Postgraduate Conference of the British Society for the History of Science – Florence 5-7 April 2017

A review by Katalin Pataki (CEFRES-CEU) & Ádám Mézes (CEU)

The annual postgraduate conference of the British Society for the History of Science was held between 5-7 April 2017 in Florence at the European University Institute in collaboration with the Centre Alexandre-Koyré (Paris). The event took place in Villa Salviati, a building of EUI located on the picturesque Tuscan hillsides near Fiesole.

The three-days program contained six concurrent sessions (two per day) during which the participants could choose presentations according to their interests between two or three simultaneously running panels that featured a great variety of themes, such as “Knowledge transmission in the Renaissance”, “Biomedicine”, “Brain and Psyche” or “Visualizing knowledge across the Ages”, just to mention a few. Due to the great diversity of topics and sessions, the actual report cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the whole spectrum of research fields represented at the conference. Nevertheless, it still intends – even if in an incomplete and somewhat arbitrary way – to give an account on the presentations that were related to the history of medicine.

Participants in the panel “Brain and Psyche” generated a lively discussion about ways to address the relationship between society, politics and psychiatry. Axelle Champion (University of Edinburgh) seeks to inscribe young people into the larger medical and social context of 19-20th century Scotland through researching the admission, treatment and care of children and adolescents in psychiatric institutions. She presented a quantitative, comparative analysis on various Scottish asylums and established that children were a minority (3-6%) in such institutions, and that most of them came from among the paupers, while gender was not an influential factor in the admissions. She also emphasized that while the child’s psyche was seen as malleable and still in-formation at the time, in practice this did not result in child-specific diagnoses or treatments. The other panelist, Steven Server (University of Chicago) discussed the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960’s, and argued for a recovery of the original meaning of the term, that had a much wider reference than debates on the internal disciplinary contours of psychiatry. Going back to David Cooper’s 1967 “Dialectics of Liberation” conference, Steven Server presented an impressive mosaic of opinions from literature through medicine to social thinkers, who were all pointing out the contingent nature of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, which sometimes subtly, other times more openly served individual or political interests. This way he sought to relate the antipsychiatry movement to larger political concerns of decolonization and the Cold War.

One of the first sessions of the second day was dedicated to early modern medical practices and revolved around the various epistemological challenges that medicine had to deal with between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Sebastián Molina Betancur (University of Turin) explored in his presentation the diffusion of Newtonianism in New Granada in the eighteenth century and argued that its introduction was a complex enterprise that encompassed not only mathematical and physical elements as they were applied in natural philosophy, but also botany and medicine. Teresa Hollerbach (MPIWG Berlin) set into focus an early example of quantitative physiological reasoning at the turn of the seventeenth century through the investigation of the work of the Istrian physician, Sanctorius Sanctorius. She highlighted the connections between material culture and medicine, since Sanctorius himself also contributed to the construction and application of instruments that could enable the measuring of physiological changes and contributed to the introduction of empirical research into physiology. Simultaneously, the presenter also called attention to the importance of the contemporary intellectual framework and questioned the validity of evaluating Sanctorius as the inventor of a new medical science, as she pointed at his embeddedness into the mathematical tradition of Galenic medicine and his intention to supply exactness to conjectures. While the first two presentations considered concurrent trends in the forefront of medical improvements, Adam Mézes (Central European University) provided a cross-section of the medical hierarchy of the Habsburg Empire in the 1730-1750’s through the investigation of the question how different medical, ecclesiastical and state authorities responded to the challenge of “supernatural diseases”, particularly to vampirism. He explored the role of medical practitioners diagnosing and handling “the vampire disease” in shaping the attitudes towards the supernatural and pointed out how such border cases could feed into the reinforcement of the role of medical authorities as standard-bearers of the enlightening project. Simultaneously, the presentation also highlighted the discrepancies between the needs of the local communities and the answers the medical experts could offer.

Two sessions provided frameworks for discussing visual aspects of medicine. In the one entitled “Visualizing knowledge across the ages”, Alicia Hughes (University of Glasgow) contributed on representations of reproductive anatomy. She revealed the possible influences and inspirations that William Hunter gained from the works and legacy of his previous mentor, James Douglas while he prepared his book “The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus”. Hunter’s richly and artistically illustrated book published in 1774 revolutionized the representation of obstetrical knowledge, however the authorship and the novelties of its visualization strategy might be attributed not only to Hunter, but might be traced back to an unpublished manuscript and a collection of visual materials and educational objects that originated from Douglas. In the panel “Knowledge on display”, Leander Diener (University of Zurich) presented a peculiar attempt at the visualization of medical knowledge through cinematography. The analysis focused on Walter Rudolf Hess, professor of physiology at the University of Zurich, who in the late 1920’s succeeded in constructing an experimental array that allowed him to combine deep brain stimulation experiments, film, and histological examinations to facilitate the understanding of the cerebral structure of the vegetative nervous system. Leander Diener’s research challenged the usual, innovation-centric narrative of Hess’s research and determined that such a narrative overestimates the use of early medical cinematography.

