Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

Archive for the tag “ronald ross”

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.

Planes, Panels and Pastries: thoughts on NAVSA 2013

Image

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) <http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/01/03/donts-for-women-on-bicycles-1895/&gt;

‘Everything is Interconnected’ an Artist’s material culture project making statements with Book Art  <http://everythingisinterconnected.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/books-are-almost-finished.html&gt;


[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… 

Image

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

Image

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

Image

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.

Image

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. 

Image

Image

“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…”

Image

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.

Image

[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”.

Image

[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: http://www.im.microbios.org/0901/0901069.pdf

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: http://goo.gl/b6hNg

[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.

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?

‘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]

Image

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

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

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

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

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


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

No Man is an Island, Tropical or Otherwise.

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

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

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

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

ImageImageImageImage

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)

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: