New Podcast Episode: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in the 19th Century

A new episode of The Conversationalist podcast is available today! In this episode, Dr Sally Frampton (ConSciCom, University of Oxford) and Dr Oskar Cox Jenson (Queen Mary University of London) discuss vaccination and the anti-vax movement in the 19th century. Warning: this episode features some catchy anti-vax songs you’ll have trouble getting out of your head.


For more, scroll down to hear longer versions of the anti-vax songs in the episode, view 19th century satirical cartoons related to the anti-vax movement, and read about our exhibition Vaccination: Medicine and the Masses in this blog post.

Longer versions of the anti-vaccination songs featured in this episode:


Anti-vaccination illustrations and cartoons:


The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Lantern slide, early 1900s.



A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolising vaccination and its effects. Etching by C. Williams, 1802?. Wellcome Images.



Jenner and his two colleagues seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, the dead are littered at their feet. Coloured etching by I. Cruikshank, 1808. Wellcome Images.

‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!



[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

‘Mind Boggling Medical History’ Card Game Launch – Feb 28th!

February 28th
Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre, London

Register here!

Join us for the launch of “Mind-Boggling Medical History” and explore the unexpected in medical and healthcare practice and history.

Mind-Boggling Medical History is a card game and educational resource led by the Constructing Scientific Communities project at the University of Oxford, in partnership with RCN Library and Archives. It is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The educational game is designed to challenge preconceptions and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

The online game is accompanied by teaching resources to enable it to be used in schools for history or health education lessons, and for nursing and medical students at university.

Attendees at the launch will all receive a limited edition printed pack of the 50 card game and answer booklet.

Join us for a Contagion Camerata -February 2nd, 2018

Local students have been working with Dr John Traill (University of Oxford) to compose musical pieces about science and medicine. For inspiration, the students attended the Contagion Cabaret at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival in September.

Hear their compositions in a showcase at St Anne’s College in February. Details below.

2 February 2018
6:30 pm
Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre
St Anne’s College, Oxford

No booking required. Free entry.



New Episode of The Conversationalist Podcast Out Today – Domestic Science in the 19th Century

The Conversationalist Podcast Art

You’re invited to join our science-themed cocktail party, where experts on the history of science tell us stories, fun facts, and random anecdotes about the development of scientific knowledge from the 19th century to today.

In this episode, we talk to Dr Berris Charnley (University of Oxford) and Dr Donald Opitz (DePaul University) about domestic science in the 19th century – scientific endeavours that took place in the home. We also hear from Cory Mason and Tom Nicholson (The Oxford Artisan Distillery) about some favourite 19th century cocktails that have – thankfully – fallen out of favour today!

Interviews with: Dr Berris Charnley (University of Oxford), Dr Donald Opitz (DePaul University), Cory Mason (The Oxford Artisan Distillery), and Tom Nicholson (The Oxford Artisan Distillery)
Produced by: Dr Kira Allmann
Music by: Rosemary Allmann

Wisdom of the Crowd: Marcus du Sautoy at the Royal Society

Join us for our final project event!


The Wisdom of the Crowd – Marcus Du Sautoy at the Royal Society on November 29th at 6 PM

Where: At The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG

Details: Join Professor Marcus du Sautoy OBE FRS for a night of interactive experiments exploring the power of crowds in answering certain numerical questions.

From guessing the weight of a cow or the number of sweets in a jar, there is evidence that the average of a crowd’s guesses can deliver surprisingly accurate results.

Professor du Sautoy will carry out a number of live interactive quizzes and experiments to test these ideas and look at how these principals can be harnessed for citizen science projects.

This event will be hosted in partnership with the University of Oxford as part of the AHRC’s Constructing Scientific Communities project. Visit to discover more.

Attending this event

This event will involve interactive elements – you will need a smartphone in order to participate
Free to attend
No registration required
Seats allocated on a first-come, first-served basis
Doors open at 6.00pm

Travel and accessibility information

For all enquiries, please contact

Pop Science! Lates Event at the Natural History Museum


ConSciCom is taking over the NHM for one night!

FRIDAY, October 27th
Natural History Museum, London

Science is a cornerstone of modern society but sharing the work of scientists can often be a challenge.  At Pop science, we explore some of the different ways that science can be and has been shared with the world over the generations.  From television to poetry, animation to photography come and explore some of the ways that people have engaged with and explored science from early Victorian naturalists to the latest citizen science.

Featuring: poetry from Don Patterson, live animation with Sydney Padua, a magic lantern demonstration, live music, and more!

More details here.


Recap: Connecting with the Crowd Conference (Natural History Museum, London)

We had a great time discussing citizen science and the historical and contemporary applications of crowdsourcing at the Connecting with the Crowd Conference at the Natural History Museum on 16 June 2017.

