Victorian Parasites

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Archive for the tag “medicine”

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.


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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).


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)

‘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.

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