Essays
Science & Medicine

Displaying the Dead: The Musée Dupuytren Catalogue

Displaying the Dead: The Musée Dupuytren Catalogue

When Paris’ infamous museum of anatomical pathology closed its doors in 2016, a controversial collection disappeared from view. Daisy Sainsbury explores the history of the Musée Dupuytren, and asks what an ethical future might look like for the human specimens it held. more

“Spontaneous Revolutions”: Darwin’s Diagrams of Plant Movement

“Spontaneous Revolutions”: Darwin’s Diagrams of Plant Movement

After weeks of watching young tendrils slowly corkscrew their way toward the sun, Charles Darwin set about inventing a system for making botanic motion visible to the naked eye. Natalie Lawrence delves into a lesser-known chapter of the naturalist’s research, discovering revelations about the vegetal world that remain neglected to this day. more

Documenting Drugs: The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

Documenting Drugs: The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

In pursuit of Pure Form, the Polish artist known as “Witkacy” would consume peyote, cocaine, and other intoxicants before creating pastel portraits. Juliette Bretan takes a trip through Witkiewicz’s chemical forays, including his 1932 Narcotics, a genre-bending treatise that warns of the hazards of drugs while seductively recollecting their delirious effects. more

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Combing across 19th-century shores, seaweed collectors would wander for hours, tucking specimens into pouches and jars, before pasting their finds into artful albums. Sasha Archibald explores the eros contained in the pressed and illustrated pages of notable algologists, including “the most ambitious album of all” by Charles F. Durant. more

“Pajamas from Spirit Land”: Searching for William James

“Pajamas from Spirit Land”: Searching for William James

After the passing of William James — philosopher, early psychologist, and investigator of psychic phenomena — mediums across the US began receiving messages from the late Harvard professor. Channelling these fragmentary voices, Alicia Puglionesi considers the relationship between communication, reputation, and survival after death. more

Marxist Astronomy: The Milky Way According to Anton Pannekoek

Marxist Astronomy: The Milky Way According to Anton Pannekoek

Can a person’s experiences on earth alter how they perceive the stars? Lauren Collee peers through the telescope of Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch astronomer whose politics informed his human approach to studying the cosmos. more

The Spiralist

The Spiralist

Why do helical seashells resemble spiralling galaxies and the human heart? Kevin Dann leads us into the gyre of James Bell Pettigrew’s Design in Nature (1908), a provocative and forgotten exploration of the world’s archetypal whorl. more

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

Ox-faced children, elderly women sprouting horns, and cloven minds — all features attributed to Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox. Introducing us to the original anti-vaxxers, Erica X Eisen explores the “vacca” in the first-ever vaccine: its bovine origins and the widespread worry that immunity came with beastly side effects. more

The Uncertain Heavens: Christiaan Huygens’ Ideas of Extraterrestrial Life

The Uncertain Heavens: Christiaan Huygens’ Ideas of Extraterrestrial Life

During the 17th century, as knowledge of the Universe and its contents increased, so did speculation about life on other planets. One such source, as Hugh Aldersey-Williams explores, was Dutch astronomer, mathematician, and inventor Christiaan Huygens, whose earlier work on probability paved the way for his very modern evaluation of what alien life might look like. more

Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland

Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland

From fairy-rings to Lewis Carroll's Alice, mushrooms have long been entwined with the supernatural in art and literature. What might this say about past knowledge of hallucinogenic fungi? Mike Jay looks at early reports of mushroom-induced trips and how one species in particular became established as a stock motif of Victorian fairyland. more

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

From infographics to digital renders, today's scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn't always so. Gregorio Astengo explores the innovations employed in early issues of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, the world's first scientific journal — new forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing. more

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist’s Palette

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist’s Palette

For all its transcendental appeals, art has always been inextricably grounded in the material realities of its production, an entwinement most evident in the intriguing history of artists' colours. Focusing in on painting's primary trio of red, yellow, and blue, Philip Ball explores the science and stories behind the pigments, from the red ochre of Lascaux to Yves Klein's blue. more

Sicko Doctors: Suffering and Sadism in 19th-Century America

Sicko Doctors: Suffering and Sadism in 19th-Century America

American fiction of the 19th century often featured a ghoulish figure, the cruel doctor, whose unfeeling fascination with bodily suffering readers found both unnerving and entirely plausible. Looking at novels by Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville, Chelsea Davis dissects this curious character. more

“Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s Study of the Plague

“Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s Study of the Plague

Living through the devastating Italian plague of 1656, the great polymath Athanasius Kircher turned his ever-enquiring mind to the then mysterious disease, becoming possibly the first to view infected blood through a microscope. While his subsequent theories of spontaneous generation and "universal sperm" were easily debunked, Kircher's investigation can be seen as an important early step to understanding contagion, and perhaps even the very first articulation of germ theory. John Glassie explores. more

“Theire Soe Admirable Herbe”: How the English Found Cannabis

“Theire Soe Admirable Herbe”: How the English Found Cannabis

In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London. more

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts Hughes and the Eidophone

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts Hughes and the Eidophone

Of the various forms the nascent art of sound recording took in the late nineteenth century perhaps none was so aesthetically alluring as that invented by Margaret Watts Hughes. Rob Mullender-Ross explores the significance of the Welsh singer’s ingenious set of images, which until recently were thought to be lost. more

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

When the existence of unicorns, and the curative powers of the horns ascribed to them, began to be questioned, one Danish physician pushed back through curious means — by reframing the unicorn as an aquatic creature of the northern seas. Natalie Lawrence on a fascinating convergence of established folklore, nascent science, and pharmaceutical economy. more

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Used by the indigenous peoples of the Americas for millennia, it was only in the last decade of the 19th century that the powerful effects of mescaline began to be systematically explored by curious non-indigenous Americans and Europeans. Mike Jay looks at one such pioneer Havelock Ellis who, along with his small circle of fellow artists and writers, documented in wonderful detail his psychedelic experiences. more

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Rebecca Rego Barry on David Hosack, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton to his duel (and death), and creator of one of the first botanical gardens in the United States, home to thousands of species which he used for his pioneering medical research. more

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of "animal magnetism" in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomised placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today. more

The Poetry of Victorian Science

The Poetry of Victorian Science

In 1848, the mineralogist, pioneer of photography, and amateur poet Robert Hunt published The Poetry of Science, a hugely ambitious work that aimed to offer a survey of scientific knowledge while also communicating the metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic aspects of science to the general reader. Gregory Tate explores what the book can teach us about Victorian desires to reconcile the languages of poetry and science. more

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the "ocean garden" that gripped Victorian Britain. more

Darwin’s Polar Bear

Darwin’s Polar Bear

Musings upon the whys and wherefores of polar bears, particularly in relation to their forest-dwelling cousins, played an important but often overlooked role in the development of evolutionary theory. Michael Engelhard explores. more

The Dreams of an Inventor in 1420

The Dreams of an Inventor in 1420

Bennett Gilbert peruses the sketchbook of 15th-century engineer Johannes de Fontana, a catalogue of designs for a variety of fantastic and often impossible inventions, including fire-breathing automatons, pulley-powered angels, and the earliest surviving drawing of a magic lantern device. more