Category Archives: Conferences

A History of Science Spectacular in Manchester

By Laura Mitchell

People standing in a museum at a reception, with a dinosaur skeleton behind them.
The opening night reception at the Museum of Manchester. All photos by the author.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to present a paper at the 24th International Congress on History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM), which was held at the University of Manchester from July 21st to 28th. The congress operates under the auspices of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS/DHST) and the 24th congress was organized by the British Society for the History of Science. Held every four years, this year’s congress had the theme of “Knowledge at Work”. Because this was such a large conference with such a broad range, I am going to divide up my post thematically: Social Media, Sessions and Public  Events.


Well before the start of the conference, the organisers of the iCHSTM were dedicated to giving it a strong presence in social media. This can only be a good thing with the way that social media and academia seem to be joining up, especially in the blogosphere and on Twitter. First, the iCHSTM organisers have had a conference blog running since May. This began with select presenters offering brief descriptions of the papers they were to present, and evolved to include a daily “Congress Transmission” that provided summaries of the previous day’s events and any updates to the day’s program.

There is a conference Flickr page, updated as the conference progressed, that will give readers a glimpse of everything that was going on (and if you look carefully you may see your intrepid reporter in there somewhere).

For those who missed the conference–or even conference attendees who want to catch something again–there is a iCHSTM Youtube page, which has videos of many public events, including some great comedy bits from the Bright Club night.

The iCHSTM has a very active Twitter page and dedicated hashtags for the conference (#iCHSTM #histsci #histech #histmed). These were great resources for finding out the latest news and changes, as well as for following the livetweeting of sessions throughout the conference.


Charles Burnett of the Warburg Institute presents on the works of Ptolemy in medieval Europe.

The number of sessions and presenters at the conference was impressive: nearly 1400 presenters in 411 sessions, according to the website. The topics ranged from ancient astrology to asbestos in 1940s Quebec. As a result, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth and variety of papers that were given in Manchester. Here is a sampling…

In a session that I chaired, “Spaces and Practical Knowledge”, Anita Guerrini of Oregon State University discussed “The Ghastly Kitchen”. The early modern kitchen, she argued, was a site of life science, namely, dissection. It was an ideal place for conducting scientific experiments, being where instruments for dissection were kept and the cooking of animal parts occured. As well, senses such as taste and smell were important in discovering the properties of objects. Audio of her paper can be found, along with that of other iCHSTM bloggers, here.

In a session on “Geology and Literature”, Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) spoke on “Dickens, Dinosaurs and Design”, comparing the harmony of Charles Dickens’s serialised novels with the perceived harmony and order of dinosaur skeletons. Dawson looked at the language used by both Dickens and his friend Richard Owen, a comparative anatomist. Dawson suggested that Dickens drew on the procedure and terminology that Owen used for the preparation of skeletons for display. Although the work of these two men may seem miles apart, both men wanted to bring about a similar harmony in their work, or a “fusing together” of vertebrae and chapters.

In the same session, Stephen M. Rowland (University of Nevada Las Vegas) examined “Mark Twain and Historical Sciences”. Twain wrote about science throughout his career (such as Paleontology in 1871 and Life on the Mississippi in 1883), and also interjected scientific remarks into his fiction works like Tom Sawyer. Rowland presented a number of examples from Twain’s prolific career, arguing that Twain followed scientific developments. Although Twain’s early works poked fun at new ideas and reflected contemporary American skepticism, Twain later used the respectability of science to argue against religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.

Janine Rogers (Mount Allison University) combined two of my favourite things– codicology and museums–in “The Medieval Codex and Early Science Collections and Museums”. She argued that there is a connection between the medieval codex and its focus on ordinatio and compilatio and early collections and museums. Compilatio viewed the compiler of the medieval book as God’s editor; thus, the book was a mirror of the universe. It was tied to the idea of unio, a union of all knowledge. Similarly, ordinatio, the placement of texts and images on the page, was a theological activity. Even the grotesque marginal imagery served to discuss or critique the main text. Rogers contends there was a similar adherence in early science collections and museums to the idea of knowledge be all-encompassing. The ideal museum, particularly in Victorian architecture, mirrored the layout of the ideal manuscript page, enclosing all knowledge within its walls.

