More Science

This book by Conner continues to offer great detail, and more importantly for me, story ideas. Conner’s a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York – how is it this school seems to specialize in biographers? I read a Mark Twain bio by Ron Powers a few months ago – also a John Jay faculty member. I’d like to sit in their faculty lounge for a while!

Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch “mechanic” and alchemist, demonstrated a submarine in the Thames in 1620. He kept people submerged in comfort for three hours, using bottled oxygen. Why does no one know about this? Because there was no word for OXYGEN for another two centuries. Drebbel had “empirically learned to generate it by heating saltpeter. Robert Boyle later credited Drebbel with recognizing that the air we breathe is a mixture of various ‘airs,’ one of which is essential for sustaining life.” (252) According to wiki, Drebbel also invented a chicken incubator connected to a mercury thermometer (which he also invented), that automatically kept it at a constant temp. This is one of the first feedback-based control systems. Drebbel died in poverty, a tavern-keeper, in 1633.

Again, the what-if possibilities seem endless. What if the elite scientists like the members of the Royal Society (founded 1660) had been more open to empiricism, and less dependent on
a priori theorizing? If I can connect the dots, even loosely, between these ideas…

Before Darwin

a few more notes from Millhauser’s Before Darwin

The idea that evolution was “in the air” is supported: “it had recently made a considerable stir in France, with that infidel Lamarck and his party, and all the authority of Cuvier had been needed to put it down. Lyell was obliged to devote a good many pages of his
Principles of Geology to repudiating it…for geology, blink the fact or gloze over it as one would, contradicted Scripture.”

The reluctance of major scientific figures doesn’t necessarily represent the feeling of all scientists (unless you subscribe to the “great man” theory and think they
were all the scientists). Lyell was a knight and baronet. Cuvier was a baron. Erasmus Darwin delayed publishing his theory of evolution from 1770 to 1796, and he didn’t have the personal attachment to religion that his grandson did. It’s interesting, though. They’re willing to go only so far.

“since the turn of the [19
th] century…the theory has had no outstanding, serious, and determined popular apologist or representative…Among the informed few the idea is detested: a disgusting and exploded folly, kept alive only in atheistic, revolutionary France; it may also be a little feared.” (71) Millhauser’s impressionistic style seems to capture some interesting clues. There’s a relationship between popular, out-loud debate and acceptance of new ideas (even among the elite). All kinds of things may be believed by “the informed few,” but they’re not dangerous unless spoken of. Reminds me of J.S. Mill and birth control.

“About the middle of the seventeenth century, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armargh, carefully computed the date of creation and set it at 4004 B.C.” (194, n. 2) (Fall of the House of Ussher?)

If I need to go back to the primary sources on geology, here are the ones Millhauser talks about:

Indications of Creator
John Woodward, An Essay Towards a Natural History of the Earth, ~1670
Thomas Burnet,
the Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1684
William Whiston,
A New Theory of the Earth, 1696
W. Worthington,
The Scripture-Theory of the Earth, 1773
James Hutton,
Theory of the Earth, 1785, gradualist
John Whitehurst,
Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth
Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1830-3, “uniformitarian”
Archbishop Sumner,
Treatise on the Records of Creation, 1816
Granville Penn,
Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaic Geologies, 1822
William Paley,
A View of the Evidences of Christianity and Natural Theology

was reviewed in G.J. Holyoake’s Movement and Anti-Persecution Gazette (119 no reference given) (Jan 8 1845, 9-12 by William Chilton; Feb 26, Mar 5 & 19 1845)

Also: “The compositor and former bricklayer William Chilton recognized
Vestiges as an attempt to remove the radical edge from the weapons of materialism; see his “ ‘Materialism’ and the Author of the ‘Vestiges’,” Reasoner 1 (1846): 7-8.

“Francis Bowen, a philosophical conservative at war with Kant, Mill, Comte, and much besides, devoted some fifty-odd pages of his
North American Review to a technical refutation of Vestiges, fortified by an exposure of its atheistic tendencies” (119-20).

Even those you’d expect to support
Vestiges, didn’t. “Thomas Henry Huxley begins with a tart remark that Vestiges continues to appear although exploded, and continues enthusiastically in this key.” as always, Huxley is ambivalent about the impact on the public’s understanding of the issues. “Darwin feared ridicule; as early as 1844, in a letter that spoke a little superciliously of Lamarck’s ‘absurd though clever work,’ he anticipated comparison with this inept new version of it...When he published, then, he indicated his disapproval of Vestiges in terms that contrasted markedly with his courtesy toward such minor precursors as Matthews.” (148-9) But then, by the same token, he totally ignored his most significant precursor, his grandfather. So in a sense, bad treatment by Darwin is high praise.

