Essays
Science & Medicine

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana, a woman from Mexico born with hypertrichosis, became one of the most famous human curiosities of the 19th century, exhibited the world over as a "bearded lady" while both alive and dead. Bess Lovejoy explores her story and how it was only in 2013, 153 years after her passing, that she was finally laid to rest. more

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Mike Jay recounts the tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a former peace activist of the Napoleonic Wars who was confined to London's notorious Bedlam asylum in 1797 for believing that his mind was under the control of the "Air Loom" - a terrifying machine whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into revolution, terror, and war. more

Redressing the Balance: Levinus Vincent’s Wonder Theatre of Nature

Redressing the Balance: Levinus Vincent’s Wonder Theatre of Nature

Bert van de Roemer explores the curiosity cabinet of the Dutch collector Levinus Vincent and how the aesthetic drive behind his meticulous ordering of the contents was in essence religious, an attempt to emphasise the wonder of God's creations by restoring the natural world to its prelapsarian harmony. more

"O, Excellent Air Bag": Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide

"O, Excellent Air Bag": Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide

The summer of 1799 saw a new fad take hold in one remarkable circle of British society: the inhalation of "Laughing Gas". The overseer and pioneer of these experiments was a young Humphry Davy, future President of the Royal Society. Mike Jay explores how Davy's extreme and near-fatal regime of self-experimentation with the gas not only marked a new era in the history of science but a turn toward the philosophical and literary romanticism of the century to come. more

The Naturalist and the Neurologist: On Charles Darwin and James Crichton-Browne

The Naturalist and the Neurologist: On Charles Darwin and James Crichton-Browne

Stassa Edwards explores Charles Darwin's photography collection, which includes almost forty portraits of mental patients given to him by the neurologist James Crichton-Browne. The study of these photographs, and the related correspondence between the two men, would prove instrumental in the development of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin's book on the evolution of emotions. more

Frederik Ruysch: The Artist of Death

Frederik Ruysch: The Artist of Death

Luuc Kooijmans explores the work of Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch, known for his remarkable ‘still life’ displays which blurred the boundary between scientific preservation and vanitas art. more

The Founding Fathers v. The Climate Change Skeptics

The Founding Fathers v. The Climate Change Skeptics

When claims from Europe accused British America of being inferior on account of its colder weather, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers responded with patriotic zeal that their settlement was actually causing the climate to warm. Raphael Calel explores how, in contrast to today's common association of the U.S. with climate change skepticism, it was a very different story in the 18th century. more

Olaus Magnus’ Sea Serpent

Olaus Magnus’ Sea Serpent

The terrifying Great Norway Serpent, or Sea Orm, is the most famous of the many influential sea monsters depicted and described by 16th-century ecclesiastic, cartographer, and historian Olaus Magnus. Joseph Nigg explores the iconic and literary legacy of the controversial serpent from its beginnings in the medieval imagination to modern cryptozoology. more

Writing his Life through the Other: The Anthropology of Malinowski

Writing his Life through the Other: The Anthropology of Malinowski

Last year saw the works of Bronislaw Malinowski - father of modern anthropology - enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Michael W. Young explores the personal crisis plaguing the Polish-born anthropologist at the end of his first major stint of ethnographic immersion in the Trobriand Islands, a period of self-doubt glimpsed through entries in his diary - the most infamous, most nakedly honest document in the annals of social anthropology. more

Proving it: The American Provers’ Union Documents Certain Ill Effects

Proving it: The American Provers’ Union Documents Certain Ill Effects

What would induce physicians to ingest mercury to the point of vomiting and to painstakingly note down the effects of imbibing large amounts of cannabis tincture? Alicia Puglionesi explores the history of "proving", the practice of auto-experimentation which forms the cornerstone of homeopathic medicine. more

Re-examining “the Elephant Man”

Re-examining “the Elephant Man”

