Essays
Science & Medicine

Radioactive Fictions: Marie Corelli and the Omnipotence of Thoughts

Radioactive Fictions: Marie Corelli and the Omnipotence of Thoughts

Outselling books by Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells in their day, Marie Corelli’s occult romance novels brim with fantasies of telepathy, mesmerism, and radioactivity. Steven Connor revisits The Life Everlasting (1911), where the recent discovery of radium shapes the mechanics of phantasmal machines and psychic forces able to pass through all impediments. more

Marvellous Moderns: The Brothers Perrault

Marvellous Moderns: The Brothers Perrault

Charles Perrault is celebrated as the collector of some of the world’s best-known fairy tales. But his brothers were just as remarkable: Claude, an architect of the Louvre, and Pierre, who discovered the hydrological cycle. As Hugh Aldersey-Williams explores, all three were able to use positions within the orbit of the Sun King to advance their modern ideas about the world. more

The Ether Dreams of Fin-de-Siècle Paris

The Ether Dreams of Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Those who sipped or sniffed ether and chloroform in the 19th century experienced a range of effects from these repurposed anaesthetics, including preternatural mental clarity, psychological hauntings, and slippages of space and time. Mike Jay explores how the powerful solvents shaped the writings of Guy de Maupassant and Jean Lorrain — psychonauts who opened the door to an invisible dimension of mind and suffered Promethean consequences. more

Troubled Waters: Reading Urine in Medieval Medicine

Troubled Waters: Reading Urine in Medieval Medicine

From cabbage green to course meal, medieval manuscripts exhibit a spectrum of colours and consistencies when describing urine. Katherine Harvey examines the complex practices of uroscopy: how physicians could divine sexual history, disease, and impending death by studying the body's liquid excretions. more

Beast in the Blood: Jean Denis and the “Transfusion Affair”

Beast in the Blood: Jean Denis and the “Transfusion Affair”

During the late 1660s in Paris, transfusing the blood of calves and lambs into human veins held the promise of renewed youth and vigour. Peter Sahlins explores Jean Denis’ controversial experiments driven by his belief in the moral superiority of animal blood: a substance that could help redeem the fallen state of humanity. more

Picturing Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe

Picturing Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe

When the womb began to appear in printed images during the 16th century, it was understood through analogy: a garden, uroscopy flask, or microcosm of the universe. Rebecca Whiteley explores early modern birth figures, which picture the foetus in utero, and discovers an iconic form imbued with multiple kinds of knowledge: from midwifery know-how to alchemical secrets, astrological systems to new anatomical findings. more

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