“Wallace (who had once found the book stimulating to his own mind [and wasn’t above admitting it!]) always spoke of it with the respect due a pioneer” (150).

“Huxely…did not see it giving a substantial hint to Schopenhauer, or confirming Emerson’s intuition of nature, or intruding an argument or two into the contemptuous Spencer’s ‘Development Hypothesis,’ or gripping the attention of Lincoln as had only a half dozen books in his career. He did not see the first breach in the wall.” (151)


Shiitake, Pipppino, Cinnamon Cap, and Stone Mushrooms...

Hall of Science

The New York Hall of Science, begun by Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen. Dr. Charles Knowlton spoke here at least twice. The announcements of his lectures suggest that he spoke on medical topics rather than his book on materialism. This suggests that he was already thinking about birth control in 1829 and 1830, and that the Hall of Science lectures were on topics thought beneficial to working people, and not just on the inaccuracy of the Bible or injustice of Christianity. It’s interesting that there was a secular movement in New York, Boston and Philadelphia that shows remarkable parallels to the movement in Britain. Bradlaugh’s main stage in London was at the old Owenite Hall of Science. The communication of ideas (and sometimes even movement of people) back and forth across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century is worth examining further...

Erasmus Darwin in Books

There’s a rush to publish books on Darwin for his bicentennial. A pile of books on prominent display in the library. Half on Darwin and half on Lincoln. It’s great that people want to call attention to evolution, especially given the rise in Creationism and its cousins. But it’s interesting what people who write about Charles Darwin have to say about his grandfather, Erasmus.

David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (New York: WW Norton, 2006)

Discussing Charles Darwin’s thought process around 1837, Quammen says “As a heading on the first page of [notebook] ‘B’ he wrote “
Zoonomia,” in genuflection to a book of that title published forty years earlier by his own grandfather” (27). He goes on to say that Erasmus was a boozy, gouty sire of bastards, and that “Zoonomia, mainly a medical treatise, included a section in which old Erasmus had floated evolutionary ideas of his own, suggesting that ‘all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,’ and that the common lineage possessed a capacity ‘of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity,’ with those improvements transmissible from parents to offspring.” But “Erasmus Darwin had never pressed this idea too far, nor clarified it, nor supported it with evidence,” all things that Charles now committed himself to do. (28)

Quammen identifies both Erasmus and his son Robert as freethinkers (34), but suggests that Charles was afraid to go that far, because he was worried about an academic career.

Darwin was befriended at Edinburgh by “a dazzling young instructor,” Robert Grant. Grant “venerated” Erasmus Darwin “as an evolutionary pioneer” (72). Quammen doesn’t take the hint, and insists on calling him “old Erasmus” throughout.

Quammen mentions the
Vestiges a few times in passing, without ever really explaining it or its place. In his story, it was racy, popular (he says Queen Victoria read it), and unprofessional. Darwin wanted to publish something better. Quammen says Darwin was hng up on the idea of evidence and solid references. Is this accurate, or anachronistic? Does it really stand, as an argument for Darwin’s apparent disrespect – not only for Vestiges, but for Zoonomia?

Cyril Aydon, Charles Darwin (New York: Caroll & Graf, 2002)

Aydon says he writes from a lifelong fascination with Darwin and his work. He describes Erasmus as a giant: “one of the most famous men in England. King George III had offered him the post of Royal Physician…He had written a book called
The Botanic Garden, which set out the whole of current botanical knowledge in the form of an extended poem. It had taken literary London by storm. He later wrote a massive work on animal life, entitled Zoonomia, in which he put forward a theory of what would later come to be called evolution. The Zoonomia was one of the most talked-about books of its day. It was paid the complement of being pirated in New York, and the even greater compliment of being placed on the Papal Index.” (3)

“In July 1837, with his
Journal ready for the press, [Darwin] opened a small brown notebook, and wrote on its title page the single word Zoonomia. It was the title of the book in which his grandfather Erasmus had set out his ideas on the subject of animal evolution sixty years before. Darwin had read it as a student, and found it unconvincing. His admiration had been reserved for Paley’s Natural Theology, and its Argument from Design. But now, at twenty-eight, as he began to set down his thoughts on the subject of species and their origins, from the perspective of his five-year voyage, Paley was dismissed, and he proudly, secretly, claimed his intellectual inheritance.” (122)