Nadja Durbach questions the extent to which Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was exploited during his time in a Victorian “freakshow”, and asks if it wasn't perhaps the medical establishment, often seen as his saviour, who really took advantage of Merrick and his condition. more

As a Lute out of Tune: Robert Burton’s Melancholy

As a Lute out of Tune: Robert Burton’s Melancholy

In 1621 Robert Burton first published his masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy, a vast feat of scholarship examining in encyclopaedic detail that most enigmatic of maladies. Noga Arikha explores the book, said to be the favorite of both Samuel Johnson and Keats, and places it within the context of the humoural theory so popular at the time. more

Vesalius and the Body Metaphor

Vesalius and the Body Metaphor

City streets, a winepress, pulleys, spinning tops, a ray fish, curdled milk: just a few of the many images used by 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius to explain the workings of the human body in his seminal work De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Marri Lynn explores. more

Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant

Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant

Patricia Fara traces the changing iconography of Joseph Banks, the English botanist who travelled on Captain Cook's first great voyage and went on to become President of the Royal Society and important patron for a whole host of significant developments in the natural sciences. more

Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

In late 1726 much of Britain was caught up in the curious case of Mary Toft, a woman from Surrey who claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. Niki Russell tells of the events of an elaborate 18th century hoax which had King George I's own court physicians fooled. more

Athanasius, Underground

Athanasius, Underground

With his enormous range of scholarly pursuits the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher has been hailed as the last Renaissance man and "the master of hundred arts". John Glassie looks at one of Kircher's great masterworks Mundus Subterraneus and how it was inspired by a subterranean adventure Kircher himself made into the bowl of Vesuvius. more

The Last Great Explorer: William F. Warren and the Search for Eden

The Last Great Explorer: William F. Warren and the Search for Eden

Of all the attempts throughout history to geographically locate the Garden of Eden one of the most compelling was that set out by minister and president of Boston University, William F. Warren. Brook Wilensky-Lanford looks at the ideas of the man who, in his book Paradise Found, proposed the home of all humanity to be at the North Pole. more

The Krakatoa Sunsets

The Krakatoa Sunsets

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon - letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive. more

The Mysteries of Nature and Art

The Mysteries of Nature and Art

Julie Gardham, Senior Assistant Librarian at University of Glasgow's Special Collections Department, takes a look at the book that was said to have spurred a young Isaac Newton onto the scientific path, The Mysteries of Nature and Art by John Bate. more

Aspiring to a Higher Plane

Aspiring to a Higher Plane

In 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott published Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, perhaps the first ever book that could be described as "mathematical fiction". Ian Stewart, author of Flatterland and The Annotated Flatland, introduces the strange tale of the geometric adventures of A. Square. more

Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine

Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine

Between 1617 and 1621 the English physician and polymath Robert Fludd published his masterwork Utriusque Cosmi, a book split into two volumes and packed with over 60 intricate engravings. Urszula Szulakowska explores the philosophical and theological ideas behind the extraordinary images found in the second part of the work. more

Accuracy and Elegance in Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733)

Accuracy and Elegance in Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733)

With its novel vignettes and its use of a camera obscura in the production of the plates, William Cheselden’s Osteographia, is recognized as a landmark in the history of anatomical illustration. Monique Kornell looks at its unique blend of accuracy and elegance. more

American Kaleidoscope: Morton Prince and the Boston Revolution in Psychotherapy

American Kaleidoscope: Morton Prince and the Boston Revolution in Psychotherapy

In 1906 the American physician and neurologist Morton Henry Prince published his remarkable monograph The Dissociation of a Personality in which he details the condition of 'Sally Beauchamp', America's first famous multiple-personality case. George Prochnik discusses the life and thought of the man Freud called "an unimaginable ass". more

Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

Leading Darwin expert and founder of Darwin Online, John van Wyhe, challenges the popular assumption that Darwin's theory of evolution corresponded with a loss of religious belief. more