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Think Piece

The Taste of Water

By Luna Sarti

On platforms aiming to disseminate knowledge to a broad audience, water is often defined as a “colourless, transparent, odourless liquid” which is at the basis of the fluids of living organisms (the Oxford dictionary). At times, popular definitions can include reference to its “tasteless” quality (Wikipedia). Such understanding of water as being “naturally” devoid of flavor, color, or odor informs not only standard definitions but also our expectations for particular forms of water. These characteristics that are ascribed to “pure” water, in fact,  play a crucial role in the development of drinking habits in contemporary societies. It is not by chance that popular, international filtering companies like Brita advertise filters that are able to provide “water with a great taste” by removing unwanted flavors such as chlorine and limescale, and thus produce drinking water that is flavorless and supposedly closer to an ideal conception of pure water.  Through processes of filtration, water flowing from the tap is transformed into better tasting water.  This process of re-making aims to obtain that tasteless quality that characterizes a certain imaginary around water in its pure form.

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Snapshot from the Brita website (2019)

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary values associated with drinking water lies in the contradictory expectations that are activated by tap water and mineral water. While the quality of tap water is assessed on parameters that privilege the absence of taste, there is a strong culture that views particular waters as unique and valuable on the basis of their properties, composition, and flavor. Tap water is deemed good when devoid of flavors, whereas bottled waters are advertised and highly valued because of their peculiar mineral flavors. When comparing attitudes towards tap and bottled waters, “great tasting” can signify both the absence and the presence of distinct flavors.

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Snapshot from the S. Pellegrino Website (2019)


In his book Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table, historian and food studies scholar Massimo Montanari identifies a similar distinction when analyzing medieval attitudes toward the flavors of water. According to Montanari, the Middle Ages inherited from ancient science the idea that “water itself has no taste” even if it “potentially contains them all” (123). This conception of “pure water” as being tasteless is indebted to a long history in Western natural philosophy that dates back to Greek and Roman traditions, from Empedocles to Democritus and Anaxagoras up to Aristotle, Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. Nevertheless, Montanari shows how in medieval tradition this conception of water did not translate into parameters for the consumption of water. On the contrary, while the water most recommended by dietary manuals was rainwater, a broad range of cultural practices existed “aiming at combating the ‘banality of water’ by altering it with additives of various kinds and playing with the temperature when served – modifying in essence the ‘natural’ state of the product” (123).


Other scholars of medieval water culture, such as Squatriti in his article “I pericoli dell’acqua nell’alto medioevo italiano” (The dangers of water in the High Middle Ages), agree with Montanari in stating that in Roman tradition ‘pure water’ was viewed as “a simple drink that was consumed by women, children and slaves, and by the lower class” (590) and that this conception continued to play a crucial role in medieval attitudes toward drinking water. Thus, while Greek and Roman natural philosophers identified water in its pure state as being tasteless, colorless, and odorless, they did not usually rank this form as the preferred kind for drinking. On the contrary, they simply viewed taste as a parameter to distinguish and classify the multiplicity of its forms on earth while establishing a connection between flavor, properties, and effect. In the Natural Questions Seneca for example described a wide range of flavors, from sweet to pungent, without structuring a rigid hierarchical system.

All waters are still, or running, or collected, or occupy various subterranean channels. Some are sweet (dulces), others have flavours that are disagreeable in different ways (asperae); among them are the salty (salsae), the bitter (amarae), and the medicinal (medicatae). In the last category I mean sulphur, iron, and alum waters. The taste indicates the properties. They have many other distinctive qualities in addition. (Book 3, 2.1-2. Translated by Thomas H. Corcoran)

Seneca’s “system of flavors” is derived from Aristotle and characterizes the Middle Ages together with the idea that waters can naturally acquire different flavors as a result of their interactions with different soils. This, too, is a widespread conception in natural philosophy which was already present in canonical texts from Aristotle and Hippocrates to Pliny the Elder. Similar descriptions and explanations for waters on the basis of their flavors can be found in many other authors such as Frontinus, Augustine, Isidore of Seville, and Bede the Venerable.


Looking at the contradicting standards for classifying waters from this historical perspective, we can view contemporary attitudes towards drinking water as being informed by values and assumptions with a long history in Western tradition. Moreover, the apparent contradiction that emerges in assessing “good water” both through its “flavorlessness” and its unique taste can be seen as the consequence of the development and transformation of qualitative systems of flavors and thus in relation to what each flavor signifies in a specific cultural context.

A water sommelier describing the range of flavors that are associated with different bottled mineral waters. 