But still secretly. Timid Darwin. And Paley’s argument from design? Give me a break! Aydon blames some of Darwin’s timidity on his wealth, but also on the fact that
Vestiges was savaged in the Edinburgh Reiview by Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s old Geology mentor. Aydon says Darwin imagined his own ideas being treated similarly, concluding “Whatever else ‘Mr. Vestiges’ had achielved, he had made it even less likely that Darwin would ever voluntarily expose his ideas to the risk of similar treatment.” (167)

Others (Michael Shermer) point out that when Charles left Edinburgh for Cambridge, he matriculated in Theology. Still others (Richard Darwin Keynes) suggest that Charles didn’t credit Erasmus, Lamarck, or anyone else because he thought the principle of development he was “proving” for the first time was actually so obvious as not to need acknowledgment. In this sense, Charles is supposed to have perceived himself as the guy who proved a point that should have been obvious to everyone? Doesn’t add up.


Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844. Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh. Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s
Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959). The other book, which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh, is crammed full of good info. So I ordered a copy of James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Should be here next week (because I won’t pay extra for shipping).

I’m reading these because I’m beginning to get the impression that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades
before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with
Vestiges is that it was in English, and it was inexpensive. This made it available and affordable for the masses. “Once again,” Millhauser says (is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5). This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins. It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite class of authorities (naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools). And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that no educated Englishman actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (as Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of the established church.

Millhauser dismisses
Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4). This is true, and Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership. But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers. Making his case for a study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs. He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8). This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.

MIllhauser’s story of Robert Chambers’ young life is interesting, but his coverage of the
Vestiges’ reception and impact focus entirely on the elite. Even his claim that the “development hypothesis” was “in the air” only deals with the air immediately surrounding elite scientists and their writings. Millhauser claims about 28,000 copies of the Vestiges were sold in Britain and a similar quantity in the U.S. But he doesn’t elaborate on this at all. I’ll have to wait a few more days, and find out about that in Victorian Sensation.

Erasmus Darwins in Massachusetts

When I was doing research in Ashfield, I transcribed the Vital Records of the town onto 3x5 note-cards. It struck me as odd, how many people were given the name Darwin, especially since the birth records end at 1849. In all, six children were named “Darwin” or “Erasmus Darwin” between 1803 and 1847. Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived from 1730-1802, and was a prominent poet, inventor, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and proponent of evolution by natural selection.

That’s right. Erasmus Darwin came up with the idea that all life on earth was descended from a single microscopic ancestor in 1770. In 1796, he published the first volume of his
Zoonomia, which was heralded as the Principia of the medical profession, and discusses his ideas on evolution. And in 1803, Darwin’s posthumous poem The Temple of Nature elaborated his position even more explicitly. Darwin also founded Birmingham’s Lunar Society, translated Linnaeus, and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the American Philosophical Society. When his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species, his critics thought they’d be able to silence him by quoting verbatim from tracts written against his grandfather’s theories.

Erasmus Darwin never visited America, and although he was a political radical and a supporter of American independence (and critic of the Pitt government’s repressions in the 1790s), I’m surprised that he was so well-known in a remote western-Massachusetts hill-town like Ashfield. Looking a little farther, I’ve found there are sixty-three towns in Massachusetts where children were apparently named after Darwin before 1849! I also found 96 towns where there is no record of a child named “Erasmus” or “Darwin” in the
Vital Records. (these two groups represent all the towns whose records I was able to find online)

It’s possible that a few of the children named “Erasmus” may have been named for the fifteenth-century humanist, or for remote family members (close ones would have showed up in the records I was searching). But I think most of them were named for the scientist, especially because in most cases they’re actually named “Erasmus Darwin.” Similarly, there is no record of “Darwin” being a common family name in these Massachusetts towns, and Charles Darwin’s only significant publication before 1849 was his
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 5 parts, 1838-1843.

In all, I found 112 children named “Erasmus,” “Erasmus Darwin,” “Darwin,” or, in a couple of cases, “Erastus Darwin.” But this initial search of
Vital Record books available online missed 187 towns, whose records are not yet available electronically. So the odds are high that there are many more Erasmus Darwins I haven’t yet discovered!

As bizarre as the mere fact of all these young Darwins in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts towns, is where the towns were. If people were going to be naming their children after a British scientist (obscure or famous), you’d expect them to live in cities, close to institutions of higher learning like Harvard, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be dead wrong.

Most of the people naming their children after Darwin lived in central or western Massachusetts. I found most of them in Worcester, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties. Though they weren’t completely absent from the Boston area, there were more towns close to the coast without a Darwin than with one. The towns marked in green on the map have at least one “Darwin.” Several have more than one. Two, Ashfield and Leominster, have six.

