On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History

Welcome to On Giant’s Shoulders #54, the history of science blog carnival! Here, we celebrate the history of science with all its oddities, and modern science delves into the past. I can’t think of a better way to spend my third blogoversary (of regular blogging) here at Contagions. Just a few days away from the winter solstice, I managed to fill my sleigh with a load of science history links. Cuddle up with a warm mug of hot chocolate (or whatever warms you) and settle in for some good reading.

Festive Science and the Holiday Season

Since the culture war between science and religion heated up, there has been friction between science and religious holidays like Christmas. Rupert Cole of Notes & Theories reminds us that this was not always so. In Victorian England, the popularity of science and Christmas festivities peaked with the public at the same time and reveled in each other. Victorian Christmas plays and pageants were followed by science lectures to explain the featured science and technology! Public Christmas trees were decorated with scientific instruments that were given to children. Those were the days. Though some science folks still know how to mix up the traditions. In a throw back to at least the sixteenth century, Diane Mcllmoyle of Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about the holiday tradition of mummer’s plays with its requisite quack doctor.

History of Pseudoscience

Let’s kick this carnival off with a stimulating discussion on, of all things, the omnipresence and worth of (what we call today) pseudoscience. Rebekah Higgitt of The H Word addresses claims that pseudoscience is on the rise with a history lesson, and ThonyC of Renaissance Mathematicus goes one step further asserting that pseudoscience has sometimes been helpful to the development of science. Faye Flam of Lightning Rod writes on Michael Gordin’s recent research on pseudoscience. Continuing with the supernatural, Lindsey Fitzharris of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice discusses Abraham Lincoln’s conversations with the dead.

Darwin and Evolution

As always posts on Charles Darwin must be featured in On Giant’s Shoulders. Suvrat Kher of Rapid Uplift writes about Darwin’s slow, deep-thinking methods. Michael Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin calls out more quote mining of Darwin by anti-Darwinists. James Randerson writes of the private life of Charles Darwin. The Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project also launched this month to coincide with the centenary anniversary of his death in 2013. Tim Jones of Zoonomian celebrated the birthday of the other famous Darwin, the polymath Erasmus Darwin (d. 12.12.1731). He also visits Annie Darwin’s grave and reviews Dr Gully’s water cures.

Joachim D of Mousetrap posted on Herbert Spencer’s synthetic philosophy and the centrality of evolution in his thinking.


Kristina Killgrove of Powered by Osteons summarized Nutrition and Well-Being in the Roman World: The Evidence of Human Bones, a conference this fall in Rome. Katy Myers of Bones Don’t Lie discusses how isotope data from bones informs on the social structure of an Anglo-Saxon settlement. In another post she discusses skeletal weapon trauma in medieval Ireland confirming the violence in Irish medieval records. In her most recent post she discusses the discovery and analysis of the graves of victims of the attempted mutiny of The Batavia off the coast of Australia in 1628.


Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie discusses a new study examining osteological and molecular evidence of TB at three neolithic sites in Germany at the transition to farming. I have a post on the Black Death Network reviewing the molecular evidence of the Black Death. If you have any interest in the 14th century crises — plague, famine, cattle murrain etc. — check out the Black Death Network. Spirochetes Unwound discusses the latest theory on the mysterious epidemic of 1616-1619 that decimated native Americans along the New England coast. Here on Contagions, I posted on the isolation of smallpox DNA from 17th century Siberia. The History of Vaccines blog posted a sketch of smallpox vaccine production in a cow, along with a discussion of vaccine production in 1872. Bringing us up to the 20th century, Rebecca Kreston of Body Horrors brings us the story of the first case of HIV in a 1961 Norwegian teenager who brought an unusual strain of HIV (group O) to his family and seeded it across in Europe.


Genomics can help unravel the history of peoples who have left little documentary record. History of the Ancient World Blog has a post on a new study examining Scythian genetic admixture. Katherine Harmon of Observations covers a new study showing Gypsy or Roma origins in India about 500 CE/AD. This places the movement of the Roma out of India into Central Asia during the Great Migrations period that occurred when the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century. Interesting to think of the Roma as the last of the 1500 year old Great Migration peoples. Also covered on Past Horizons.

Mike Drout and his team at Wheaton have been applying DNA analysis and statistics software to Old English texts to determine authorship. They call it Lexomics — check them out.

Medical Practice and Public Health

Early modern medical practice was in the spotlight this month. Mike Rendell, The Georgian Gentleman puts a spotlight on contemporary views of 18th century medical practice. Home remedies were not any more successful, as ThonyC of Renaissance Mathematicus writes about in George Boole’s death from his wife’s homeopathy. Jai Virdi of From the Hands of Quacks explores the motivations of Dr Curtis‘ founding of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear. The Secret Histories Project brings us a biography of the unconventional Dr. James Barry, child genius, military surgeon, and annoyance of Florence Nightingale. Venessa Heggie of The H Word, writes on the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, that founds the modern British welfare state, about earlier attempts to build a social safety net in Britain with Elizabethan Poor Laws and the infamous Victorian workhouses. New blogger Jennifer Evans of Early Modern Medicine writes about the rhetoric of men pushing through the pain. Lisa Smith’s of the Sloane Letter project, she looks at the problem of bed wetting in the 18th century. Lindsey Fitzharris of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice got ready for the holiday season by picking 12 (medical) instruments of Deathmas; most are sure to make you squirm. Caro of The Quack Doctor writes about the fun and games at Illinois Pharmacological Association meetings for traveling salesmen near the turn of the 20th century. Lynsey Shaw of the History of Military Aviation Hospitals writes on The Oxford Military Hospital, 1939-45.

