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!




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.

Materials of Mass Participation: Aluminum and Paper in Early Twentieth Century U.S. Bird Banding

This post is contributed by Etienne Benson, Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania,

On August 31, 1922, Frederick C. Lincoln caught the 8:05am train from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and thence to Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he met Theodore A. Gey at his home and manufacturing plant. The two men then returned to Philadelphia, where they inspected a machine that was being built to Gey’s specifications at the Wiedemann Machine Company.

Even in its partially completed state, the machine seemed promising. When finished, Gey told Lincoln, it would be able to produce aluminum bands at a rate of 142 per minute, or 8,520 per hour. “With this machine fully installed,” Lincoln reported after returning to Washington, “Mr. Gey will no doubt be enabled to outbid all competitors for future orders and it is my belief that he will deliver material of a high quality.”

Lincoln’s report of his visit to Philadelphia sounds like that of a middle manager in some industrial enterprise, and indeed, in a way, that is what he was. As the director of the U.S. Biological Survey’s Bird Banding Office, he was responsible not only for recruiting volunteers and preparing reports on the nation’s migratory bird populations, but also for ensuring that the necessary research materials could be obtained at a reasonable price.

I had never thought much about this side of Lincoln’s job until I was invited to participate in a workshop at Oxford in May 2017 on the Material Culture of Citizen Science, which brought together members and affiliates of Constructing Scientific Communities and the working group on Working with Paper of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Once I did, though, it became clear that industrial materials and methods were essential to the success of bird banding during this period.

Before the advent of bird banding it was virtually impossible to study the migratory paths of individual birds, for two simple reasons: Humans are rarely capable of moving across the landscape as quickly as birds do, and they usually have trouble distinguishing one bird from another. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was recognized that these limitations could be overcome by recruiting large networks of observers, often volunteers, to attach numbered bands to the legs of birds and to report recovered bands. Since then many millions of birds have been banded, generating insights that have reshaped bird science and conservation.

Bird banding began in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, just a few years after the technique was first demonstrated on a large scale in Europe. Formal efforts to coordinate banding on a national scale began in 1909, but it was only after 1917, when Canada and the United States signed a treaty to conserve migratory birds, that the federal government became involved, establishing the Bird Banding Office with Lincoln as its head in 1920.

Over the following years Lincoln worked to create a national program of bird banding with the help of thousands of volunteer banders. As his trip to inspect Gey’s machine suggests, one of his challenges was finding a cheap and reliable source of aluminum bands. Gey already had a flourishing business producing a million-and-a-half bands for pigeon-keepers per year, and he promised Lincoln that he could do better than the Bird Banding Office’s current suppliers. While his pigeon bands were too thick and unwieldy for banding wild birds, he began working on a machine that could mass-produce lightweight, flexible, non-corroding, serially numbered aluminum bands that met the banding program’s needs.


Selection of bird bands used in the United States in the early twentieth century. Bands marked g, h, i, j, and k were in use by the Bird Banding Office in 1927 and were most likely manufactured at Theodore A. Gey’s Norristown plant. (Source: Frederick C. Lincoln, “Bird Banding in America,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute for 1927, Plate 1.)

The task proved to be more complicated than Gey had anticipated, and success ultimately hinged on close collaboration between manufacturer, machinist, and ornithologist. Just over two weeks after his initial visit, Lincoln was back on the train to Philadelphia, where Gey and a machinist were waiting for him with the completed machine. Upon arriving Lincoln saw immediately that the impressions made by the dies that marked the bands with “Biol. Surv.” and “Wash., D.C.,” respectively, were too shallow. After the faces of the dies were ground away from the raised letters, it took the remainder of the day to realign them on the machine.

Lincoln spent the night at Gey’s home in Norristown. When they returned to Philadelphia the next morning, they faced a new problem: The “No. 1” bands intended for use on the smallest birds were being stripped off the machine before they were properly formed. The necessary adjustments took several hours and involved re-machining a broken part. Once that was accomplished, the machine ran perfectly, but the batch of aluminum Gey had bought proved to be unevenly tempered, which made some of the bands too stiff to close properly. Gey arranged to take the aluminum to a friend in Bridgeport for annealing, and Lincoln returned to Washington hopeful that the machine would soon be in order.

