June 3, 2015

A New View, from Somewhere

This week is a second post from John Heydinger, who had previously written about Ludwik Fleck. Here, he interprets the "Anthropocene" through a lens provided by Donna Haraway. Check it out!

May 26, 2015

Métis Medicine in the Northwest Territories, 1835-1839

Macey (Margaret) Flood received her B.A. in the Liberal Arts in 2007 from St. John’s College in Santa Fe. She studies the history of botanical medicine in the 19th- and 20th-century United States, looking at the circulation of both plants and practices between indigenous, metis, and settler communities, including the eclectic practitioners. Her broader interests include oral histories, traditions of heterodox medicine in the United States, and the relationship of medicine to place. She has worked as a freelance editor, a research assistant in cognitive science, and an herbal practitioner and education. Her other interests include exploring the outdoors and writing nonfiction. Her work is supported by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
In “Dismantling the Divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge,” Arun Agrawal problematized traditional distinctions between “indigenous” and “scientific” or “western” knowledge by arguing that knowledge in general is best studied through its application. [1] Per Agrawal, knowledge itself is not a thing in itself but something useful that is used. Historian James Secord echoed Agrawal’s point ten years later:
To do real historical work, this perspective [that “communicating is the doing of science” [2]] needs to be not only explicit but also foundational. This means... eradicating the distinction between the making and the communicating of knowledge. [3]
Like Agrawal, Secord situated knowledge within its application. This in itself was not a new step for a historian of science. The historiography of the past few decades reflected the influence of the so-called practice turn. However, Secord articulated the relationship between knowledge and practice a step further, specifying that practice in the form of communication has been both the instantiation of scientific knowledge as well as the act of its creation.

I would like to extrapolate these theories to the creation and circulation of medicinal knowledge. There are several challenges in so doing. Medicinal knowledge and particularly medical practices have often been distinct from “scientific” knowledge, particularly in the early 19th century. Further, medicine in the Western tradition has often carried the dual identity of being both a “theory” and a “practice” – a distinction that has carried more or less weight at different times. Nonetheless, Agrawal’s de-distinction between “scientific” and “indigenous” knowledge might similarly erase the boundary between “scientific” and “medicinal” – each identifies a body of instantiated practices that have been practiced by particular people – in the case of medicine, the healer. When the historian also erases epistemic boundaries between “western” and “indigenous” medicinal practices and instead locates any cultural association to the practitioner, medicine appears, by necessity, linked to the social position of the practitioner.

Such a position may be complicated, such as in Métis communities, social groups in the Northwest territories characterized by their mixed French and indigenous ancestry and modes of living and their social positioning between – but not entirely within – both realms. [4] My current work examines the medicinal practices and episteme of non-professional Métis practitioners in the Northwest Territories during the 1830s. One such individual was Catharine Ely (1817-1880), nee Goulais/Bissell, born in Sault Ste. Marie in the Michigan territories. Catharine’s mother, Josette Grant, was half-Ojibwe. Her father, Joseph Goulais, was a French-Canadian voyageur. [5] Catharine grew up in the waning milieu of the fur-trade, a society in which French and later British and American traders, soldiers, and missionaries lived and worked alongside Odawa, Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Assiniboine, and other indigenous peoples. Marriage and child rearing between cultural and racial groups formed a society of Métis families and a “creole” culture. [6]

Catharine converted to Presbyterianism in 1834 and joined the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) mission at La Pointe in the Michigan territories.  Soon after, Catharine met and married Edmund Ely, a mission teacher from New York. Catharine accompanied Edmund to a mission school at Fond du Lac as helpmate, translator, teacher, and wife. She started a diary several months after her marriage and continued the practice sporadically for three years, from 1835-1839. [7] Catharine’s diary provides a rare opportunity for the historian to understand one practice of Métis medicine.