I’ve started looking into the histories of these towns, to see who these “Darwins” were. And, perhaps more importantly, who their parents were. In looking at the first dozen or so, it seems that some of them were educated people, ministers or doctors. Others were farmers, shoemakers, and tavern-keepers. The whole thing suggests that people in some of the remotest parts of Massachusetts were thinking about issues and reading books I would never have expected them to be so interested in. It’s a whole different picture of the intellectual life of regular people in the early 19th century than you get in the “standard” texts!

I’m going to try to write little sketches of the lives of some of these people, because I think they’ll turn up interesting insights. Maybe this’ll turn into something, if I can pull together enough of them and they turn up some of the surprises that seem to be lurking in this material…


Stephen McKnight, ed. Science, Pseudo-science, and Utopianism in Early Modern Thought. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992 (phrenology illustration from Wiki’s article on pseudoscience: I think this is appropriate, because it illustrates the difficulty people had in the 19th century, distinguishing between science and “Pseudo,” given that they lacked our 20:20 hindsight)

“The term pseudo-science was introduced into the history of science by George Sarton and the other founders of the discipline, and it reflects their positivistic convitcion that the history of science is a narrative of the progressive victory of the physical, mathematical sciences over religious, metaphysical, and occult views of nature…In Comte’s account [in Cours de philosophie positive, 1830-42], the decisive epochal break separating the dark ages of religion and metaphysics from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment is the result of the Scientific Revolution and the consequent utilization of science by the intellectual and political elite to master nature and perfect society. “Recent scholarship showing the persistence of ancient traditions of esoteric religion and occult philosophy well into the modern epoch poses a fundamental challenge to these historiographical models—particularly when primary sources show that Bacon, Newton, and other founders of the modern age had a deep reverence for the truths hidden in the myths and symbols of the prisca theologia.” (Preface)

Okay, so starting at the top:
pseudo-science assumes there’s a regular, authoritative science that people are being silly, backward, or perverse in trying to evade. This seems clear, looking backward. We believe we understand how science progressed from its primitive roots to its mature, legitimate current form. But, as Conner has shown in his People’s History of Science, that assumption too may be incorrect. And certainly, the people who were driving “science” forward in the early modern period had no roadmap showing them which were the “legitimate” and which the erroneous elements of their studies.

So, we have “natural philosophers” like Bacon, Boyle, and Newton. All of them have classical educations (this may be the main thing that distinguishes them from the “low mechanicks” who produced a lot of the technological innovation leading to new scientific theories, following Conner again), so they presumably believed in some sort of continuity in the “grand design.” This means that, whether they believed in an active, historical god or in Spinoza’s deistic/pantheistic “whatever,” they believed in order. Newton was looking, after all, for a universal law of gravity; not a local one.

Next, there’s the question of periodization. A split between a dark age and an Enlightenment makes sense, for the enlightened. What about everybody else? I suspect the two designations obscure a lot of change that may have been happening in the lives and societies of regular people during the “dark” ages; just as they hide the fact that a lot
stayed the same for most people after the Enlightenment. Tied to this is the idea of learning to “master nature and perfect society.” For whom? And, for whom?

The fact that superstition persists to this day doesn’t necessarily challenge the scientific world-view, or the history of science. I hope these articles aren’t going to stop with a suggestion that because these early scientists were Christians, there’s something to it. On the other hand, the idea that they may have found social, moral, and even scientific insights in esoteric and mythological documents that were at the time part of the classical canon doesn’t seem far-fetched. The implications of their scientific discoveries (or systematizations of other people’s discoveries, if you go with Conner’s implication that the elite scientists’ role was mostly communicating the discoveries of technologists and trying to create over-arching, generalized natural philosophy out of them) were often scary; because they directly challenged the “truths” that formed the basis of early-modern society. So they’d be expected to try to reconcile their scientific insights with those of “other magisteria.”

But the question whether there are in fact other magisteria is one of those “prefiguring” issues Hayden White describes in
Metahistory (which I’m also reading -- stay tuned for a post). Assuming there’s a unity (in scientific knowledge, general human understanding of the universe, and particularly history) means we’ve already made an interpretive choice. Whether the choice is for comedy or tragedy doesn’t really matter. The only way out (for Smith, and maybe for Northrop Frye, who he draws on) is satire.