These were the kinds of material challenges that faced bird banding in the United States as it was scaled up from a disparate collection of regional efforts to a nationwide program. Their prominence in the records of the Bird Banding Office at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where I found Lincoln’s reports of his collaboration with Gey, suggests that bird-banding did not become widespread in the early twentieth century solely for the reasons that historians and ornithologists have usually identified — that is, an increasing scientific interest in bird behavior and ecology, a growing amateur enthusiasm for bird-watching, and an expansion of state responsibility for managing wildlife populations. It was also because materials and methods of manufacturing had become available that rendered banding practicable on a grand scale.

Aluminum bands were not the only materials that mattered in this way. Just as important were the paper technologies that the Bird Banding Office developed to manage the data it received. Between the founding of the office in 1920 and the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, volunteer banders submitted, on average, more than 200,000 reports of newly banded birds per year and tens of thousands of additional reports of recovered bands, all of which were processed by a small staff of scientists and clerks in Washington. Having successfully mass-produced the tools required for tracking the movement of birds, Lincoln’s next challenge was to manage the overwhelming amount of data that resulted.

The solution again relied on the availability of industrial materials and machines. In the early years of the Bird Banding Office, reports of new bandings and recoveries were submitted on paper forms that were laboriously copied and filed by hand by the clerical staff in Washington. By the end of the 1920s, however, as the piles of unprocessed reports grew and the onset of the Great Depression dimmed the prospects of expanding the office’s staff, the Bird Banding Office shifted to recording data on punch cards that could be sorted and tabulated by machine. Automation did not permanently solve the problem of data overload, but it at least kept the Bird Banding Office from falling even farther behind.


An undated photograph of Frederick C. Lincoln at his desk in Washington, with aluminum bird bands and pliers to his right and a map of North American migratory pathways on the wall. (Source: U.S. National Archives, reproduced in John Tautin, “Frederick C. Lincoln and the Formation of the North American Bird Banding Program.”)

Without aluminum bands, punch cards, and machines for producing and processing them, bird banding would certainly have been possible, but it is unlikely it would have reached the scale it did. Thousands of volunteers were able to participate because they received, at no cost, bands that were lightweight, corrosion-resistant, serially numbered, and easy to handle in the field, and the Bird Banding Office was able to use the data they submitted in large part because it was coded on paper cards that could be sorted and counted by machine. In these ways, bird banding as a nationwide citizen-science program was made possible by industrial materials and methods of mass production. When those materials were in short supply, as they were during World War II, bird banding declined accordingly.

Looking through the lens of material culture, then, it becomes clear that materials mattered to the rise of bird banding in the United States and elsewhere. Aluminum, paper, and machines did not determine the form taken by early twentieth century bird banding any more than smartphones and internet connections determine the form taken by today’s citizen science projects. But we cannot understand the citizen sciences of yesterday or today — their conditions of possibility, their barriers to entry, or the hierarchies of expertise they undermine or reinforce — without paying close attention to the material cultures of which they were and are a part.


People Powered Science II

At the beginning of the project I posted some thoughts on people powered science and how history might hold some lessons for contemporary citizen science practice. Since then I’ve been working some more on the people part of people powered science. I’ve been looking through the Zooniverse’s forums (each of the more than 100 projects hosted on the platform has a space for communication) and talking to some scientists. One interesting feature has started to emerge.

A big part of science is imagination. In a fascinating and slightly bizarre interview – ‘Einstein loves children’ / ‘”Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits.'” – with George Viereck published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, Albert Einstein claimed imagination was the most important part of his work:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.

There are several examples of imagination pushing Zooniverse projects into new areas – Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Green Peas are two of the most celebrated. The Peas and the Voorwerp are both objects that were spotted by people with less specialist knowledge (i.e. they weren’t trained as scientists) but the imagination to see that something interesting was happening. You can read about the Voorwerp in a comic produced by the Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance. It opens with the lines, ‘Science is driven by that most basic of human impulses, curiosity’. In the case of the Peas, at first the non-scientists had to convince the scientists that the Peas were worth looking at (they turn out to be significant star-formation clusters). So one could take the Voorwerp and the Peas to be cases of Einstein’s imagination over knowledge thesis.

The ‘Science‘ section of the Disk Detectives project describes this type of discovery, again, in terms of curiosity:

computer programs can only detect what we tell them to measure. But you can do much more than that. With a large all-sky data set and your curiosity, the possibilities for unexpected discoveries are vast.