Constance Putnam delivered a fascinating paper on the practice of rural medicine in the mid-twentieth century and the acquisition of medical knowledge by those not formally trained (“Knowledge-making in a rural general practice in mid twentieth-century America). Putnam’s research drew on the archive of thousands of her mothers’ letters. Her mother was not formally trained in medicine, but worked for decades as a laboratory technician and medical assistant with her husband in rural New England. Putnam’s archive demonstrates that the role of wives working in unofficial capacities was necessary for a rural medical practice to succeed.


iCHSTM also included a number of excursions to introduce attendees to Manchester and its involvement in the history of science, and public events to engage the wider population. These events included a tour of the Old Trafford, historical tours of Manchester, an Alan Turing opera, a Victorian séance event, a beer festival, and several musical performances.

Mr. Selwyn (Tim Cockerill) demonstrates some explosive properties on an audience member.
Some of the authentic 19th-century equipment used in the Victorian Science Spectacular.

One of the most…explosive was the Victorian Science Spectacular. This was presented as a demonstration of Victorian science in the 1890s. Four presenters: Aileen Fyfe as Miss Ann Veronica Stanley, a learned scientific gentlewoman; Katy Price as Mr. George Wells, inventor and brother of H.G.; Iwan Rhys Morus as Professor Marmaduke Salt of the Royal Panopticon of Popular Science; and Tim Cockerill as Mr Selwyn, chemical conjuror and assistant to Professor Salt took turns to present their apparatus to the audience. The demonstration consisted of experiments involving electricity, such as telegraphy and Jacob’s ladders, and demonstrations of the latest magic lanterns and cinematographs. With a few exceptions they used authentic period pieces. This was a fascinating look into the kinds of experiments that were used in the public scientific demonstrations of the nineteenth century, and how they blended entertainment with education. The question period following brought up a number of questions about the reaction of contemporary audiences, the practicalities of transporting the apparatus, and how this presentation has been used to engage the public with the history of science.

James Sumner subjects an innocent pint of beer to suspicious looking chemicals.

One of the highlights of the conference was James Sumner’s talk “Chemists, brewers and beer-doctors”, given in the local pub on Wednesday night. Sumner, co-organiser of the Congress, gave a demonstration of the chemical changes that unscrupulous “beer-doctors” performed on beer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the price of malt dependent on the harvest, it became difficult to make a profit during the years of bad harvests. Thus, brewers turned to chemicals and science to turn a watered down pint into something indistinguishable from its full-powered brethren. Sumner subjected a pint of beer to many of the same chemicals that were used by these brewers, including innocuous substances like caramel colouring and vinegar. However, he refrained from the more dangerous substances like the metals that were used to give the impression of drunkenness (and which could lead to death in the wrong amounts). If this topic interests you be sure to check out Sumner’s new book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880, which has just come out from Pickering & Chatto.

iCHSTM held a Bright Club comedy night following Sumner’s beer presentation, with five brave academics performing sets. This was a fun evening with a lot of great humour. Who knew that asbestos could be funny? All of the routines from the evening are online at the iCHSTM’s Youtube page so you don’t have to take my word for the quality, you can see for yourself.

The next congress will be held in the summer of 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, so keep an eye out if you want to catch this great conference the next time around.

The Politics of Food: Food in History at the Anglo-American Conference 2013

Editors’ note: This is our second conference report on the Anglo-American Conference 2013. Sally Osborn’s post considers the domestic and institutional spaces of food.

By Rachel Rich

I started working on food history in 1996. People often smirked when I mentioned it. It seemed like a little topic, something that wouldn’t help answer the big questions about human identity and experience. Yet eating is one of the few universals: thinking about how differently it has been organised across time and space provides amazing insights into class, gender and ethnic identities. With the choice of ‘Food in History’ as the theme for this year’s Anglo-American Conference, food history has finally come of age. A wide range of periods were covered, from classical antiquity to the Arab spring, and everything in between. Some people discussed a particular food, such as milk or bread. One intriguing paper (by Rebecca Ford, University of Nottingham) was even more specific, focusing on the social and cultural geography of watercress in nineteenth-century England. But ‘Food in History’ was given a wide scope, going far beyond discussions of food and recipes, in ways that showed the possibility for telling all sorts of cultural and political stories by understanding what we eat, with whom, how we shop for it, and the routes it has had to travel to reach us.

Read the rest of this post (complete with some of the Twitter discussion!) on Storify:

The Food in History Conference

Editors’ note: This is our first report on the Anglo-American conference 2013. Rachel Rich’s post considers “The Politics of Food”.