In this sense, we could ask why today limescale and chlorine are culturally positioned as being “bad flavors” that must be removed while other flavors are not only to be appreciated but also to be understood as “good”. In the specific case of chlorine, for example, detecting its distinct smell and taste activates our awareness of the invisible processes that go into the making of tap water, such as disinfection and chemical treatment. On the contrary, mineral waters are presented as being made by nature, in spite of the fact that this process of making is the result of chemical interactions. The perceived category of the natural seems to play a crucial role in determining this distinction between “good” and “bad flavors”.

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Snapshot from the Ferrarelle website (2019)

Although water departments release data on water quality and use complex biological and chemical markers to assess water quality, research supported and spread by the International Water Association reveals how aesthetic criteria such as color, flavor, and odor represent the main parameters used by consumers to assess water quality (see for example Franco Doria et al.). Considering that taste plays a crucial role in determining if water users decide whether or not to drink tap water (and being mindful of the resources invested in producing tap water), it is worth reflecting on the complex cultural and historical legacy that determine such decisions, rather than positioning “aesthetic perception” as being anti-scientific and thus requiring just policies for scientific literacy. Further comparative historical research could help illuminate what values inform contemporary systems of flavors in relation to water.


Luna Sarti is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.” 

Featured Image: Photo by author.

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Think Piece

John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo

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John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.

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Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.

 

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Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.

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Think Piece

Functional Promiscuity: The Choreography and Architecture of the Zinc Gang

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

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Zinc Finger DNA Complex, image by Thomas Splettstoesser

 

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Andreas Sigismund Marggraf

The tale about gag knuckles, taz-two, hairpin, ribbons, and treble clef is quite elusive.  Although they sound more like nicknames of a 1920’s bootlegging gang (at least to me) they are the formal nomenclature of a biochemical classification system, known commonly as zinc fingers (ZnF). The taxonomy of zinc fingers describes the morphological motif that the element creates when interacting with various molecules. Macromolecules, such as proteins and DNA, have developed numerous ways to bind to other molecules and zinc fingers are one such molecular scaffold. Zinc, an essential element for biological cell proliferation and differentiation, was first isolated in 1746 by the German chemist Andreas Marggraf (1709-–1782). Zinc fingers were important in the development of genome editing, and while CRISPR remains king, zinc is making a comeback.

 

Strings of amino acids fold and pleat into complex secondary and tertiary structures (for an overview, see this video from Khan Academy).

 

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Fig. 1: The folding funnel

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Fig. 2: The energy landscape

Proteins with zinc finger domains—meganucleases—act as molecular DNA scissors, always ready to snip and organize genetic material. The return of these biochemical bootleggers, an older generation of genome editing tools, is due to the problem of exploring the invisible molecular world of the cell. In this age of genomic editing, biologists are debating the concept of protein stability and trying to elucidate the mechanism of protein dynamics within complex signalling pathways. Structural biologists imagine this process through two intermingled metaphors, the folding funnel (fig. 1) and the energy landscape (fig. 2). The energy landscape theory is a statistical description of a protein’s potential surface, and the folding funnel is a theoretical construct, a visual aid for scientists. These two metaphors get scientists out of Levinthal’s Paradox, which argues that finding the native or stable 3-dimensional folded state of a protein, that is, the point at which it becomes biologically functional, by a random search among all possible configurations, can take anywhere from years to decades. Proteins can fold in seconds or less, therefore, biologists assert that it cannot be random. Patterns surely may be discovered. Proteins, however, no longer seem to follow a unique or prescribed folding pathway, but move in different positions, in cellular time and space, in an energy landscape resembling a funnel of irregular shape and size. Capturing the choreography of these activities is the crusade of many types of scientists, from biochemists to molecular biologists.

 

Within this deluge of scientific terminology is the zinc atom of this story.  With an atomic number of 30, Zinc wanders in and out of the cell with two valence electrons (Zn2+). If Zinc could speak it might tell us that it wishes to dispose, trade, and vehemently rid-itself of these electrons for its own atomic stability. It leads with these electrons, recalling a zombie with outstretched arms. It is attracted to molecules and other elements as it moves around the cytoplasm and equally repelled upon being cornered by others. Whilst not as reactionary as the free radical Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2), it certainly trawls its valency net in the hope of catching a break to atomic stasis, at least temporarily. In this world of unseen molecular movements a ritual occurs as Zinc finds the right partner to anchor itself to. Zinc trades the two electrons to form bonds making bridges, links, ties and connections which slowly reconfigure long strings of amino or nucleic acids into megamolecules with specific functions. All of this occurs beneath the phospholipid bilayer of the cell, unseen and unheard by biologists.