This is interesting because scientists often see themselves as curiosity and imagination-driven beasts, following Einstein’s characterization. Celebrating the Voorwerp and the Peas as curiosity and imagination driven discoveries could suggest they represent a purer form of scientific endeavor, one unsullied by the performance and publishing demands that some feel have warped academic careers and the research process.

This leads to two questions. If everybody on a project is working from the same imagination driven curiosity, why are some of them called scientists but others not? And if people report that what motivates them towards participating in the Zooniverse is a ‘a desire to contribute to scientific research‘, that is ‘real academic research‘, is this what they take the real to signify: a curiosity and imagination-driven practice?

The first question might seem less relevant but the naming of names certainly matters. The conceptual resources we use to characterize the world, shape our perceptions of it as much as representing our own values. Donna Harraway is famous for this type of thinking. As she puts it in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges… It matters what worlds world worlds.’ Unsurprisingly her call for use of ‘Chthulucene’, to replace the Anthropocene, Capitalocene and so on, of recent appearance, made the Great Old One (guest blogging at, ‘skeptical that she did not mean to summon me by speaking my name, extra-H or no’. The choice to call the people without PhDs something different, even to call them volunteers, as the practice is on the Zooniverse, and not scientists, suggests that knowledge and training, on some level, despite what Einstein says, do make a difference.


That brings us to the second question, what is real research? What characteristics does it have? As with all ‘How Science Works?’ type questions, things get complicated pretty quickly. Opinion will vary and change over time. While many scientists, and those who think about what a scientist is and does, might be mostly Einstein (see: Popper), they also think at the same time in Kuhnian terms about themselves as technician-like ‘problem solvers’. One can also be a little bit Lakatos, somewhat Feyerabend, French on the big picture and Ladyman on the details.

Citizen science, because it is a young science, still very much in a process of definition, brings these questions to the fore and makes them not just descriptive, but also normative. Historians and philosophers of science have been thinking about what science has been and does for some time, but for citizen science practitioners, as they design projects and form practices, these are also a series of questions about what their science ‘should’ be.

This is something sociologists and the broad church of social studies of science can help with, despite the sometimes acrimonious relations between science and science studies. Given recent events, (can I just say Trump!?) and the growing crisis in science communication, it would seem to be the right time to have this big conversation on science. I would argue that armed with the lessons of history and philosophy of science, and science studies, citizen science in its imminence might be a suitable vehicle for that conversation.

We could also look at this issue of imagination from another direction, by thinking about the first part of that Einstein quote, and what role art plays in science. I’m interested in the playful and creative things people do around citizen science and how this sort of activity functions as part of the research process. How seriously should we take Einstein about the importance of enough artistry? The early evidence from the Zooniverse suggests very.


‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.’ Thanks to

You can write your name in the stars, using images that were presented for classification in Galaxy Zoo, thanks to Steven Bamford. On another project, Science Gossip, one of the forum moderators, Jules, has made an alphabet of nineteenth-century initials. The images of people who volunteer make up the stunning visual identity of the Orchid Observers project (and the use of copyright on many of these images makes clear they are works of art). What do these artistic expressions mean in terms of real research? Are they epiphenomena to the core process? Or will they, like epigenetics, turn out to be a surrounding structure, in this case a creative architecture, that makes the whole enterprise tick? There’s some interesting historical precedent on this question.


Initials. Credit: Jules @ScienceGossip

Most people know two things about Alexander Fleming, that he discovered penicillin and that he was messy. Fleming didn’t wash his petri dishes and one day, looking down upon his mess, wham. Penicillin. This might not be the whole of the truth. Or more importantly, the interesting part. Fleming was an amateur artist and member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and, ‘painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria‘. The paintings are far from beautiful, but they raise a host of questions about the role that this side of Fleming played in his penicillin moment.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you there are good reasons for thinking deeply about imagination, curiosity and art in citizen science and how they relate to research.  Interestingly this is where the scientists I’ve spoken to get most excited. They really care about art and the art of citizen science especially. I’ll be reporting back with some of their thoughts on this shortly.