By Sally Osborn

The 2013 Anglo-American conference, which took place in London on 11-13 July 2013, was a fascinating mix of periods, styles and types of food history and social history more generally, ranging from reconstructing historical loaves of bread to food and national identity, from chocolate and coffee to alcohol and milk, from gardens to therapeutic diets, feast to famine. This report is inevitably impressionistic, first because of the number of parallel panels, but also because of the absolute wealth of fascinating information. I’ve mainly focused on the ‘aha’ moments and what struck me as most interesting in the talks I attended.

Three of those papers considered institutional food. Ilaria Berti from Università degli Studi di Genova spoke on ‘Eat sparingly of all kinds of fruit’, discussing the differences between norm and praxis in British Army soldiers’ diets in the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was a very high death rate and a significant incidence of illness, mainly reflecting a lack of fresh food in the diet and a high consumption of salted and preserved foods. Indeed, the government of the day actually asserted that salted meat was preferable to fresh. Scottish physician Andrew Halliday recommended increasing the consumption of fresh food from two days to four, advising that in addition to being less monotonous, more fresh food might increase discipline, since it would avoid the soldiers becoming obstinate and unmanageable due to an excess of salt.

Their unwelcome behaviour could also have been because the salt increased their thirst, therefore led to them drinking more – and the habit was to add brandy or rum to the water! In the event, the local government only followed the medical advice to provide fresh food daily when fever broke out or scurvy became common, but this move was frequently cancelled by the Treasury.

Oracle Workhouse, Reading
The entrance to the Oracle in Minister Street. Scanned from The Story of Reading (Countryside Books, 1802), p. 53. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, scanned by BaldBoris.

Susannah Ottaway from Carleton College considered ‘Food and the eighteenth-century workhouse’. Her question was whether the workhouse should be viewed as punitive or charitable – as a pauper Bastille or a pauper palace? In contrast to the prevailing impression of undernourishment, her investigation of the records reveals the relative generosity of food provision in such institutions. According to various dietaries, meat was consistently served at least three or four times a week, although in some areas it was traded off for cheese as an alternative protein. Bread was eaten twice a day, replaced sometimes by oatmeal in the north of England. Broth and beer were also frequently served, as well as milk in the north. Extra allowances included tobacco, tea and sugar, reflecting the humanisation of the workhorse.

In times of sickness food was increased, particularly cheese and sugar, and porter was distributed to women. Inmates were often part of food preparation or serving. Food deprivation was sometimes used as punishment, such as for refusing to work or bad behaviour. Food represented around 60-70% of overall workhouse expenditure, so these institutions were major purchasers in the area, and there was a significant degree of corruption and mismanagement. Furthermore, the generosity of provision has to be understood in light of the fact that the workhouse committee contained a large number of traders, who benefited from the purchasing, so in fact humane reasons were not necessarily paramount.

Jeremy Boulton from Newcastle University (who is working on the Pauper Lives project) built on this with an examination of the records of St Martin’s workhouse, one of the largest in Britain with between 400 and 900 inhabitants at various times. After calculating an estimate of calorific values, he claimed that the diet was at least adequate for life, but not enough for the hard work to which people would be subjected in the workhouse. The bulk of the calories came from bread, flour and peas, as well as beer or ale. Although comparison is difficult, he asserts that people would have been eating more or less the same foods as outside the institution, but the nutritional value obtained outside would have been higher. Tim Hitchcock pointed out that this situation might have reversed by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time wages had declined significantly; and that the workhouse might also have been a better place for women, because they tended not to eat as much food as males in a patriarchal household where food was short.

Inhabitants of the workhouse were given seasonal treats, but with the exception of Christmas/New Year these occurred in June or July when the intake was at its lowest. Tobacco was provided, although not at a level that would have been likely to match consumption outside, and would either have represented a pipeful for most adults or more for a smaller proportion of regular smokers. Lastly, the cash allowances and payments that were given in return for many tasks or when inmates had to leave for a day indicate that there was the possibility of a significant alternative economy in food and drink (particularly gin) smuggled in by ward nurses and returning inmates.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From Image Credit: Masparasol, Wikimedia Commons.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Masparasol.

There were of course many ways of making money from food. Rebecca Ford of University of Nottingham told us about ‘The watercress girl and the watercress garden: Cultural landscapes of watercress in the nineteenth century’. She took a view of food as a cultural object, in which produce, place and people intertwined. Watercress was widely available and could be easily gathered by individuals, both for their own consumption and for sale. The development of the railway network allowed cress growers to move further out of the city, and at the same time the street vendors grew in both number and visibility, certainly in London.

