] might [have been] very serviceable to [man], in gently opening the pores of the skin.’ A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms, p.354.

[3] Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms pp.352-3.

[4] T. Spencer Cobbold, Parasites; a treatise on the entozoa of man and animals including some account of the ectozoa (London: J & A Churchhill, 1879) reproduced online: http://archive.org/stream/parasitestreatis00cobbrich#page/n5/mode/2up [accessed July 2015]

[5] Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 32 02/011’ The Beast in the Mosquito: the Correspondence of Ronald Ross and Patrick Manson eds. W.F.Bynum and Caroline Overy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) p.92.

[6] Patrick Manson, p.77.

[7] Ronald Ross, ‘Letter 50 02/021’ Beast in the Mosquito, p.149.

[8] Ronald Ross, ‘Indian Fevers’ Philosophies (London: John Murray, 1911) p.21.

[9] Ronald Ross, ‘Lies’ Philosophies, p.43.

[10] Ronald Ross, ‘Reply’ Philosophies, p.53.

[11] p.54.

‘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) http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/137636?rskey=xHdO5M&result=1#eid [accessed May 2012]

[2] C. D. Yonge, trans. (1854) Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists Book Six (circa. 3rd Century AD) pp 234-248 http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus6b.html [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’.

See: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/at-the-interface/evil/monsters-and-the-monstrous/call-for-papers/

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. <http://archive.org/stream/budgetofparadoxe00demouoft#page/336/mode/2up> 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.’

Ancient Boats and Etruscan Vases: Parasite Poetry & Founding Figures.

Surgeon Major Ronald Ross K.C.B  F.R.S, Physician, Scientist, Mathematician, Novelist, Artist, Poet.

Yes you read that right. Impressive accolade isn’t it? Sir Ronald Ross, the first British person to receive a Nobel prize in Medicine for his discovery of the Malaria vector, awarded a knighthood, a lectureship, an honorary M.D…He is a seminal figure in scientific research, but what is little known about Ross are his other accomplishments. He was a successful novelist and a quite striking poet. The Ross institute at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine boasts a vast archive of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, letters from unlikely figures like H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, mathematic notebooks, research logs, poetry and even watercolour sketches of the Isle of Wight.[1]

How did this seemingly unconscious one-man attempt to ‘bridge the mutual gulf’[2] affect his life and work? Well for a start it wasn’t unconscious. Ross believed that art and science could, and did, work best together:

‘Science is the Differential Calculus of the mind. Art the Integral Calculus;      they may be beautiful when apart, but are greatest only when combined.’   –Sir Ronald Ross.[3]

He wrote poetry alongside his research, which often reflected his mood (increasingly Byronic descriptions of lost stars crying and blood red skies accompany his failed attempts under the influence of Malaria infection in India) and his poetry also narrated his ’heroic’ journey of discovery:

“I pace and pace, and think and think, and take
The fevered hands and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.
The painful faces ask “Can we not cure?
We answer, “No; not yet; we seek the laws.’
O God reveal through all this thing obscure
The unseen small but million-murdering cause.”[4]

Correspondence between Ross and his friend and guru, fellow researcher, ‘father of Tropical Medicine’, and first president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, nick-named ‘Mosquito Manson’, Sir Patrick Manson, reflects his artistic side – in one letter referring to a ‘fight’ between a flagellum and 3 phagocytes (under a microscope) as like ‘the three musketeers.’  His undeniable literary streak shines through in his scientific publications, where he describes mosquito eggs as ‘shaped curiously like ancient boats with raised stern and prow [with] lines radiating from the concave border like banks of oars’[5]. Even Manson indulges in this literary description, noting the similarity between mosquito eggs and beautiful ‘Etruscan vases’[6].

Too often such historical tributes to interdisciplinarity are overlooked; increasingly the two camps are recognising the benefits they can gain from traversing the gulf and my research is concerned with just that – the public understanding of science and how far scientific knowledge is shaped by cultural nuances. (Baited breath for future PhD progress blogposts!)

I’ll conclude this brief glimpse into the two cultures with a quote from Manson on the place of art in a scientific world, he says ‘Poetry never goes back on you. Learn as many pieces as you can, go over them again and again until the words come of themselves and then you have joy forever that cannot be stolen or broken […] The thing you cannot get a pigeon-hole for is the finger-point showing the way to discovery.’[7]

If you have opinions about the cross-over between science and literature and the public understanding of science why not send us a proposal or come along to our symposium. 

Image


[1] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Ross Institute at: http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/library/archives/ross/index.html

[2] See The Two Culture’s debate inspired by C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures. (1959, London: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

[3] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (1995, Winchester: Faber and Faber)

[4] Ronald Ross Memoirs, with a full account of the Great Malaria Problem and its Solution (1923, Kindle Edition, 2012)

[5] Ronald Ross, ‘On some peculiar pigmented cells found in two mosquitos fed on malarial blood’ British Medical Journal 2 (1897) 1786-88.

[6] Patrick Manson ‘On the development of Filaria sanguinis hominis, and on the mosquito considered as a Nurse’ Journal of the Linnean Society, Zoology 14(1878) 304-11.

[7] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (Winchester: Faber and Faber, 1995)

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