In Defence of ‘Stamp Collecting’

‘That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting’. This quote (and variants thereof) is widely attributed to the Nobel prize-winning nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford. Like all the best one-liners, it is apocryphal, but nevertheless serves as a useful stand-point from which to consider the motivations of those who participate in citizen science, and attitudes towards them. The pursuit of natural history in particular is a branch of study that suffers most from the stigma of ‘stamp collecting’, as even during its heyday in the nineteenth century, those who assiduously amassed large collections of specimens were often subject to ridicule. William Kirby and William Spence, in their Introduction to Entomology, lamented that their chosen subject was one that ‘in nine companies out of ten’ would elicit ‘pity or contempt’.

Attempting to understand the feelings that motivated the individuals who engaged in natural history during the nineteenth century is a difficult task, as you run the risk of projecting our present-day preoccupations onto historical actors who may have experienced the world very differently to us. To further complicate matters, even when these individuals appear to be telling us exactly why they pursued natural history, we of course cannot always take their word for it.

Ent. Annual 1855 FrontispieceClaims that the study of nature brought one to a greater appreciation of God and his works was an oft cited justification, and although this was certainly a factor for some, it belies the complexity and diversity of individuals’ motivations. Another reason frequently given is the simple pleasure of spending time in the countryside, and it cannot be considered a mere coincidence that natural history reached its height of popularity at a time of rapid urbanisation. The excursion culture of field clubs and natural history societies in the second half of the century was a predominantly middle-class movement that allowed white-collar workers to escape the cities and towns in preference for the woods and fields. Many of the working-classes – Lancashire handloom weavers and Sheffield cutlers – also seized any opportunity to get away from the drudgery of factory or workshop. This was generally encouraged by those who were more socially fortunate, because natural history was considered a ‘rational recreation’. Particularly during the Chartist agitations, it was thought that if workers were busy collecting plants and insects, that left them far less time in which to plot revolution. Furthermore, as the entomologist J. O. Westwood pointed out, ‘can it be denied that if, amongst the lower classes, the collecting of objects of nature, and such-like pursuits, were more general, the vice of drunkenness and the reign of gin-palaces would be over’.


Collecting was a nineteenth century passion, and almost anything could be subject to the period’s acquisitive urge. Butterflies, ferns, fossils, coins, stamps – all were eagerly hunted down, though admittedly some objects, particularly those that could fly, required considerably more energy to capture than others. Exactly what drove many to this pursuit is described by the entomologist Henry Tibbats Stainton: ‘each time that the collector of insects catches some species which he has not before met with, he receives a thrill of pleasure, which is difficult to render intelligible to those who have not felt it’. This feeling of adding to your collection, particularly if the specimen is rare, will sound familiar to those of us who collected Pokémon cards or football stickers as children. Charles Darwin was himself a keen insect collector in his youth, and later rediscovered the joy through his three sons, writing to Joseph Dalton Hooker, ‘I am reminded of old days by my third boy having just begun collecting beetles’, and related how ‘my blood boiled with old ardour when he caught a Licinus – a prize unknown to me’.

GalliersWe can only speculate what drove Thomas Galliers, the Liverpool policeman, to collect insects during the 1850s, just as we must guess as to what his superiors would have thought of his use of official ‘Liverpool Constabulary Force’ stationary to write letters to the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer. Galliers’ correspondence with the editor of this periodical, Henry Tibbats Stainton, reveals that he was not content simply with amassing a collection. In August 1858, the policeman wrote to Stainton, enclosing ‘a fair sketch of a beetle I captured when flying near the Dingle Wood about this time last year’ (one can only presume that Galliers meant that the beetle, rather than himself, was flying when he caught it). Galliers hoped that Stainton might wish to give ‘a representation of it in the shape of a woodcut in the Intelligencer’, as he felt ‘such a fine specimen might gratify your readers’. This is typical of many communications received by Stainton in his role as editor, with many correspondents hoping they had acquired an unusual specimen that would make a valuable contribution to the periodical, and possibly to science itself. Unfortunately for Galliers, it seems he was disappointed on this account, as his beetle was not published in the Intelligencer.

Talking to the people who run twenty-first century citizen science projects, I am struck at how they are constantly surprised at the number and diversity of those who participate in their projects. Present-day citizen scientists have as many different motives and approaches as their nineteenth century antecedents, each choosing to devote their leisure time to counting penguins, spotting exoplanets, or identifying images from nineteenth century periodicals. For some, it is simply more interesting way of passing the time than watching television or browsing social media, but for others, the burning desire to make a contribution to science lies at the heart of their enjoyment of such activities. Even Ernest Rutherford would surely approve of that.