Among the eighty or so entries in her diary, several refer to medicine. Catharine noted which therapies she used to treat illness - magnesia, peppermint, “rhubard [sic]”, “salts”, and “pills”. Catharine framed disease with a rationale common to European and American settlers:  for example, she described her daughter’s teething as “humours… breaking out.” [8] While Catharine’s medicinal practices and therapeutic rationale were associated with the episteme and trade networks of settler society, her social interactions indicated her awareness of and interaction with Ojibwe kinship networks and social obligation. Catharine distributed medicines in her husband’s absence; on one occasion, she allowed a distraught neighbor to reside with her “until Mr. E arrived” to settle the matter. Catharine’s deference to her husband’s say in household matters would have been typical in American gender politics, but apparently such deference did not hold while her husband was away. Catharine acted as a “go-between” for Ojibwe and settler society through her work as translator, teacher, and mission worker as well as in her social support and medicinal practice. [9] Catharine, Métis go-between, instantiated Métis medicine.

Thus far I have met Agrawal’s call to seat knowledge in practice. Can I go further and fulfill Secord’s admonition to locate the creation of Métis medicine in Catharine’s communication of medicinal knowledge?  If the reader can accept the social act of practicing medicine as a form of communication, then the theory may hold. A comparative analysis of other Metis practitioners is needed in order to track patterns of application and social mediation. From this single window, the study appears promising. Catharine, go-between, negotiating multiple worlds, drew multiple worlds into her practice of medicine - imported drugs, theories about humors, and patients from both Ojibwe and settler societies. Catharine’s practice, as her identity, negotiated a “middle ground” in the Northwest Territories.

[1]  Arun Agrawal, “Dismantling the Divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge.” Development and Change 26, no. 3 (1995): 413–39.
[2] Secord is quoting Scott L. Montgomery, The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)
[3] James A. Secord, “Knowledge in Transit.” Isis 95, no. 4 (2004): 661. 
[4] I have chosen to use “big-M” Métis to refer to Catharine. For an excellent capitulation of the scholarly controversies and racial and political consequences of using ‘Métis’ versus ’métis’, see Chris Anderson, “Moya `tipimsook (‘the People Who Aren’t Their Own Bosses’): Racialization and the Misrecognition of ‘Métis’ in Upper Great Lakes Ethnohistory.” Ethnohistory 58, no. 1 (2011): 37.
[5] "Life Memoranda" filled out by Mrs. Catharine Bissell Ely. Excerpt from Keith Widder’s Battle for the Soul: Métis Children Encounter Evangelical Protestants at Mackinaw Mission, 1823-1837 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: MSU Press, 1999), 104.
[6] Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, “To Live Among Us” in Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900 : A Guide to Research and Writing, ed. Rebecca Murphy and Lucy Eldersveld Murphy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 368-414. See also Murphy, “Public Mothers: Native American and Métis Women as Creole Mediators in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest.” Journal of Women’s History 14, no. 4 (2003): 142–66. 
[7] Edmund Franklin Ely, The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.)  Catharine’s diary can be found in Appendix B. It is possible that she wrote more that has not survived.
[8] Catharine Ely on November 21, 1836, 448.
[9] The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820, ed. Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo. (Science History Publications Sagamore Beach, MA, 2009), xiv. In their introduction, the editors state that the “go-between” is not “just a passer-by or a simple agent of cross-cultural diffusion, but someone who articulates relationships between disparate worlds or cultures by being able to translate between them.” 

April 8, 2015

Designing Projects for the Digital Generation: The History of Biology Thumbnails Project

Emmie Miller, of Colorado, is a second-year graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Although she loves 20th/21st century zebrafish, she actually studies the relationship between humans and non-human animals in the early modern period. In December, she published a blog post at Shells and Pebbles entitled, "Dissecting the 'Chain of Creation': Edward Tyson and Anatomical Natural History," which she also discussed at an 2014 HSS Meeting session. Follow her on Twitter.

One difficult thing about being an instructor today is the concern that students, distracted by their buzzing phones and binging Facebook apps, don’t care to learn because they’re preoccupied with what’s trending. In addition to being sidetracked by their interpersonal relationships, higher priority classes, and other things of real significance, they are inundated with diverting alerts from their handheld media. This deserves to be reframed – our students now learn in different ways. We as instructors should realize that every time they text in class on their smartphone, they are playing right into our hands, but only if we are willing to incorporate into our teaching strategies the technology that so thoroughly captures their attention.