Efforts to figure out the brain were popular this month. Michael Finn of Asylum Science wrote about the use of ophthalmoscope to view the living brain in asylums. The Public Domain Review reprinted “The Brain of Charles Babbage” (1909), the ‘father of the computer’. Darin Hayden wrote about a phrenological examination of Andrew White (who played a role in igniting the friction between science and religion).

On chemicals we are better off without, Marieke Hendriksen of the Medicine Chest writes about how mercury was viewed by early medical practitioners. Deborah Blum of Elemental writes about how early the US FDA knew about radiation dangers in cigarette smoke.

Pharmacy and Diagnostic Texts

Christina Agapakis of the Oscillator writes about the medieval Urine Wheel to diagnose metabolic diseases.

Michelle DiMeo of the Recipe Project writes about Dr Crawford Long’s exploration of the uses of ether for insect bites. Lisa Smith at the Recipe Project writes about a treatise claiming coffee cures the plague. In the area of hard to find reagents, Chelsea Clark of The Recipe Project shines light on the wonders of unicorn horns, bezoars and bones of a stag’s heart for poisoning. Alas, black markets for animal products like Rhino’s horn (a unicorn substitute) and bear gal bladder is still very active and taking its toll on increasingly rare animals. A little easier to resource, Jonathan Cey of the Recipe Project, shows us that feces-containing remedies were common in the early modern pharmacopoeia. So patients were more right than they knew when they said their medicine tasted like crap! Pamela Dangle also of The Recipe Project writes about some really “fishy” remedies for Melancholy (that seem rather unlikely to help, to me). Thinking of odd remedy names, Tim Jones of Zoonomian writes about medical misnomers of the past.

Physics, Astronomy, and Earth Sciences

ThonyC of Renaissance Mathematicus writes about the astronomical and medical roots of the first pocket diary (calendars). I’ll never look at those moon symbols on my calendar the same way again. Sorry Dad, the phases of the moon are not on the calendar to tell you when the fish are biting. Along similar lines of finding practical solutions to scientific dilemmas, Rebekah Higgit of The H Word writes about the catching and keeping of spiders to spin eyepiece filaments for astronomical observations. On the Royal Society blog, Rupert Baker writes about Thomas Hardy’s historical fiction on early astronomers and the royal society.

Let’s get a little textual with our astronomy, starting with Jenny Weston of Medieval Fragments who writes about medieval star-gazing. Astrolabes and Stuff discusses how to construct a medieval equitorium of Mercury and also for the Moon. Katy Barret of the Longitude blog writes about use of Cook’s journals and her longitude book collection. Sarah Werner of The Collation writes about volvelles (movable wheels) on folios of science and pseudoscience books.

Harald Sack at Yovisto writes about the golden-nosed astronomer Tycho Bahre and on Werner Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle. Alberto Vanzo of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy writes about the contributions Geminiano Montanari and the Italian academy. Matt Wisnioski guest posted on American Science about the motto “Change or Die!”

David Bressan of History of Geology writes about how philosophies of the nature of the world effected the study of the history of the Earth, and early efforts to measure its age. BibliOdyssey posts some of the original sketches and paintings of the discovery of Australia and its wildlife and then on Plant atlas from 1878-1783.

Dr SkySkull of Skulls in the Stars sets the record straight on Benjamin Franklin’s kite electricity experiments, outlines Priestly’s 1767 account of Franklin’s experiments and writes of the dangers of experimental ballooning in 19th century. Moving on from riding aloft to the winds on the plains, Carol Clark of Wonders & Marvels writes about the role of wind power in settling the arid American west.

Christian Hansen of Hummus and Magnets writes about the analytical programming of Babbage’s early calculating machines.

Lisa Smith will be hosting the next On Giant’s Shoulders carnival on the Sloane Letter Project in January. So watch for Lisa’s posts on twitter (@historybeagle) for more information.

I hope you found something enlightening and entertaining for a long winter’s night. Watch out for sleighs this holiday season, reindeer get spooked with all the holiday traffic!



9 thoughts on “On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History

  1. I hardly know where to start – what a round-up! I’m sure quackery has outraged those on the ‘proven’ side of the debate for centuries – in fact, I know it has. For every nutter who needs to be given a torch, notebook and several years’ training there’s the rogue genius who sets the new ‘norm’. Respect! 😉

    A jolly Christmas to all!


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