Matthew Wale

“Dressing up” Research: Impact and Public Engagement, Past and Present

Post by Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

With the rise of the ‘Impact’ agenda in contemporary Britain, and the requirement that researchers show how their work has influenced a wider public, a new breed of expert has sprung up — the writer of “impact case studies”, and popular accounts of research. Such beings are employed by university departments to magically transform the leaden prose of academics into engaging, easily accessible text. Small independent companies have emerged, offering their services to research grant holders, with promises of wide international dissemination, and the ability (to paraphrase the famous beer ad) to engage audiences other media cannot reach. The idea that scientists and researchers more generally should engage with the general public is of course not new.

Even the idea of a specially trained mediator has deep roots. In 1928 the journal Public Health (which had started life in 1888 as the journal for Medical Officers of Health), carried the text of a lecture delivered to the Northern Branch, by Daniel Polson, editor of The Evening Chronicle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, advising members on how to use the press to further their work and to reach the general public. “Progress,” he argues, “is impossible without publicity” and “[o]ne of the most remarkable developments in press life in recent years is the system of what is called ‘making the press,’ and of using the press for the furtherance of outside policies.”[1]

Although there were long traditions of scientists using the press for publicity or political purposes, what Polson is alluding to here is a new self-conscious awareness on the part of professionals of the need to be seen in the media.   Polson suggests it is the Medical Officers of Health civic duty to use the press: “After all, we are governed by public opinion, and public opinion cannot govern unless it is well informed.”   Such a requirement should not be too daunting since there were “many ways in which medical news can be dressed up to make interesting, and at the same time, informative reading for the lay mind.”   Polson hastens to reassure his audience that medical officers themselves need not do such “dressing”; they were required simply to make their contributions as easy to read as possible, and then leave it to be “dressed up by men who are trained to produce the finished article in a way which will attract the eye and the brain.”[2] By placing themselves in the hands of the professionals, medical men could reap the rewards of high quality visual presentation, and enticing, accessible prose.

The responses of the assembled doctors were largely favourable, although there were worries about “stunts” being pulled; as one doctor commented, “A medical officer of health had only to say something sensational, and it would appear prominently in the press.”   There were also concerns that junior doctors might try to use newspapers to generate publicity for their work, in order to obtain undeserved promotion.   Such anxieties about “self-advertisement” link back to the debates of the late nineteenth century when (as forthcoming research on this project by Sally Frampton will show), the medical colleges attempted to prevent their members from writing in popular medical journals, amidst concerns that such writing could undermine the new-found status of the profession.

In the sphere of public health this created a particular tension: the development of preventive medicine depended on the success of medical officers and other interested professionals in engaging public interest, and shifting individual and institutional patterns of behaviour.   From the 1850s onwards, Sanitary Associations were set up in towns across the country, and there were many hectoring, and patronising pamphlets produced.   Not all attempts at reaching out to public audiences were so misjudged, however.   The meteorologist G. J Symons, who created a wonderfully non-hierarchical network of over 3000 rainfall observers (see was also exceptionally active within the national Sanitary institute.   In his 1879 address to the annual Sanitary Congress, as President of the Meteorology, Geology and Geography Section, he stresses the need for engaging the public, and anticipates the sceptics’ questions: “what is the use of making three days of it, and having a lot of dry scientific papers of no use to anybody, and incomprehensible by any but dreadfully scientific people?”[3]   His answer is a firm rebuttal of this view. There is no such thing, he argues, as a separation between “science and practice” and he goes on to show how meteorological understanding is fundamental to daily life, from ventilation in theatres to the positioning of houses. His vision is of a general public deeply engaged in issues of health and the environment, and willing to give their own time to help record and improve their environmental surroundings.