If you missed the event, you can watch the keynotes on our YouTube channel. And the slides from the presentations are now available on Slideshare!

Read the conference report here.


Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants through Contemporary Drawing Practice

Blog post contributed by Sian Bowen, Leverhulme Fellow & Reader in Fine Art at the University of Northumbria,

With support from a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, I am currently developing a project, Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants through Contemporary Drawing Practice, which investigates how the materiality of drawing can make present the imperceptible nature of the vulnerabilities and resilience of rare plants. As an artist, this builds on my ongoing interest in the ways in which drawing might convey states of flux. Although I would strongly advocate that drawing can be made on any surface and in any medium, paper plays a crucial role in this project. The resulting artworks will form an exhibition which will be staged in the UK and India in 2019.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

Historically, drawing has been intrinsically connected to the collection and preservation of plants as a vehicle for scientific description and identification. With sophisticated digital visualisation technologies now occupying this central position, the project asserts that contemporary art practices, especially those concerned with themes of ephemerality – for example Anya Gallaccio’s installations of dying flowers; and Michael Landy’s print media exploration of the status of weeds – are renewing the inspirational basis of botanical illustrations and specimens.

Taking plants of Malabar as its principal concern, I aim to bring into focus – for the first time – three distinct but interconnected historical and contemporary ‘sites’ of knowledge: firstly, rare copies of the extraordinary 12-volume 17th century illustrated treatise on the flora of Malabar, and its 21st century English translation (which includes an additional commentary on the current status of the 750 plants indexed; secondly, historical herbaria in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Oxford housing fragile examples of specimens described in the aforementioned publications, and brought from India to Britain during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; and thirdly, sacred groves surrounding temples of the tropical forests and coastal plains of Malabar, the centuries-old protection of which has ensured the survival of some of the rarest plants discussed in Hortus Malabaricus. The ways and extent to which these three sites of knowledge can shed light on the ephemeral qualities of plants and how these might be conveyed through the contemporary practice of drawing, are central to this investigation.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

I therefore arrived at the workshop, The Material Culture of Citizen Science, after having spent two days closely examining plants specimens held in the historical Indian collections of Oxford Herbaria – housed in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford. The role that paper plays in these collections is intriguing. The fragile, preserved plant specimens are mounted on paper that is sometimes contemporary to the period of their collection. Fine paper strips hold the specimens in place. Onto the backing papers is a palimpsest of handwritten notes and labels. Names of plants have been carefully written down, crossed out and re-named at different points in time as different systems of classification evolved or new knowledge was gained. The 17th century notebooks of collector William Sherard not only reveal information repeatedly added and discounted, but also their very covers have been made from plant-drying papers – evident in certain lights from subtle imprints. During my visit it was also possible to see copies of a complete 12-volume set of Hortus Malabaricus, with its truly remarkable botanical engravings.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

The focus of the workshop on material culture and paper technologies, gave me a valuable opportunity to re-consider the relationships between drawing, plants, paper and materiality. Plants, historically, have been a “currency” of empires, their collection and distribution having had huge economic, social, cultural and political implications – whilst paper after all, is made from material of the plant world; cotton and flax seed heads picked from across America, bark stripped from branches of the kozo and mistumata trees in Japan, and pulp made from trunks of conifers felled in Scandinavia. The wonderful range of presentations across various disciplines really brought home the potential that paper has to propose concepts and mediate ideas. This was demonstrated for example by the handwritten instructions in notebooks for medicinal recipes, the information gathered on forms for the Prussian consensus and the engravings of shells by the Lister sisters. In such cases the paper was originally selected to perform a function – a carrier of information. However the material nature of these objects offers further possibilities for interpretation and adds layers of meaning.

The presentation on Dr Auzoux’s papier-mâché anatomical models demonstrated the potential that paper has to be transformed in extraordinary ways. Fascinated as I am by the palimpsest of the labelling of herbaria specimens, I am also intrigued how a flat sheet of paper can become something ‘other’. I want to understand more fully not only ways in which paper can been transformed but also in how it can be a transformative vehicle for ideas. The very fabric of paper is, as I’ve mentioned, taken from the plant world. It seems that the new art works could harness certain characteristics connected to plant life – such as its response to light in terms of bleaching and photosynthesis and its ability to produce fugitive dyes. I plan to place an emphasis on drawing as a physical and material phenomenon that can generate new knowledge, as opposed to drawing as information gathering through marks made on a substrate. These considerations will I believe, enrich my lines of enquiry which will focus on encounters with rare plants in darkened herbaria and light-filled sacred groves and the sensory differences between their live and preserved states.


Sian Bowen installing her her drawings at Wallington Hall, Northumberland.