Category Archives: historiography

On Giant’s Shoulders #66: Contagious History!

Welcome to the 66th edition of On Giant’s Shoulders, the blog carnival for the history of science, medicine and technology! I wish I could pull a bunch of holiday posts out of Santa’s bag, but the blogosphere does not appear to be in the festive mood yet. An anniversary and commemoration mood seems to be prevailing as the end of the year approaches, so for historians this should be a gift!

One thing has become clear from looking at the sources of posts this month is that history of medicine and science has indeed become contagious, no longer limited to just typical blogs. We have traditional bloggers writing feature stories in newspapers and journals, large group blogs, the rise of library, archive and society ‘blogs’, and guest bloggers being invited to give context on blogs, some not normally about history. There are a growing number of options to blog outside of traditional one author blogs.

Marking history in our times 

Most of this issue is, of course, on medieval and early modern medicine, but I can’t let a couple of important modern history anniversaries pass unremarked. The H word celebrated 30th anniversary of PCR with two guest posts: the secret life of the laboratory by Charolette Sleigh and bringing meaning to technology by Jean-Baptiste Gouyon. This month one of the great genetics pioneers of the late 20th century, Frederick Sanger passed away. This two time Nobel prize winner made the sequencing of DNA and protein possible. Without Sanger sequencing there is no telling how long the genetic revolution would have been delayed. Originally done with radioactivity, here is a modern fluorescent Sanger for those of you unfamiliar with what sequencing looks like. Festive, isn’t it?

Modern Sanger Sequencing
Modern Sanger Sequencing

Rebecca Higgitt of The H Word writes about how legends of historic scientific heroes still shapes expectations of modern science and academia, for better or worse.

Part of all the remembrances of the JFK assassination , Circulating Now had a post on JFK’s career long support of the foundation and development of the National Library of Medicine. The New York Academy of Medicine featured a post on the WHO’s  AIDS posters  from the 1987-1995, soon after recognition of the pandemic.

Pathogens and Pandemics

fungal-christmas-tree-2-300x225Although not strictly a blog post, the Royal Society has posted podcasts of the November 2013 Ancient DNA conference, including the session by Johannes Kraus whose lab sequenced the East Smithfield plague isolates. While on the topic of plague podcasts, another series of four Ellen McArthur lectures by Bruce Campbell on “The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the 13th and 14th Centuries” came online earlier in the year but I don’t think has been part of his carnival yet. Listening to these lectures is vital for anyone interested in plague history, environmental or economic history.

Guy Halsall, The Historian on the Edge, writes about pestilence and politics in sixth century Gaul, according to Gregory of Tours. Helen King of Wonders & Marvels wrote about people dying like sheep in the Plague of Athens. A bigger writing project I’m working on motivated me to write, here on Contagions, a post suggesting renaming the third pandemic and a couple of posts (here and here) on plague historiography. posted a  fighting the plague in medieval towns.

Circulating Now‘s guest blogger E. Thomas Ewing writes about the Spanish Flu of 1918 in Chicago. Earlier this year, Michael Bresalier wrote a guest post on The H Word on the 80th anniversary of the discovery of the influenza virus. While on discoveries, Yovisto featured a post on bacteriologist Robert Koch and his work on tuberculosis.

The Digitized Disease Project went online this month with a beta version of its database of digitized osteological remains open to the public for study.

Recipes, Food and Medicine

Jim Chevallier’s food history blog Les Leftovers, had several medicine related posts this month starting with the great medieval water myth , a post on a narrative of soup served to Bishop Gregory of Tours that touches on medieval taxonomy and attitudes toward getting drunk in Greogry of Tours works, and another on the plum of your eye.

The Recipe Project has been productive as ever with posts by Katherine Allen on cures for the common cold and remedies for rabies by Marieke Hendriksen.

Winston Black has a trilogy of posts on Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society on the medieval pharmacy: Turning herbs into drugs in the middle ages,  The drug store in paradise and How do I drug thee? Let me count the ways. The most active medieval bloggers and reporters of covered a recent lecture by Nick Everett on the modern science of medieval drugs.

Paul Middleton of Early Modern Medicine wrote about poisons, potions and the use of unicorn horns.

Caroline Petit posted at Knowledge Centre on Nigella Seeds: The Vicks Inhaler of Ancient Greece and Modern Day Marrakech

Dr Alun Withey posted on 17th century remedies and the body as an experiment.