Perhaps the most successful vehicle for engaging the public with issues of public health was the publication by the Leeds surgeon and sanitary campaigner, Thomas Pridgin Teale, Dangers of Health: A Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects. First issued in 1879 it went through various editions and was translated into multiple languages (including into German by Queen Victoria’s daughter, H. R. H. Princess Christian).   W. H. Auden later recalled that it was one of his favourite books in his ‘Nursery Library’ (and he lamented that he had lent his copy to John Betjeman twelve years previously and it had not yet been returned).[4]   Teale’s work arose out of a lecture he had given at the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in 1877, and such was its subsequent popularity, he decided to work with a Leeds artist, G. W. Foster, to produce an illustrated guide to sanitary defects that might be found in the home.   Although it sounds potentially deathly, the book is deliberately comic (in part), with each defect accompanied by anecdote and illustration, from the overtly farcical to the wryly humorous.   The young Auden was perhaps captivated by the tale of the butler who failed to appear with the wine, because he had fallen into a disused cesspit in the cellar.


More subtle is the representation of the woman superintending drainage work for her shooting box in the Highlands with “One eye for her work, and another for the workmen” (with the double entendre surely intended).


The “Jerry builder” buying seconds, is instantly recognisable by his louche, unprofessional demeanour.


The dangers of building on contaminated land are aptly captured both in the illustration and slogan ‘Terrace of the Future on the Refuse of the Past”, suggesting that the health dangers that face us today are simply new versions of the problems confronted in the nineteenth century.


Teale also used his volume to promote one of his own inventions, a Window Ventilator in the Roof of a Brougham, enabling a busy doctor to have enough light and ventilation to read his book (or is that an ipad?) in comfort between calls.


Teale’s work skilfully attracts both “eye and brain”, drawing in a wide audience for the rather unlikely subject of household sanitary defects.

In recent years there has been a turn to animations as a way of capturing the essence of recent research and communicating it in a playful way to a wide audience (see, for example, ‘Jet Plight’   For my money, Thomas Pridgin Teale is hard to beat.   In his campaigns for improvements in the education system, he also produced one of the most resonant book titles of all time:   Hurry, Worry and Money: The Bane of Modern Education (1883).[i]   What else is there left to say?


[i]   See Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford: OUP, 2010) for a discussion of this work.

[1]   Daniel Polson, “The Press and Education in Health,” Public Health 41 (1927-28), 360-64, p. 362.

[2]   Polson, “Press and Education,” 362.

[3]   G. J. Symons, “Presidential Address, Section III, Meteorology, Geology and Geography,” Third Congress, Croydon 1879, Transactions of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain I (1880), 173-89, p. 173.

[4]   Edward Mendelsohn, “A Note on Auden’s ‘Nursery Library,” W. H. Auden Newsletter 22 (Nov. 2001), 36-38.

“Why are Medical Journals so dull?” A Potted History of Tedium in Medical Journalism

In 1958, the endocrinologist Richard Asher wrote a provocative article for the British Medical Journal lamenting the lacklustre and boring style of the modern medical journal: “Medical Journals are dull; I do not think there is any doubt about it” the doctor declared. Asher complained of the drab and colourless design of journals and the endless articles they contained that were tediously long and authored by those who “have nothing to say, and they do not know how to say it”. [1] Despite the acid humour, Asher was voicing genuine concerns about the readability of medical journals. The problem, as he saw it, was that the coldly impersonal and obscure language of modern science was making medical writing unintelligible; doctors were vanishing from their own narratives only to be replaced by reams of diagrams, tables and esoteric, anonymised ramblings.


Cartoon from an 1883 issue of Punch. Wood engraving by Charles Keene. (Wellcome Library, London)

Anxieties like Asher’s, about the literary merits of journalism, were not new among doctors. That medical periodicals could be dry, dreary and under-read was a perennial discussion point in the nineteenth century. In 1823 when the medical weekly the Lancet was first published by the surgeon Thomas Wakley, it caused a flurry of controversy by upturning the traditional style of the medical journal.[2] Wakley’s unauthorised publication of the lectures of high-profile hospital surgeons provoked the wrath of the medical elite, while his exposés of medical scandals and sharp-tongued tone attracted immediate attention from practitioners across the country as well as the wider public. Wakley’s journalistic strategy was risky, and the informal style of the Lancet was used by its detractors to denigrate it. One rival journal criticised the Lancet’s approach as little more than a ploy to attract more readers, opining that “where one reader attends to a dry record of facts, ten we know will be gained by embellishings”.[3] But Wakley was banking upon a demand among practitioners and students for a journal that provided something more than the staid case reports and long-winded communications which the existing medical monthlies and quarterlies were filled with. It was a risk that paid off, with the Lancet outselling its rivals in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nonetheless publishers and editors remained acutely aware of the risk of losing readers with unappealing content. It was well understood that the lifestyle of the medical practitioner was not one that left much room for reading. Many doctors struggled to make a living, meaning that purchasing medical literature was hardly a priority for most. Often practitioners simply did not have the time to read due to the demands of their work. Thus the editorials of new medical journals frequently made claims to entertaining, easily digestible content suited to the needs and desires of the overworked doctor. When the London Medical Circular began in 1852, for example, its editor hoped only that the journal would “form pleasant and useful reading for an occasional half-hour”, believing most doctors did not wish to waste the limited reading time they had with “the perusal of a voluminous paper”.[4]

