Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

Archive for the tag “science”

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

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

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

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


[Image source:]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An extraordinary Instinct for the Horrible.

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

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

Clarify and Classify – what’s in a name?

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

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

(A)  Oh Stratius, dost thou love me?

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

But you do give the best of dinners daily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] ibid. p139

Narrating Science and Blogging the Gulf: the Effects of the Information Age on Scientific Communication.

‘Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists […] between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension’
– C.P.Snow (1959)[1]

The reworking of science: refashioning and re-representing research findings in popular media has reached an all-new level. Scientific narratives are now multidisciplinary, have multiple ‘protagonists’ and multiple authors.The rise of blogging has enabled science to achieve its most accessible form yet with anybody able to review, link, and refashion science in his or her very own narrative. The comment boxes at the bottom of online articles allow people to partake in the discourse of science with an immediacy afforded only by the Internet revolution, and micro-blogging sites such as twitter encourage social dialogue and extended dissemination, via the ‘re-tweet’ feature, to like-minded individuals.

I myself admit that 70% of my scientific reading comes from articles, papers and reviews that have been ‘tweeted’ by @NewScientist, @WellcomeTrust, @Nature and companions. The simple convenience of social networking has revolutionised the popularisation of science so that not only is it widely read, but also widely discussed. This scientific infiltration to an audience of unprecedented size has raised concerns over the accuracy of some popular science texts. Most notably newspapers and freelance websites are often guilty of exaggerating research findings or presenting them within misleading narratives to make better reading. The hot-topic of science journalism at the moment concerns the relative scientific training of such vocations. Should journalists who report popular science be able to understand the original research paper they are reporting on? I think yes. Holding a BSc in both Biology and English I know it will seem easy for me to come to this conclusion, but I’m not advocating such interdisciplinarity simply because I could do it.

The problem stems from the nature of popular science. Those with scientific backgrounds tend to, quite naturally, disappear off into science-focussed vocations, and those with humanities or journalistic backgrounds tend not to have had the time or impetus to study hard science. But this is slowly changing. With the internet-driven boom in science education,  a career in science journalism is becoming a popular choice; the recent governmental funding controversies concerning the Arts and Humanities have called generally for the implication of interdisciplinary action and one destination for this collaboration is in the field of popular science.

Although the duo may seem unconventional, a matching of Arts and Science provides a unique perspective on the way we view the world and endows the scholar with a coveted set of skills for effectively presenting hard science theory in a manageable format. I think a working knowledge of a scientific paper is a valuable and [should be] essential requirement for any science journalist – how can they act as a mediator between science and culture if they are barely more informed than their target readership? I’m not advocating a complete scientific training (although this of course would be ideal) but simply a familiarisation with key scientific concepts and protocol in order to present reliable and well-informed journalism.

Ultimately these kind of debates are of vital importance and made all the more poignant by an increasing number of the general public professing to be scientifically-versed. To ensure informed support or opposition for key scientific protocols and policies we must encourage people to read widely and approach potentially controversial articles with caution. Look for signs of authenticity like citing the original paper, quoting researchers in context and offering links for further information. That said, in my mind anything that encourages a genuinely interdisciplinary approach is a positive thing, so kudos to all the bloggers out there – continue to tell the story of science and do your bit to blog the gulf!

Further reading:
Join the debate on twitter with the hash tag: 

[1] C. P. Snow, ‘The Two Cultures’ The Rede Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959) <>

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. 


[1] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Ross Institute at:

[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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