But there
is evidence the new scientists had a sense they were doing something fundamentally different. John Friend (1675-1728) was a disciple of Newton’s and wrote a history of science in 1725-6 in which “the mystical religious outlook of the Paracelsians could not be tolerated. Friend rejected Paracelsus as an idle systematizer whose whole cosmology and religious-vitalistic outlook toward nature were the very antithesis of the new science.” (7)

John William Draper (1811-1882) see his
History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863) and History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874)

See also Andrew Dickson White,
The Warfare of Science (1877) This is also a partial transcript of religion vs. “atheism” in the form of science, so it serves 2 purposes.

These people might be useful for a little “Who’s Who in the History of Atheism” if I wanted to do such a thing…whether or not they’re atheists is a possible issue (but is it, really?)…

James Joseph Walsh (1865-1942) made the case for religion. His 1907 book
The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries claimed that the church had done much to encourage medicine, including supporting anatomical studies in the Italian universities and establishing hospitals.

See also Herbert Butterfield, “The Whig Interpretation of History,” (1931)

People's Science

Clifford D. Conner, A People’s History of Science (New York: Nation Books, 2005) (picture of seed drill not from book. Conner says Jethro Tull was a hack)

I came upon this by accident in the Keene State College stacks (never underestimate the power of browsing on either side of the title you were looking for!). As the title suggests, Conner presents the progress of science as the work of regular people, solving problems in their day-to-day lives and crafts. He’s definitely in the tradition of Zinn, who called it “a delightfully refreshing new look at the history of science” (I noticed on Amazon there’s a “people’s history of the world,” blurbed by Zinn, that might also be something for me to take a look at).

Midway through the second chapter, I decided I needed to buy this book. So these are my thoughts on the first two chapters. I’ll read the rest when my own copy arrives (so I can write in it). Maybe at that point, I’ll look at the controversy that apparently surrounded this “revisionist,” “proletarian” history.

This book is filled with not only a really interesting argument about history, but some great, overlooked details of the past. In his introduction, Conner mentions that when American plantation owners decided to grow rice, they relied on their African slaves not only for labor, but for the entire technique they employed in the Carolinas and Georgia. This is a really interesting thought: that the slaves were the masters of this technology, intellectually (as well as morally) superior to the whites who’d enslaved them. Conner goes on to say that smallpox inoculation was widely practiced in Africa, and was introduced to America by a slave named Onesimus, and to England by a farmer named Benjamin Jesty.

Conner believes with Karl Popper, that knowledge “for the most part advanced through the modification of earlier knowledge.” This seems to be demonstrated by the story he tells. I can’t tell, yet, but I think he’s going to say that Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift is too top-down, and doesn’t reflect the way knowledge works outside of the academy. This seems like a legitimate point, so far…

One of Conner’s heroes of “anti-elite” science seems to be Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus). I’m looking forward to reading that chapter, and I expect to find some good story material there. It doesn’t look like he delves too much into medicine, but I’ve already got some sources for that. He says the “imperialism of physics” really took off in the 20
th century (especially with the Manhattan Project), and reminds us that “the appeal of neutrality [in “objective” academic science – see Haskell] operates in support of the status quo, which is underpinned by …assumptions of which the scientists themselves are often unaware.” (12) Conner also says the practice of “rigidly separating the histories of science and technology serves to reinforce the fallacious notion that science arose from the realm of pure thought, floating in the clouds above the world of mundane human pursuits.” (15) In addition to the obvious political results of this view, I think it reinforces the Platonic/Cartesian dualism that’s still at the center of most of our philosophical problems in the world today.

Conner says his thesis is that
“artisans contributed not only to the mass of empirical knowledge that furnished the raw material of the Scientific Revolution, but the empirical method itself.” I think this is a modest claim, it already seems in the first chapters that he’s demonstrating more than this.

One element where Conner’s account doesn’t seem to square with his claims is the repeated declarations of early scientists that they got their ideas from artisans and regular people. In almost every account in the early chapters, Conner says the “scientists” history has credited with major discoveries (Jenner, William Withering, etc.) had pointed to the common people who were the source of their insights. So there’s something more complicated going on here. The “scientists” are definitely
taking common empirical knowledge to a different place (the Royal Society) where different rules of legitimacy, credit, and value apply (sometimes not to their benefit, cf Jenner). So there’s a class thing happening in the present, as these ideas are moved from the popular to the elite venue. But then, there’s a (deliberate?) process in the recording of these “discoveries” that focuses entirely on the elite scientists, and completely forgets the common people they were careful to credit. There’s almost a sense that “it’s not Knowledge until the Royal Society says it’s Knowledge,” so why bother talking about the ultimate source? But is this due to the scientists, the Society, or the historians? Seems to me, a huge part of it is the historians. So I’m not sold on Conner’s claim that the problem is that “the history of science has been shaped not by historians of science but by scientists themselves.” (17) It seems more likely to me that historians recognized the extreme importance of science in the social change they were recording, and were completely aware of what they were doing.

