Contributed Papers

Colonial and Postcolonial Science

Presenter 1

No Man is an Island: Innovations and Injustices at the Powder Mills of Isle de France (Pamplemousses, Mauritius)

Yadhav Deerpaul

National Research University - Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg - Russia


The uniqueness of the site is not solely that it was the only powder mill outside France but also one of the few colonial ones where enslaved labour was being employed. The history of the site has been published in a book entitled 'The Moulin à Poudre Cultural Landscape History and Archaelogy' besides academic articles by Teelock and Ramasawmy. But these works have not delved into the transmission of scientific knowledge in an industrial site where the slightest act of irresponsibility, if not rebellion, could lead to deadly explosions. The paper will focus mainly on the role played by the main engineer Joseph François Charpentier de Cossigny who reduced the number of explosions at the site drastically while improving the quality of gunpowder. He introduced several innovations considering both the climate and the untrained coerced labour. But he was deported from Mauritius after trying to introduce measures to improve the social conditions of the enslaved labour while Bottée and Chaptal who were the main French engineers in the field dismissed his novel scientific approaches. There were tensions in the circulation of knowledge which extended beyond the French colonies as Cossigny was also in correspondence with Napion responsible for the Brazilian powder mills. The research will be an addition to Buchanan's works but also demonstrate how scientific knowledge developed due to events previously considered isolated such as the French gunpowder scarce in 1774 and the Napoleonic wars.


Presenter 2

Professionalizing Science: British Geography, Africa, and the Exploration of the Nile

Miguel Angel Chavez

Vanderbilt University


Two strands of inquiry have dominated histories of science in the nineteenth century. Assessing how class, education, and networks influenced scientific knowledge production and highlighting the natural sciences, one set of historians placed the gentlemanly scientist at the center of British science from the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. A second set of historians picks up the story later, with the process of professionalization and disciplinary formation occurring in the late-nineteenth century. Both historiographies detail how individuals navigated scientific communities that enforced boundaries based on class, gender, and conduct. Both give attention to practices derived from and influenced by social or economic practices, showing how science was, above all, a social practice. But the two historiographies do not adequately explain the change from gentlemanly science to professionalization, or assess how scientists themselves navigated this shift in practice and epistemology.
Understanding this transition has the potential answer key questions about how British science professionalized. The history of how science professionalized is also the history of empire, class, and transnational networks. British geography and its most visible enterprise, Nile exploration, played a central role in these transitions. In charting geographers and explorers of Africa as agents of these changes, this paper identifies the mid-nineteenth century as an inflection point in the organization, practice, and perception of science. This paper will evaluate how explorers fashioned their personas as scientists to respond to prevalent social, professional, and ideological pressures. They did so by bolstering their scientific credentials to include a greater emphasis on measurement, translating exotic field notes into more "scientific" records, and relied on the Royal Geographical Society to lend institutional credibility.


Presenter 3

Building a Science of the Post-Colonial Body in Egypt

Jennifer L. Derr

University of California, Santa Cruz


In the twentieth century, Egypt's primary public health challenge was an epidemic of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis. The country's sky-high rates of infection dated to the nineteenth century when Egypt's irrigation landscape was transformed through the damming of the Nile River. When Gamal `Abd al-Nasir came to power in 1952 and vanquished the remnants of colonialism from Egypt, the battle to defeat schistosomiasis ranked among his top priorities. Under Nasir's populist authoritarian regime (1954-1970), the state expanded efforts to treat human bodies and the environments in which they lived. Treatment of the disease had begun in the 1920s with the establishment of clinics by the Egyptian Public Health Department. Despite the large numbers of patients who passed through these clinics, the numbers of those infected remained high as treatment targeted infection in the body and not the forms of environmental interaction that produced infection. In an attempt to alter the environment that produced infection, the Egyptian scientists associated with Nasir's state worked with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the governments of the United States and West Germany to test the efficacy of chemicals in eliminating the snail populations that served as the parasite's intermediate host. Drawing on the extensive publications of Egyptian scientists and physicians and the archives of the World Health Organization, this paper explores the Egyptian endeavor to understand and treat bodies infected with parasites through the distinct but linked practices of biomedicine and environmental science.


Presenter 4

Tracking Decolonisation: The Case of the Journal of Genetics Going East

Gordon McOuat

University of King's College/Dalhousie University

Arden Rogalsky

University of King's College


In 1957, the Journal of Genetics, the oldest English journal in genetical science (founded by William Bateson and R. C. Punnett in 1910) ripped up its roots at University College London and followed its colourful editor, J.B.S. Haldane, to a new home in India. The move was a political one, tracking Haldane's anti-imperialist passage to India, and was strongly resisted by its European former editors and contributors. Haldane's express goal in moving the J.of G. was to diversify science and its flagship journal, de-colonising both the centre of authority of science and, most importantly, its very theoretical and practical focus. Using archival and bibliometric data drawn from Haldane archives in India and Scotland, a close tracking of the papers, contents, authors, and themes of the journal itself, and following the shifting demographics of its base and influence, this paper will use graphic and narrative methods to explore the ways in which the journal and its participants navigated a "decolonised" science. Was this effort at decolonisation successful? What does it say about our perceptions of modern science being predominantly "Eurocentric"?