Unusual Medical Maladies and Treatments

 Felicity Roberts of the Sloan Letters blog, writes about Mary Davis, the horned woman. Yep, real ‘horns’ growing out of her head with a portrait to prove it.

Circulating Now had a post on the use of projected snowflakes on magic lantern slides to mental patients. Some of these slides still exist in the National Library of Medicine.

Caroline Rance of The Quack Doctor has been featuring a post a day for ADvent on historic ads for medical devices and quack medications. The first ad is for a health jolting chair, you can follow the posts daily from there.

Jennifer Evans of Early Modern Medicine writes about medical opinions on ambidexterity and on early modern trepanning.

Public Health

Joseph Curran of the History of Medicine in Ireland blog wrote about the funding of hospitals in Dublin from c. 1847-1880.

Sue Davies of the Wellcome Library blog wrote about early 20th century efforts to reduce the contamination of ice cream in London.

Explore Your Archive featured the strange case of Dr James Barry, a 19th century Inspector General of military hospitals, and the secret revealed at his death.

Book Reviews

Jacob Darwin Hamblin hosted the E-Environment roundtable to review  two books, Sam White’s  The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire  (effects of the ‘little ice age’ on the Ottomans) and Alan Mikhail’s Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt. E-Environment roundtable issues are open access.

Here on Contagions, I reviewed Keith Wrightson’s Ralph Tailor’s Summer: a Scrivener, his City and the Plague.

Andreas Sommer of Forbidden Histories has an interview with Gabriel Finkelstein on his biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond: Science, Progress and Superstition.

Michael Barton’s The Dispersal of Darwin has posted several book reviews in the last month including this one on  Darwin and His Children and for children The Great Human Story

Michael Barton’s other blog Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas also has a book review of Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930.

From Michael Barton's The Dispersal of Darwin blog.
From Michael Barton’s The Dispersal of Darwin blog.

Childbirth and Women’s Medicine

Colleen Kennedy of the Recipe Project writes about that special feminine (almond?) touch given to hand kneaded dough that Robert Herrick loved so.

Helen King of Wonders & Marvels writes about pregnancy between East and West.

Earlier this summer Theresa Earenfight and Monica Green published a series of four posts on teaching  medieval royal mothering and women’s medicine, the first of four post is linked here.

Laurence Totelin of the Recipes Blog wrote about the ancient Greek use of garlic in fertility testing.

Medieval Medical Manuscripts

Another guest blog post by Monica Green on rediscovering medieval medical texts in a digital age.

Catherine Petit of Medicine, Ancient and Modern has a post on neglected Byzantine medical manuscripts.

Lindsey Fitzharris, the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, writes about one of my favorite medieval diagnostic devices in piss prophets and the wheel of urine.

Anke Timmermann of The Recipe Project writes about the medieval (and later) method of cleaning manuscripts with bread. Laura Mitchell of the Recipe Project writes about the erasure of charms from a 15th century household notebook.

Biological Science

Adrienne Mayor of Wonders & Marvels wrote about scorpions in Antiquity.

Caitlin Wylie of Dissertation Reviews reviews Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science, by Lukas Benjamin Rieppel. Robertson Meyer of the Atlantic writes about dragons and beasts in the margins of maps and globes. 

Christian Jarrett of Brain Watch wrote about the first brain collectors.

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts wrote about the theological and philosophical origins of the species concept and the 18th and 19th century origins of ‘intelligent design’ theories.

Blogger Razib Khan wrote a feature in the Telegraph on how genetics of the Caribbean peoples is rewriting their histories.

Lisa Smith of the Sloane Letters blog wrote about Sir Hans Sloan, Abbe Bignon and Mrs. Hickie’s pigeons.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote on how Maria Sibylla Merian’s (1647–1717) illustrations laid the foundations of modern entomology. On this note, we should mark the passing of a modern pioneering female entomologist, Marjorie Guthrie within the last month.

In other science blogging: 

Seb Falk of Astrolabs and Stuff wrote up a seminar summary by Hascok Chan’s on his controversial keynote address from this summer’s International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine on “Putting Science back into History of Science”.

Melinda Baldwin of American Science wrote about the current backlash against prestigious scientific journals and how submissions by scientists has shaped scientific publishing in the past.

Jenny Bulstrode guest posted on Astrolabs and Stuff on the personal touch in making scientific instruments.

Dean Zollman wrote a guest post on Kim Rendfeld’s blog on how Isaac Newton was 300 years ahead of his time. The Newton Project Canada also have posted podcasts of its recent General Scholium Symposium.