Conner says social historians who present “bottom up” views
have managed to broaden “the social context in which historic events have been understood,” but he warns that often they’ve failed to abandon “the point of view of the dominant social classes.” They tell the stories that “history” has judged are meaningful, from the bottom. Not the stories that mattered at the time, on the bottom. But he does point out that in the “nascent capitalist economy, the benefits of increased productivity were no to the producers but to a privileged few whose access to capital allowed them to gain control of the productive process. The artisans who forfeited their knowledge [to Royal Society members who “liberated” trade secrets as self-proclaimed benefactors for the world] were for the most part eventually forced into dependency as wageworkers.” (22) This is one of several places in the early pages, where Conner got me thinking about the current “intellectual property” debates.

In the second chapter (on pre-history), Conner suggests that the shift from a foraging way of life to agriculture may have been the original “Fall,” forced on the ancients by increasing human population density and a corresponding decrease of food sources. Clearly, in this scenario, there would always be the option of walking away from the center, to find a new wilderness. Why, then, did many choose to stay? (cf the end of
Blade Runner, when the hero leaves the distopian Los Angeles, and as the credits roll is flying over the primeval forests of the Pacific northwest. If they were always there, why stay in LA? This is the big question hidden in the movie) Conner points to a really important issue: the early agriculturalists would have been the “gatherers,” in the hunter-gatherer world. Women, he says. But also children and the old. This would be true of much of neolithic technology, metals were probably discovered in kilns. Pottery was not hunters’ work. Agriculture and technology was developed by those who stayed behind. Vulcan was a woman.

Discussing the “brain vs. hand” controversy, Conner takes the issue back to Engels’ essay on
The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man. Engels called the “cerebral primacy” a “deep-seated social prejudice related to the class position of professional thinkers and their patrons.” (32) It’s interesting (and very useful to me) that there was so much thinking about this type of thing in Victorian England. Not to mention comparative mythology, mysticism, and all the “dead-end” science and meta-science that didn’t end up as part of the admittedly “tunnel-vision” path of science Conner is focusing on here. Now, what I have to do is pick out the actual pieces I’m going to use…

…more on this later.


Calomel is a chloride of mercury (Hg2Cl2) that has been known since the days of the alchemists. With the decline of physicians’ use of elemental mercury in the late eighteenth century, calomel became the most popular form of mercury in British and American medicine. Its use was promoted in medical schools at London and Edinburgh, and Americans who studied there taught calomel’s purgative, tonic, and cathartic properties to their own students at home. Along with bleeding, calomel became a centerpiece of the “heroic” style of treatment taught by Dr. Benjamin Rush and featured in authoritative texts like that of Eberle. Calomel became such a standard part of the American material medica that in lecture notes taken at the Dartmouth Medical School in the early 1800s, students didn’t even bother to give the drug its own page. Calomel simply appears throughout their notes as a drug to be given with many of the others described to the students. For many early nineteenth-century doctors, calomel was the panacea, the “Samson” of their pharmacopia; the drug they turned to when all else failed.

The harmful effects of mercury weren’t unknown to early doctors. Along with bloodletting, calomel was often used as a “depletive,” since medical theories of the time held that first inflammation, and later “excitement of the blood” was the cause of most illness. Early in the nineteenth century, the general public also began to understand the danger of mercurial medicines, and to distrust physicians who relied on them. This distrust was fueled by critics in the popular press like William Cobbett, who quipped that Benjamin Rush’s heroic practices were “
one of the great discoveries…which have contributed to the depopulation of the earth.” Another source of testimony against the use of calomel came from “sectarians,” alternative medical practitioners who sprang up to challenge traditional doctors in the early nineteenth century. Thomsonian botanical healers, hydropaths and homeopaths took advantage of warnings in medical texts and horror stories of patients injured or killed by heroic treatment, to suggest that the traditional doctors were doing more harm than good.

Traditional doctors in the early 1800s were very concerned about their profession. While the previous generation had been trained by “preceptors” in a system very much like traditional apprenticeship, a series of medical schools established in the decades surrounding the turn of the century began sending M.D.s into the field. This new generation was eager to make its mark, and aspired to the respect and status afforded lawyers and ministers, the other professional men in their communities. Doctors formed associations, lobbied for standards and licensing laws, and fought back against the quacks and heretics who challenged the efficacy of their methods.

Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (BMSJ) was one of the earliest American medical publications, and it circulated widely. Beginning in 1828, the BMSJ offered doctors from New England, New York, the western territories, and as far away as New Orleans a forum for sharing cases, and a place to read about medical advances, the ongoing battle against sectarian “quackery,” and the struggle to establish medicine as a distinguished and respected profession. The editors of the BMSJ were keenly aware of the public’s distrust of heroic treatment, and especially of calomel. But rather than addressing these concerns open-mindedly, they adopted a policy of deriding and alienating anyone who spoke ill of their panacea. Their rejection and demonization of skeptics and dissenters damaged the respect and public credibility they were so anxious to gain. The continued use of calomel and the BMSJ’s dogged defense of mercurial medicine from the late 1820s to the early 1840s did a lot to convince the public that American medicine wasn’t ready to be taken seriously.

It’s clear from the pages of even the earliest issues of the
BMSJ that doctors were aware of the dangers of calomel, and the specific symptoms presented by mercury poisoning. In a March 1828 letter on a case involving a woman with “Apoplexy,” the author says he prescribed a scruple (20 grains) of calomel for four days, until the patient’s “mouth became very painful, much swelled and inflamed from the calomel.” An Ohio doctor writes a letter suggesting a solution of water and “tartarate of antimony for checking mercurial salivation.” Another article quotes the City Physician of Boston, declaring that in a recent smallpox outbreak, “Calomel was given only a few times…but its administration, it was conceived, was followed by bad consequences, inasmuch as the ptyalism, peculiar to the disease, was very much increased, the breath more offensive, and the exhalations intolerable even to the patient himself.”

In late 1829, a correspondent calls
BMSJ readers’ attention to an article on “Gangrenous Erosion of the Face” in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. The writer describes a case of his own, in which a four-year old girl was treated with calomel for typhoid fever. Soreness in her mouth led quickly to gangrene that advanced until it covered the girl’s cheek from eyelid to ear, and two thirds of the lips and chin. Her teeth fell out, and “twelve days from the first appearance of the danger, the little patient died, completely exhausted.”

A month later, Dr. R. A. Merriam describes several cases. In the first, a ten-year old girl was treated, with eight doses of calomel over the course of three weeks. When Merriam first saw her, she had swelling and soreness in her mouth that the other doctor had called canker. This progressed “uninterruptedly to gangrene and sphacelation [morbidity] of both lips, and the greater part of the right cheek, before her death, and left such a hideous spectacle…as made it desirable she might not survive. Our wishes were realized.” In another case, a forty-year old man “to whom much mercury had been given, and pursued for a considerable time, in small doses, and even after profuse ptyalism had been established…His mouth and face swelled; he could not distinctly articulate for several months; his teeth fell out; and portions of his lower jaw, including the sockets of the teeth, came out. At the end of nine months he died…” In both cases, Dr. Merriam is careful to note that the treatments leading to their deaths had been prescribed by someone else before he’d first seen the patients.

Merriam refers to Dr. Samuel Jackson’s July 1827 article on “Gangrenopsis” in the Philadelphia
Medical Recorder, in which Jackson “more than hinted” mercury was to blame. Merriam agrees that “it cannot be disguised, that the action of this most powerful weapon against disease, produces sometimes very disastrous effects.” He notices that Dr. Webber “has not even appeared to suspect” mercury, even though it was probably prescribed in all the cases he cited. Merriam sees no reason to suppose that a new disease has been discovered, as Brown suggests. While other sources of infection can cause facial gangrene, he’s “satisfied that the gangrenous erosion was caused by the operation of mercury” in the cases cited.

A month later, Charles Hubbard of Winthrop Maine writes to dispute Brown’s suggestion that mercury causes “gangrenous erosion” of the face. He relates the case of a four-year old boy he treated for “autumnal remittent fever.” Hubbard says he gave the boy calomel several times, in combination with other drugs, “to evacuate the stomach and bowels.” There was “no salivation, soreness of the gums, or mercurial fetor of the breath, during his illness,” Hubbard says. But “in the tenth day of the fever, the frightful gangrene made its appearance. We then observed a very disagreeable fetor…At the time of dissolution, which happened on the 35
th day of his sickness…the ulcer had spread to within an inch of the eye above, and was on a level with the base of the lower jaw…The affected parts had a jet black appearance, with an indescribably bad fetor.”