April 2, 2015

Music in the Scientific Revolution

Adam Fix is a second-year graduate student here at the University of Minnesota. He studies the history of philosophy, mathematics, and the physical sciences during the early modern period. His post this week is a wonderful intersection of these topics: music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adam plays music himself. Check out some of his pieces here!

March 24, 2015

Fleck's Multiple Collectives

This week's post comes from a first-year graduate student, John Heydinger, who, after a earning his B.A. in history, briefly became a field and conservation biologist working in South Africa. He has since returned to our own thought collective of the history of science, and plans to work on the relationship between the sciences and the humanities in higher education. His post is about Ludwik Fleck, whose book we read in a seminar about theories in/of history, led by Susan Jones.

Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a text both rich in meaning and illuminating in application for the budding historian of science; it seems to grow in strength with increasing familiarity. Amongst our graduate student community Fleck provides fodder for conversations both broad and deep. Echoing one such discussion I wanted to recapitulate a difficulty found in Fleck’s work, along with a tentative hypothesis for how this difficulty in applying Fleck’s philosophy to the history of science might be overcome.

March 12, 2015

A Matter of Meat and Democracy: A Crisis in Veterinary Public Health

Jeannette Vaught is a former equine veterinary technician and current PhD Candidate at the University of Texas. Her dissertation, "Science, Animals, and Profit-Making in the American Rodeo Arena," documents the scientific enhancement and redefinition of rodeo animals over the second half of the twentieth century, and maps how professional rodeo navigates the tensions between tradition and modernity through a strategic use of animals. Susan D. Jones is a member of the dissertation committee. This post derives from her presentation at the September 2014 World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine Congress in London, and provides a veterinary perspective of the effects of deregulation on the meat animal industry in the 1980s based on archival materials that did not make it into the dissertation. Follow her on Twitter: @JeannetteVaught.

In September 1985, veterinarian and long-time United States Department of Agriculture meat inspector Carl Telleen penned a letter to his former USDA colleagues:  “To my former fellow Review Officers,” he began, “It has been a most painful experience for all of us but one which we had to suffer in order to maintain our own integrity as well as to be able to expose the evils in government.” [1] The painful experience to which he is referring is a four-year battle between Telleen, the USDA, and the conglomerate of companies making up the lion’s share of the modern American meatpacking industry. In 1981, after serving for 20 years as a meat inspector, Telleen charged the USDA with instituting meat inspection policies that broke longstanding food safety laws and endangered the public. To his view, these changes were made for commercial and political reasons at the expense of public health. By 1985, Telleen’s whistleblowing campaign, steeped in acrimony and intimidation, had brought him national notoriety and made him a polarizing figure in the agricultural veterinary world. When the USDA deregulated its inspection policies, he was horrified that the public would consume contaminated meat, and lost faith in the government’s role in protecting citizens from harm. To Telleen, the principles of American democracy were centered on healthy meat, and both were at risk.

February 18, 2015

The Objective Evaluation of Pig Breeds in the Netherlands

Today's post is by Steven van der Laan (MSc), one of our Dutch colleagues affiliated with the Descartes Center and whom the blog editors met at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society! Steven is a PhD-candidate from Utrecht University (Netherlands) who is working on the history of pig breeding. His main interests in this research is the relation between scientific research and the practice of pig breeders.

Before the turn of the nineteenth century, grading of breeding pigs in the Netherlands was mostly done in an unofficial way: a breeder went to the market or to the farm of a colleague, and by using his ‘breeders’ eye’, an embodied skill he had developed through years of experience in breeding pigs, he chose a boar or sow which he thought would improve his own breeding stock. With the establishment of the herdbooks around 1900, it became necessary to quantify the grading process because all pigs had to be evaluated according to the same criteria. The quantification of breed characteristics however turned out to be difficult and, as it eventually turned out, the best way to grade pigs could not do without the breeders’ eye.

