Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

Archive for the tag “Sherlock Holmes”

Planes, Panels and Pastries: thoughts on NAVSA 2013

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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.

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Top Doctors & Police Psychics: A Victorian Legacy.

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

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

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

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


[1] A. Conan Doyle, Early Spoken Word Recordings (1930) Published online by the British Library; available at: <http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CL0013693XX-0100V0>

[2] David Oldman, Spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle: An Online Exhibit published online by City of Westminster Libraries at: <http://www.westminsteronline.org/conandoyle/Spiritualism.html>

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