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Model of a Zinc atom

The cell itself is an actor in this performance by behaving like a state security system, as it monitors Zn2+ closely. If the concentration gets too high, it will quarantine the element in cordoned-off areas called zincosomes. By arranging chains of amino acids, such as cysteine and histidine, close to each other, the zinc ion is drawn into a protein trap, and held in place to create a solid, stable structure. They connect to each other via a hydrogen atom, with hydrogen’s single electron being heavily pulled on by Carbon as if curtailing a wild animal on a leash. In the 1990s, when the crystal structures of zinc finger complexes were solved, they revealed the canonical tapestry of interactions. It was notable that unlike many other proteins that bind to DNA through the 2-fold symmetry of the double helix, zinc fingers are connected linearly to link sequences of varying lengths, creating the fingers of its namesake. Elaborate architectural forms are created.

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Zinc Finger architecture, image from Miller, J.C. et.al., An improved zinc-finger nuclease architecture for highly specific genome editing. Nature Biotechnology 25, 778-785 (2007).

Like a dance, one needs hairpins, or rather beta-hairpins, two strands of amino acids that form a long slender loop, just like a hairpin. To do the gag knuckle one needs two short beta-strands then a turn (the knuckle), followed by a short helix or loop. Want to be daring, do the retroviral gag knuckle. Add one-turn alpha-helix followed by the beta hairpin. The tref clef finger looks like a musical treble clef if you squint really hard. First, assemble around a zinc ion, then do a knuckle turn, loop, beta-hairpin and top it off with an alpha-helix. The less-complex zinc ribbon is more for beginners: two knuckle turns, throw in a hairpin and a couple of zinc ions. Never witnessed, biologists interpret this dance using x-ray crystallography, data that looks like redacted government documents, and computer simulated images.

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X-ray crystallography of a Zinc Finger Protein, image from Liu et al., “Two C3H Type Zinc Finger Protein Genes, CpCZF1 and CpCZF2, from Chimonanthus praecox Affect Stamen Development in Arabidopsis,” Genes 8 (2017).

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Aaron Klug

In the 1980s, zinc fingers were first described in a study of transcription of an RNA sequence by the biochemist Aaron Klug. Since then a number of types have been delimited, each with a unique three-dimensional architecture. Klug used a model of the molecular world that required stasis in structure.The pathway towards this universal static theoretical framework of protein functional landscapes was tortuous. In 1904, Christian Bohr (1855–1911), Karl Albert Hasselbalch (1874-1962), and August Krogh (1874-1949) carried out a simple experiment. A blood sample of known partial oxygen pressure was saturated with oxygen to determine the amount of oxygen uptake. The biologists added the same amount of CO2 and the measurement repeated under the same partial oxygen pressure. They described how one molecule (CO2) interferes with the binding affinity of another molecule (O2) to the blood proteins, haemoglobin. The “Bohr effect” described the curious and busy interactions of how molecules bind to proteins.

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Jacques Monod and François Jacob, image by Agence France-Presse

In 1961, Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob extended Bohr’s research. The word ‘allosteric’ was introduced by Monod in the conclusion of the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium of 1961. It distinguished simultaneously the differences in the structure of molecules and the consequent necessary existence of different sites across the molecule for substrates and allosteric regulators. Monod introduced the “induced-fit” model (proposed earlier by Daniel Koshland in 1958). This model states that the attachment of a particular substrate to an enzyme causes a change in the shape of the enzyme so as to enhance or inhibit its activity. Suddenly, allostery erupted into a chaotic landscape of multiple meanings that affected contemporary understanding of the choreography of zinc as an architectural maker. Zinc returned as the bootlegger of the cellular underworld.

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The “induced-fit” model

Around 2000, many biologists were discussing new views on proteins, how they fold, allosteric regulation and catalysis. One major shift in the debate was the view that the evolutionary history of proteins could explain their characteristics. This was brought about by the new imaginings of the space around the molecules as a funnel in an energy landscape. When James and Tawfik (2003) argued that proteins, from antibodies to enzymes, seem to be functionally promiscuous, they pulled organismal natural selection and sexual selection theory into the cellular world. They argued that promiscuity is of considerable physiological importance. Bonding of atoms is more temporal and more susceptible to change than thought of before. Whilst they recognized that the mechanism behind promiscuity and the relationship between specific and promiscuous activities were unknown they opened the door to a level of fluidity earlier models could not contain. Zinc fingers, thus, played an important role in being a “freer” elements with the ability to change its “mind”.