Thony C of Renaissance Mathmaticus wrote about Lord Cromwell’s code breaker and on when and how geology became a science.

Robert Hooke’s London gave us some sound advice from the 17th century.  The Origins of Science as a Visual Art has an post on progress being made on finding Richard Waller’s library; Waller was a collaborator of Robert Hooke.

Jaun Gomez of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy on Dr. Arbuthnot’s use of gender balance birth stats to prove divine providence.

Romeo Vitelli of Providentia‘s  post on the physics of four-dimensional spiritualism and a two part post on Isaac Newton’s successor mathematician William Whiston’s predictions on the Second Coming: Part 1 and Part 2.

John Liffen of Stories from the Stores wrote about the sparky beginnings of wireless telegraphy. The yovisto blog featured a post on John Boyd Dunlap’s invention of inflatable tires.

Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles writes about the extensive banality of Nazi evil on the careers of scientists few remember.

Matt Novak of Paleofuture wrote about the unfortunate internet canonization of Nicholas Tesla.

The January edition of On Giant’s Shoulders will be hosted by Jennifer Evans (@HistorianJen) of Early Modern Medicine on January 16, 2014. Submissions are due to Jennifer directly or to The Renaissance Mathematicus (@rmathematicus) no later than Jan. 15.


Historians Chronicling Plague Genetic Discoveries

After my last post critiquing Cohn’s scientific interpretations, I think its only fair to write about all the historians who are actively engaging and incorporating scientific findings in their work. I’ve communicated with a lot of historians who are following the scientific work on the plague and I know there will be some articles and books coming out over the next year or so that incorporate some of new genetics in historical analysis.

So for science folks, these two articles give us some insight into how historians see plague genetics unfolding. Little concentrates on the early drama over plague genetics. Bolton covers that material also, but also looks at newer information on transmission dynamics too.

Little, L. K. (2011). Plague Historians in Lab Coats. Past & Present, 213(1), 267–290. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtr014

Bolton, J.L. ‘Looking for Yersinia pestis: scientists, historians and the Black Death’ in L. Clark and C. Rawcliffe (eds.), Society in an Age of Plague, The Fifteenth Century XII (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2013), publication date 15 August 2013, ISBN 9781843838753. (In the same book/issue as Cohn’s paper discussed in the last post.)

Overall, I am really optimistic about the interdisciplinary work that can be done on the plague.

Academic Plague Identity Wars Continue

Just when you think the academic wars over the identity of the medieval plague are over, another volley is cast by Samuel Cohn. In the past I haven’t mustered the energy to respond to his papers and books because there are just so many scientific misunderstandings, but its time to respond. Obviously, scientific studies that cover all the bases aren’t enough, so for now I’ll to correct some of his misinformation (leaving most of his historical analysis to the historians to critique).

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. (2013) “The Historian and the Laboratory: The Black Death Disease” pp. 195- 212 in Society in the Age of Plague. The Fifteenth Century XII. Clark, L and Rawcliffe, C. Eds. Boydell Press.

Cohn portrays the discovery of Yersinia pestis at the turn of the 20th century as yet another French vs British competition in a partisan British manner. While trying to undercut the importance of French findings, he does not include the political context of Victorian India and particularly English trade interests in his discussion of the Indian outbreak. He does blame harsh British tactics in India on their recognition that Yersinia pestis was the pathogen (which he questions). This whole section needs a good going over by an modern historian.

In his criticism of the aDNA work, he claims that most researchers had “negative findings” but Gilbert et al is the only paper he cites that really failed to find plague. If he is referring to the number of negative specimens, then he doesn’t understand how rare the survival of aDNA is in general and the importance of the more sensitive protein methods. Like most of the press, he makes way too much out of the observation that the East Smithfield isolates represent an ‘extinct’ clade. It would be far more surprising if a Black Death isolate were identical to a modern strain. Evolution does not stop, especially not in the accumulation of polymorphisms (neutral mutations). He ignores the fact that the Third Pandemic strains are descendants of the Black Death isolates. He doesn’t seem to understand that genetic diversity is produced in every epidemic and that most of it is lost at the end of the epidemic. This is especially true of Yersinia pestis diversity generated in humans because it must be transmitted to a reservoir species to be preserved.