Watercress, washed and grown in pure water, came to symbolise the purity of the countryside, from which city dwellers were becoming increasingly divorced. The watercress girls featured frequently in morality tales, particularly as children looking after sick parents or taking the place of an absent father. The purity of the product gave female sellers – romanticised as poor but happy rustics – an erotic allure. The picture was filled with contradictions, however: they were virtuous and honest, but close to nature and perhaps unbounded by social conventions; their wares could be purified by water, but water itself can also be contaminating if it is not pure.

Virtue was also a concern for Bruna Gushurst-Moore of the University of Plymouth, who spoke on ‘Gardens, foods, medicines: Foods of the sickroom in nineteenth-century America’. She stressed the idea of familial responsibility and ‘every man his own doctor’, which applied from the garden to the sick room in the provision of both herbs and herbal remedies. Proper care was prudent, pure and reflective of propriety. Rather than reflecting a relationship between medical and moral – echoing Steven Shapin (whose keynote is considered in another post by Rachel Rich), who claimed that in doing what was good for you, you were doing what was good – in nineteenth-century America the reverse was true: moral righteousness consisted in physical fortitude and robustness. Right thinking and action not only led to physical health: both were seen as the same.

Health was closely associated with hearth and home, and the ability to provide one’s own food and medicine was seen as living industriously within God’s bounty. Furthermore, sickroom food was a critical component of the proper restoration of health. The ideal food was liquid, easily digested and nutrient dense, such as milk porridge, panada, egg nog or raw beef tea. While in professional medicine there was no association between the individual and virtue, thus the moral probity transferred from the person to the ingredients, the emphasis in the US remained on using ‘the weapons of our country’ and the importance of self-provision.

Replica Victorian kitchen
Replica of a Victorian Kitchen, Museum of Lincolnshire Life, 2011. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Green Lane.

Domestic virtues were also the concern of Rachel Rich of Leeds Metropolitan University, who took as her theme ‘Mealtimes and domesticity: Victorian women and the shape of the day’. Like Ken Albala (whose keynote is discussed in a second post on the conference), she views cookbooks and domestic advice manuals as literature rather than as evidence of practice. The focus of her research is timekeeping and the ways in which middle-class housewives are given advice on food but also time management. Time was a precious commodity that must not be wasted and timekeeping was a moral consideration. However, women’s time works in a slightly different fashion to factory-led time and is more fluid.

Meals created order in a day, moments of togetherness between work and leisure; they were used as timetabling devices and were a crucial factor in allowing sets of people to come together in a social network. Nevertheless, timekeeping devices at home were not often reliable, so synchronisation was not possible. Time was not only linear but there were multiple and overlapping temporalities, reflecting the various rhythms of household activities but also occasions like Christmas. A good housewife had to expect the unexpected and shield her husband from stress within the home stemming from the unpredictability of the outside world, but at the same time there was a tension between setting regular times for meals and having to be ready for everything. Dinner was the main event and the most stressful for the mistress of the house, as even household meals acted as dress rehearsals for the regular dinner parties that she was expected to hold. Almost all the domestic advice books stress the need to get up early, and their continual emphasis on punctuality implies that in fact people weren’t living up to the advice!

Finally, as food was a universally accessible luxury, it was affordable in some form to everyone and therefore was present at all significant events. Sarah Fox of the University of Manchester’s theme was ‘“The usual cheer”: The role of food in early modern childhood’. Food was used to celebrate the safe arrival of the infant as well as to medicate the mother. Alcohol was employed as well to wash or rub the newborn, lending religious overtones of being fortifying and life-giving to its practical astringency. In addition, there is plentiful evidence that women toasted the new arrival as well as men and christenings had a particular reputation for drunken behaviour. The new parents’ provision of alcohol for such occasions perpetuated their network of social obligations.

However, the food that featured most prominently in eighteenth-century birth celebrations was cake, specifically the ‘groaning cake’ prepared by the mother before her confinement. This was strongly associated with social customs like putting a piece of cake under your pillow to dream of your future husband, or that all attendees must partake to avoid bad luck. The sharing of food gifts symbolised the contract between the newborn and its community, but there was also a medicinal aspect – carraway, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were used in cakes but also in remedies for the mother and infant.

The role of food in this kind of event was reflective of the female-associated culture of care rather than the male professional culture of cure, a uniting theme in many of these papers.