These ideas were not new. Linus Pauling proposed a similar hypothesis, eventually discarded as incorrect, to explain the extraordinary capacity for certain proteins (antibodies) to bind to any chemical molecule. This new wave of thinking meant that perhaps extinct proteins were more promiscuous than extant ones, or there was a spectrum of promiscuity, with selection progressively sifting proteins for more and more specificity. In 2007, Dean and Thornton, reconstructed ancestral proteins in vitro and supported this hypothesis.  If the term promiscuity as it has been placed on these macromolecules sticks, what exactly does it mean?  If promiscuity is defined as indiscriminate mingling with a number of partners on a casual basis, is zinc an enabler? A true bootlegger? This type of language has piqued the interest of biologists who see the importance of this term in evolution and the potential doors it opens in biotechnology today. Promiscuity makes molecular biology sexy.

To state that a protein, or any molecule, is not rigid or puritanical in nature but behaves dynamically is not the equivalent of stating that the origin of its catalytic potential and functional properties has to be looked for in its intrinsic dynamics, and that the latter emerged from the evolutionary history of these macromolecules.  The union of structural studies of proteins and evolutionary studies means biologists have not only (re)discovered their dynamics but also highlights the way that these properties have emerged in evolution. Today, evolutionary biologists consider that natural selection sieves the result, not necessarily the ways by which the result was reached: there are many different ways of increasing fitness and adaptation. In the case of protein folding with zinc fingers, what is sieved is a rapid, and efficient folding choreography. These new debates suggest that what has been selected was not a unique pathway but an ensemble of different pathways, a reticulating network of single-events, with a different order of bond formation.

If the complex signalling pathways inside of a cell begins with a single interaction, zinc plays a star role. Zinc, along with other elements such as Iron, are the underbelly of the molecular world. Until captured and tied down, the new view of proteins offers to bond mechanistic and evolutionary interpretations into a novel field.  This novelty is a crucial nuance to explain the functions and architecture of molecular biology. As the comeback king, zinc fingers are used in a myriad of ways. As a lookout, biologists infected cells with with DNA engineered to produce zinc fingers only in the presence of specific molecules. Zinc reports back as biologist looks for the presence of a molecule, such as a toxin, by looking for the surface zinc fingers rather than the toxin itself. Zinc fingers are obstructionists. In 1994 an artificially-constructed three-finger protein blocked the expression of an oncogene in a mouse cell line. As informants, they capture specific cells.  Scientists have experimented by creating a mixture of labeled and unlabeled cells and incubated them with magnetic beads covered in target DNA strands. The cells expressing zinc fingers were still attached to the beads. They introduce outsiders into the cell, such as delivering foreign DNA into cells in viral research. In tracking these bootleggers, scientists have pushed the limits of their own theories and molecular landscapes, but have landed on promiscuity, a culturally laden, inherently gendered word.

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Intellectual history

“To seek God in all things”: The Jesuit encounter with botany in India

By contributing writer Joseph Satish V

Only a month after India gained independence from the British in 1947, the Indian botanist Debabrata Chatterjee wrote of his

hope that in the new India the Government will… effect among other things the early revival of the Botanical Survey of India. If it is possible to recruit men of knowledge and qualities of those giants of the past… no man of science in India need doubt that the revival of the Survey would be of the greatest help and of far-reaching benefits to India.

In 1954, the first independent Government of India appointed the taxonomist Hermegild Santapau as its Chief Botanist and Director.  Santapau had a PhD in Botany from the London University, had worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (England), was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, editor of the Journal of the Bombay Museum of Natural History, and a Professor of Botany. His services to reviving botany and science education in the country were recognized with the award of the Padma Shri from the Government of India. But this “giant” was neither British nor Indian — he was a Catholic Jesuit priest from Spain. Fr. Santapau was only one of the many Jesuits who established a legacy of “Jesuit science” in India after the religious order was “restored” in 1814.

Ignatius at the River Cardoner - By Dora Nikolova Bittau in Chapel of St Ignatius, Seattle University
Ignatius at the River Cardoner .By Dora Nikolova Bittau, in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University

The Society of Jesus is a religious congregation of Catholic clerics founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in 1540. Only two years later, Francis Xavier (1506-1552), one of Ignatius’ first companions, reached Goa on the western coast of India. When Ignatius died sixteen years later, the number of Jesuits had grown to a thousand members around the world. With a unique “way of proceeding“, the Jesuits established themselves firmly in secular culture — arts, astronomy, anthropology, even naval architecture — all “for the greater glory of God“. However, the growing influence of the Jesuits in the Church, State, and society caused resentment in many of Catholic Europe’s nations (chiefly Portugal, Spain, and France), which led to the Suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Forty-one years later though, Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814.