Not for the first time, I wonder if he understands what natural immunity is and he uses references from the 1950s or before on human immunity to the plague. All medieval immunity is natural. They did not have the means to generate artificial immunity. Natural immunity can be passive (mother to child) or active (generated after exposure).   He misrepresents Li et al (2012) as an indication that immunity is short-lived when in fact the study shows the antibody response is strong (69.5% at 10+ years) and correlated with the strength of their response at the time of the initial infection. Just because we are having problems generating a vaccine that can repel pneumonic plague doesn’t mean that a response generated against an active infection couldn’t repel bubonic plague.  It takes a much stronger response to cope with an aerosol exposure.  When plague epidemics are coming about every 10-15 years, an immunity that lasts 10-20 years would be enough to produce an age differential in the mortality rate. I will leave his analysis of the mortality from historic sources to historians to comment upon. While childhood mortality rates in plague epidemics are clues toward immunity, they are only one variable in comparing the epidemics. We also have to look at what else is occurring among the children such as normal childhood mortality, co-infection and other co-morbidity.

He makes the leap of logic that decreases in total mortality rates equals changes in human immunity. There are many variables that effect the intensity of an epidemic. Decreases in human mortality may suggest changes in the rodent population and/or rodent immunity. If epidemics occur too closely spaced the rodent population will not have recovered enough to generate a large outbreak. Of course, other environmental changes can alter the rodent population and exposure of humans to rodents.

He makes assertions on vector transmission that are not referenced and uses a reference from 1913 (!) to assert that the septicemia in humans is not high enough to allow human-to-human flea transmission. He seems to be assuming that transmission would need to be accomplished by a single flea or louse, which is unlikely. He gives no reference for his assertion that the bacterial load in plague is lower than insect vector transmitted typhus or Lyme disease. He seems to think that only one vector could be at work in the second pandemic rather than rat fleas, human fleas, and lice all transmitting Y. pestis in the same epidemic. Pathogens will take any opportunity available to transmit.

He starts reaching for straws in the conclusions:

There are statements like this: “The ancestor of this family, Yersinia psuedotuberculosis, which geneticists argue gave birth to this new strain of Yersinia, perhaps as late as the eve of the Black Death” (p. 210) Yersinia pestis is not a new strain of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis! It is a species in its own right. A strain is a distinctive subpopulation of a species.  Emerged as late as the eve of the Black Death? Nonsense. There is the little thing of the Plague of Justinian about 800 years earlier, with aDNA and protein evidence. This emergence involving genome rearrangement, loss of genes, gain of chromosomal genes and plasmids would likely have taken at a minimum centuries before 541.

“Could an earlier variety of the ancestor Yersinia suddenly have developed pathogenic factors such as plasmids or, on the level of protein biosynthesis, abilities form a capsule or to release endotoxin, thus suddenly transforming the benign pseudotuberculosis into a new and vicious pathogen, but without diminishing its ability to spread effectively from person to person?” (p. 211)

This one is easy…. NO! Bacteria do not suddenly develop plasmids; they acquire them from other species. In Y. pestis’s case, all of these plasmids are significantly modified from the ancestral plasmids they received. It also takes more than one gene or even plasmid to produce Y. pestis virulence from Y. pseudotuberculosis. He seems to also be implying that a change to increased virulence in humans is the species differentiating event for a primarily rodent pathogen.  Then he strangely follows this (a few sentences down) with the speculation that the “modern bacillus may actually be more toxic than that of the pathogen of the historic plague.”(p. 211) Huh? What happened to his speculation above that “a new and vicious pathogen” was at work?

“As regards Black Death and the ‘Third Pandemic, when and by what criteria does ‘a strain’ of a pathogen come to be reckoned as the causal agent of another ‘disease’, which has to be classified differently from that caused by a related pathogen of the same genetic family, as is currently recognized in the case of Yersinia pestis and its older relative, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis? Even if scientists thought that a pathogen is the equivalent of the disease it in part causes, that is the only pertinent defining feature? Even if scientists thought that the pathogens of the ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ Pandemics were identical (and now they do not), should we then return to the strict reductionism of Koch circa 1890, that a pathogen is the equivalent of the disease it in part causes, that it is the only pertinent feature?” (p. 212)

What? Now we have to reargue germ theory? Pathogens can have different presentations and different epidemic dynamics; some transmit by a variety of means. Co-infections and other co-morbidities certainly matter, but you don’t have the disease without the pathogen.  This is not a type of disease like pneumonia where multiple pathogens cause similar effects. Cohn is grasping at straws and bending scientific concepts to suit his purposes.