In the panel “Science, Power and Politics” Katalin Pataki investigated the role of medical authorities in the implementation of church reforms and the negotiations of different actors over the bodily capacities of monks and nuns. She presented a transitory stage in the move from the medical expert to the medical professional, and demonstrated how medical certificates came to replace the earlier practice of monks assessing their own health and capacities. She also pointed out however, that at the same time, these certificates used a rather non-medical, non-professional vocabulary to describe bodily conditions. In the same session, Paul-Arthur Tortosa (European University Institute) drew attention on the heterogenous nature of knowledge production in military hospitals. He argued that the roots of arithmetic practices in medicine are to be found not so much in an intellectual change, but in the practical, administrative/military concerns of doctors working in military hospitals.

One of the last panels of the conference focused on biomedicine. Matthew Holmes (University of Leeds) discussed the rise, decline and revival of interest in the biology of plant grafting in the 20th century, and pointed out factors in these changes both within and outside the discipline of biology, while giving occasion to terminological debates about hybrids, chimaeras and in general, about borders construed within plant and animal biology. In her presentation, Rachel Meach (University of Strathclyde) investigated the 20th century history of treating Type-2 diabetes. She pointed out that even though it is known since the nineteenth century that social and environmental factors, particularly diet, are both the cause and solution to the disease, the medical society’s response to the disease up to the 1970’s still was an essentially pharmaceutical one. Simon Walker (University of Strathclyde) did an experience-centered, ‘from below’ history of typhoid-inoculation in the I. World War. He emphasized that while the inoculation did save soldiers from the deadly disease, it had such harsh side-effects that severely endangered their physical performance in war.

On the second day, three workshops enriched the program that shared information about opportunities for historians of science to enhance their access to different kind of resources, including historical sources and collections, publication opportunities, institutional affiliations and funding. Each session provided opportunities to get informed about and make contact with institutions located in Florence. The “Archives and sources of the history of science” section provided opportunity to receive firsthand information about the collections of the Museo Galileo from the director of its library, Alessandra Lenzi, while the “Publication strategies” workshop  had among its speakers Maria Confronti, editor-in-chief of Nuncius, Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science (an international journal having its roots in the institutional setting of Museo Galilei) and Lotta Svensson, manager of the research repository CADMUS (a database that contains EUI-members’ academic publications). The third workshop entitled “Institutions and funding across Europe and beyond” disseminated several tips and ideas that can facilitate the future career of historians of science and had a strong emphasis on the possible institutional frameworks and funding opportunities for research. Teresa Hollerbach presented the Max-Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Berlin) and Catarina Madruga (University of Lisbon and Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia  – CIUHCT) provided a broad overview about the most important centers of Portugal where research on the history of science is pursued. The participants could receive detailed information also about the Max Weber Postdoctoral Programme at EUI thanks to its coordinator, Karin Tilmans and Katalin Stráner Max Weber Fellow. An important take-away from the panel discussion was that one should also look for opportunities beyond the strict frames of the history of science: there are various funding bodies of the EU and of the member states that would gladly accept applications from historians of science. Also, registration to various nation-level job search sites can also prove to be fruitful.

The afternoon sessions of the second day were followed by a walk through the streets of the historical center of Florence and a guided tour in the library and exhibition spaces of the Museo Galilei.

The closing event of the conference was the keynote lecture given by Stéphane Van Damme, professor of history of science at the European University Institute. As the title of his talk had forecasted – “Between the colonial machine and the French global: revisiting an anti-globalist narrative of the French empire of science (1660-1780)” – he proposed a model for writing on the history of science in a global perspective that can also mediate between the too narrowly defined notion of a French scientific empire and the approaches that call into question any French cultural production from a radically global and multiple point of view. He marked out these two, seemingly incompatible positions with referring to two books as their representatives: The Colonial Machine from James E. McClellan and François Regourd that explores the importance of sciences in the state apparatus and the institutional frameworks facilitating knowledge transfers, while the French Global edited by Christie McDonald and Susan Suleiman contrasts the history of national literature with a globally entangled understanding of culture. The middle way proposed by professor Van Damme was also inspired by a book, namely Helga Nowotny’s The Cunning of Uncertainty. Taking uncertainty as a leitmotif and calling attention to controversies within the French Empire of science, he presented a multi-sited approach, i.e. a range of cases centered around travelers whose agency pushed further the boundaries of the unknown in various fields of knowledge and in different geographical contexts while seizing opportunities in ambiguous situations. His protagonists were mainly scholars or explorers whose alternative epistemology of science challenged Catholic and absolutists orders and can be regarded as the representatives of a “minority culture of science” pointing towards anti-globalist visions.


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