Fig. 1. The Yorkshire. (Notice erect ears, low shoulders.)
 The first attempts at quantification consisted of short descriptions of the most prominent characteristics that separated the two breeds that were most commonly held by Dutch farmers, the Yorkshire and the German Landrace (Figs. 1 and 2). The Yorkshire for instance had to have erect ears whereas the German Landrace typically had floppy ears. [1] During the first twenty years after 1900 the descriptions became more and more elaborate in order to achieve complete quantification of the breed characteristics. This trend culminated in the publication of a booklet by veterinarian Engbert Dommerhold that meticulously described every part of a pig’s body. [2] According to Dommerhold, it was not enough for the Yorkshire to have erect ears. A good representative of the breed also had to have ears “fringed by fine hair”, its rump should not be more than 4 centimeters above its withers and the angle between its snout and brow had to be between 100 and 120 degrees, this in contrast to the German Landrace, for which the angle was supposed to be between 120 and 150 degrees.

Fig. 1. German Landrace. (Notice floppy ears.)
While these elaborate descriptions appear to represent an effort to make the judging of pigs more objective, Dommerhold, at the end of his booklet, gave an example of an effective method for grading pigs that disregarded this strive for objectivity and implicitly acknowledged the indispensability of the subjective breeders’ eye. This method was initially developed around 1920 by the herdbook of the provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel and it was based on grading the different parts of the pig. Depending on the breed and the importance of a specific part of the body for that breed, each part was awarded a number of points. For instance, the head of both Dutch breeds could get six points, the German Landrace could get seven points for its chest and the Yorkshire six. If the total number of points was above a certain minimum, the pig was accepted for registration in the herdbook.

Fig. 3. Evaluation form. 
Obviously, the grading according to this method is more subjective than (quantitatively) comparing a particular pig with its breed description, as the points awarded were based on the opinion of herdbook officials and did not relate to any physical measurement. In fact, it might be argued that whereas Dommerhold’s breed descriptions were an effort to replace the breeders’ eye with objective measurements, the new method served largely to accommodate the breeders’ eye. This becomes even clearer when we look at how the method was extended with a weighting factor. In this extended version, the herdbook official did not directly determine the grade, but had to give his opinion on all features of the pig, on the basis of the following list of adjectives: excellent, very good, good, somewhat deviant, strongly deviant, deficient and bad (See Fig. 3). These adjectives each had their own weighting factor, ranging from 1 for excellent to 0 for bad. The total number of points a pig could get for a certain feature were then to be multiplied by this factor. In this extension, subjective notions that were usually used to express an evaluation by the breeders’ eye were thus quantified by connecting them to grades.

It may seem rather curious why Dommerhold, and also veterinarian Hendrik Kroon, both leading figures in the world of pig breeding, were of the opinion that this grading method allowed for more “precision” and less “bias” in the grading of pigs, as it was based on thoroughly subjective notions like excellent and bad. [3]  Their reason for not recommending measuring every part of the pig for grading purposes, was that it did not take into account that the individual parts of the pig had to form a “harmonious” whole, as Dommerhold put it. This is also why in the grading system 25 points were reserved for “general appearance”. Although people like Dommerhold and Kroon thus had a very definite idea about the ideal type for a particular pig breed, as is evident from their elaborate quantitative descriptions, they knew that the evaluation of individual pigs and deciding whether they resembled this ideal type, was a task that could not be accomplished by measuring rods and weighing scales. Measurements could not tell if the individual parts of a pig had the right proportions. The breeders and herdbook officials did have this ability and that is why people like Dommerhold and Kroon deemed the subjective breeders’ eye to be indispensable in the grading of pigs.


[1]  J. Timmermans, as cited by A. Paridaans, 75 jaar varkensfokkerij in stamboekverband (Veldhoven 1987), p.20.
[2] E. Dommerhold, Het uitwendig voorkomen van het varken (Maastricht 1920).
[3] H. Kroon, Het Varken (Deventer 1924), p. 47.