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a growing industry in popular health journalism, with a wave of new titles on sanitation and domestic hygiene flooding the literary market. These journals were more closely aligned with the dynamics of contemporary journalism than the medical weeklies, many embracing the trend towards light, readable and entertaining literature suitable for the increasingly literate populace. Publications like The Hospital, which had an audience drawn from both the medical profession and the public, criticised the Lancet and British Medical Journal for their publication of complex and overly long articles; the more lively tone of the popular journals was making the medical weeklies vulnerable once more to accusations of dullness.[5] In 1883 Punch published a caricature (above) which tells us something about the way in which medical journals were perceived by the public; a man at a club is reading the Christmas edition of the Lancet much to the disappointment of his friend. Entitled ‘”Depressing!” the man’s friend encourages him to put the journal down and enjoy a game of Pyramids instead. Partaking of medical literature, its pages filled with death and disease, was being ridiculed as a rather gloomy way to spend one’s time.

Who and what are medical journals for? And what duty do medical journals have to make their content readable and entertaining? Discussions about the role scientific journals have historically played in the circulation of knowledge have not left much room for the question of readability. But journal audiences were not untouched by the need for well-written content. In medicine at least, this has long been an issue, and one that draws out other lines of inquiry, from the ways in which time-poor, overworked doctors access information, to the manner in which medical periodicals have been influenced by broader trends in journalism. With the shift in the last few years towards open access models of publishing and large repositories of pre-print manuscripts, the role of the scientific journal is coming under renewed question.[6] Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal has argued that journals connected to associations (such as the British Medical Journal is) should forget altogether about focusing on original research, of which many members may have limited interest, and instead on producing a “cheap and cheerful publication that will entertain their members so that they are pleased to receive and read it”. [7] A number of medical journals now have patients involved as contributors, editors and peer-reviewers, and this also has implications for their tone and content.[8] The literary style of the medical journal is not simply an aside to the ‘real deal’ of journal content, but can actively shape the ethos, audience and financial fortunes of a publication.

[1] Richard Asher, “Why are Medical Journals so Dull?”, British Medical Journal 2 (1958):502-503.

[2] Michael Brown ‘”Bats, Rats and Barristers’”: The Lancet, Libel and the Radical Stylistics of Early Nineteenth-Century English Medicine’, Social History 39 (2014): 189-209.

[3] “Hospital Reporting,” London Medical Gazette 1 (1828): 697. As quoted in Carin Berkowitz, Charles Bell and the anatomy of reform (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016): 84.

[4] “Address to the Reader,” London Medical Circular 1 (1852): 1.

[5] “The Hospital to its Readers,” The Hospital 22 (1897): 2.

[6] Aileen Fyfe et al, Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research (2017)

[7] Richard Smith, “The death throes of national medical journals,” BMJ Opinion (March 2nd 2016).

[8] Richard Smith, “The trouble with medical journals,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (2006): 115-119.

Orchid Observers Publications

The Orchid Observers project has been cited in a journal article and book chapter, both co-authored by Dr John Tweddle, Head of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, Natural History Museum London.

Orchid Observers is one of the projects analysed in Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. The article was published in Biological Conservation, Volume 208, April 2017 pages 87-97 and is available to read here.

Orchid Observers is cited as an innovation case study in the chapter Citizen Science: Authentic Science Research at the Natural History Museum, In: Museum Participation: New Directions ForAudience Collaboration, edited by Kayte McSweeney and Jen Kavanagh.  (Published April 2016).