“Is this a disease sui generis?” Hubbard demands. “It does not arise in consequence of general debility…Nor can it be the production of mercury.” This is clearly the point Hubbard wants to make, but he has nothing to hang his conclusion on except this declaration. Hubbard argues that Jackson didn’t say mercury had definitely been used in all his cases, and that where it was administered, “it had not produced its constitutional effects,” meaning it had purged, but not salivated the patients. Hubbard’s distinction suggests that he secretly considers that ptyalism is required for gangrene to set in. But he damages his argument by admitting in closing that he’s only ever seen one other case, while he was a student, and he didn’t take any notes.

In the letter immediately following Hubbard’s, E.G. Davis of Boston admits the connection between mercury and facial disease, and proposes a cure. Davis’ patient was a twenty-year old woman, who’d taken unknown medication from a previous doctor. Based on her symptoms and the “mercurial fetor” of her breath, Davis concluded “excessive use of mercurials.” The woman’s “gums, submaxillary glands, cheeks and tongue were greatly swollen; the latter was covered with a dense hard, black secretion; the jaws could scare be separated, the utterance was inarticulate; the flow of saliva was constant.” Davis believed he cured her with a blister applied to the back of her neck. The
BMSJ editors’ willingness to publish both sides of the argument, at this point, suggests either a disagreement among the editors or that mercury was not yet the political issue it would soon become. be continued.

Golden Bough

First, there’s Turner’s painting of the Golden Bough. It’s probably worth noting that Frazer begins his work with a well-known piece of contemporary art (1834). Although, according to the Tate Gallery description, Frazer was wrong about several of the details of the painting -- like it’s location!

No matter. There’s a woodland lake in
Nemi, 18 miles southeast of Rome. The lake is in the crater of an extinct volcano. 1928 lake lowered and two of Caligula’s pleasure-barges discovered on bottom. A few miles away is a larger lake (Albano) in another old crater. (The Turner painting takes place at the gates to the underworld, another crater lake called Avernus, near Naples.)

The lake is called a mirror, but close up, its waters are a warm greenish-blue. The crater is a horseshoe, open at the south end. There’s a flat area to the north – part of the caldera floor that the lake doesn’t cover, and on the eastern and western sides, the hills rise a couple of hundred meters immediately. On their lush green sides two hill-villages are visible overlooking the lake.

Frazer says the lake was called “Diana’s Mirror” by the ancients. Frazer points to a necessary connection, a “subtle link …between the natural beauty of the spot and the dark crimes which under the mask of religion were often perpetrated there.” (1:1) The lake “lies so deep down in the old crater that the calm surface of its clear water is seldom ruffled by the wind.”

The shrine was on the north side, between the lake and the town of Nemi. Diana Nemorensus (“of the Woodland Glade”) had her temple here. “On the north and east it was bounded by great retaining walls which cut into the hillsides and served to support them. Semicircular niches sunk in the walls and faced with columns formed a series of chapels…On the side of the lake the terrace rested on a mighty wall, over seven hundred feet long by thirty feet high, built in triangular buttresses…the temple itself was not large…solidly built of massive blocks of peperino, and adorned with Doric columns…cornices of marble and friezes of terra-cotta…enhanced by tiles of gilt bronze.” (1:3)

There was also a temple of Isis hidden in the woods. (1:5)

“beechwoods and oakwoods…had not yet begun, under the hand of man, to yield to the evergreens of the south, the laurel, the olive, the cypress, and the oleander, still less to those intruders of a later age…the lemon and the orange.” (8)

“In the sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily around him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained the office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.” (9)

“the background of forest showing black and jagged against a lowering and stormy sky, the sighing of the wind in the branches, the rustle of the withered leaves under foot, the lapping of the cold water on the shore, and in the foreground, pacing to and fro, now in twilight and now in gloom, a dark figure with a glitter of steel at the shoulder whenever the pale moon, riding clear of the cloud-rack, peers down at him through the matted boughs.” (9-10)

“According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch [that the priest was “defending” at the sacred oak] was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead” (11) (except, again, this happened at Avernus. The Cumaean Sibyl lived 22 miles from Naples, not 18 miles from Rome).

“during her annual festival, held on the thirteenth of August, at the hottest time of the year, her grove shone with a multitude of torches, whose ruddy glare was reflected by the lake,” (12)

This is a great setting, and the event that Frazer describes in the early pages of the
Golden Bough is great! I’m thinking of using this in a dream sequence in my new story. I like the idea of pulling a scene from Frazer’s book, if I’m going to write a story that takes place partly in Victorian England, and deals with mythical characters. The Victorians were really into comparative mythology, and it bordered on a whole pile of stuff we now think of as pseudoscience, but which they took pretty seriously. More on that, later...