In broad terms, I study the creation and public understanding of science from an interdisciplinary, historical perspective. I am particularly interested in the relationship between different kinds of knowledge: literary, cultural, scientific, and in new ways of thinking about selfhood and the body in the context of industrial modernity.
My current research focuses on Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932), the first Briton to win a Nobel prize, which he won for proving that mosquitoes transmit malaria. Ross interests me because his first love was, in fact, literature. He cultivated friendships with now canonical literary authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, and John Masefield, wrote novels and poems alongside his role as a doctor in the Indian Medical Service, and gave lectures on the productive cross-fertilisations between science and poetry. My Leverhulme-funded project aims to carry out the largest archival study of Ross to date. By analysing material from archives in Oxford, London, Reading, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Norwich, the United States, and India, I seek to shed light on the processes of creativity that fuelled his career and reconsider more broadly the disciplinary boundaries and collaborative relationships between the sciences and the humanities.
My first book, Empire Under the Microscope: Parasitology and the British Literary Imagination, 1885-1935 (2022) explores the cultural history of parasitology and its relationships with the literary and historical imagination between 1885 and 1935. Examining a wealth of archival material including medical lectures, scientific publications, popular biography, and personal and professional correspondence, alongside novels, poems, newspaper articles, and political speeches, I excavate the shared vocabularies of literature and medicine. The book demonstrates how forms such as poetry and biography; genres such as imperial romance and detective fiction; and modes such as adventure and the Gothic, together informed how tropical diseases, their parasites, and their vectors, were understood in relation to race, gender, and nation. From Ancient Greece, to King Arthur’s Knights, to the detective work of Sherlock Holmes, parasitologists manipulated literary and historical forms of knowledge in their professional self-fashioning to create a modern mythology that has a visible legacy in relationships between science and society today.
Between 2016 and 2019 I worked on the Diseases of Modern Life project at St Anne’s College, Oxford. This ERC-funded project examined literary, cultural, and scientific understandings of disorders related to stress and overwork throughout the nineteenth century. My personal research, informed by contemporary work in microbiome studies, focused on gut health and essentially asked: “what did gut health mean to the Victorians and why should be care?” Thus, my second book— tentatively entitled, Possessing Our Own Bodies: Gut Health in Victorian Culture—resituates digestive health in the multiplex context of the Pre-Pasteurian epoch. Whilst the gut has always been central to our understandings of mental and physical health, it gained new currency in the nineteenth century amid new understandings of physiology instigated by the emergence of experimental medicine; and new approaches to food in the wake of the development of gastric chemistry and the science of nutrition. Such developments were coexistent with a resurgent interest in gastronomy amid ‘crises’ in English cookery, a renewed focus on dining and household management to accommodate an emerging middle class, and concern about the perceived damaging impact of industrial and commercial modernity on the digesting body. How might nineteenth-century perspectives on diet, digestion and bodily identity modify our understanding of what it means to be healthy in the twenty-first?
My public engagement activities have included interactive museums exhibitions, podcasts, dance performances, a song based on my research (with science song-writer Jonny Berliner), and a collaborative project with the Chipping Norton Theatre company called the Contagion Cabaret.