Scholarship in the history of the Jesuits has witnessed a significant shift in the past few decades. Since the 1980s, the number of non-Jesuit (also non-Catholic) scholars interrogating what has come to be called “Jesuit science” has increased. Historians of Jesuit science have generally explored the relationship between the Jesuit missionary goals and their scientific activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often portraying the Jesuits as ‘transmitters’ of European science to the colonies in the New World. Steven J. Harris’s description of early modern Jesuit science continues to be used as a universal description of Jesuit science across space and time. But some scholars have begun arguing the case for a more nuanced engagement with regional variants of Jesuit science.

Dhruv Raina explains that the European Jesuits who arrived in South Asia not only transmitted European science but also discovered, collected, and interpreted indigenous knowledge in the colonies. Agustin Udias argues for a broader exploration of Jesuit science in the post-Restoration period beyond Europe. It is worth exploring, even briefly, why post-1814 Jesuit science is considered different in comparison to early modern Jesuit science.

After 1814, the “new” Jesuits of the restored Society found themselves in an alien scientific landscape, which, among other things, was characterized by the emergence of specialized disciplines and “professionals” who were paid to pursue science. Subsequently, the Jesuits reinvented themselves as a teaching order in schools and colleges across the world. But they were forced to shift from the eclectic scientific tradition of their past to the new disciplines like seismology in North America and the “new botany” (laboratory-based botany research) in England and Germany. It was also in this period that the Jesuits returned to India – a group of Belgian Jesuits came to the eastern coast and set up the Bengal Mission in 1834. Later in 1837, the French Jesuits established the Madurai Mission in southern India. While the sixteenth-century Jesuits interacted with Hindu kings and Mughal emperors, now the Jesuits were obligated to cooperate with the British Empire. However, one feature remained common to the scientific enterprise of the “old” and the “new” Jesuits in India: collecting plant specimens.

Harris notes that medical botany – identifying local plants and their benefits for health reasons – was fairly consistent across all the early Jesuit missions. In India, the Jesuits in early modern Goa acquainted themselves with the native medical traditions – the Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta (1500-1568) provided the first instance of the exchange between European and Ayurvedic medical systems. The early Jesuits to India lived as pilgrims, moving between villages and kingdoms, and evangelized the natives. In the process the Jesuits gained knowledge about the local customs, including that of native plants which they consumed as food or medicine. The restored Jesuits were no longer evangelizers but educators of the evangelized. They established training houses (novitiates) for teaching candidates for the priesthood (novices) in subjects that included philosophy, theology as well as the natural and physical sciences. Training in the natural sciences included collecting, identifying and preserving different flora and fauna. Yet, the focus on nature and the sciences was not only necessitated by the educational mission of the Jesuits; it was an integral part of their “spiritual” training.

Ignatius of Loyola believed that one could experience God in the natural world. He writes in his autobiography that he had spiritual experiences while gazing at nature, be it the stars in the night sky or the Cardoner river in his native Spain. Ignatius maintained notes of these experiences, reflected upon them, and later felt that “some things which he used to observe in his soul and found advantageous could be useful also to others, and so he put them into writing”. This took the form of a series of contemplative exercises called the Spiritual Exercises which later became the foundation for the compulsory spiritual training of the Jesuit novices and continues to be so.

The goal of the Spiritual Exercises was (and is) to help the Jesuit to identify his vocation in life. Guided by a spiritual director in solitude, the novice was urged “to use his senses, particularly sight to fix their mental gaze upon the scene of the meditation” during each exercise. Following this, the novice was expected to write down notes of his contemplative experience, like Ignatius did, and maintain an “observational” record of his spiritual experiences. The acme of the exercises was the ‘Contemplation to Attain Love‘ in the Fourth Week where the novice was asked to consider: “… how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them existence; in the plants, giving them life; in the animals, giving them sensation; in human beings, giving them intelligence …” This tradition of contemplating “how God dwells in” nature remained unchanged in the restored Society. This along with an emphasis on silence and solitude encouraged Jesuits to establish their formation houses amidst pristine natural habitats. It was for this reason that the French Jesuits established their novitiate in Shembaganur (1877) close to Kodaikanal, a south Indian hill station favored by the British.

Hand painted plate by Anglade 1919 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy
Hand painted plate by Anglade, 1919. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Less than a decade before the Shembaganur novitiate was established, the British taxonomist Joseph Dalton Hooker had completed his botanical expedition in the Himalayas and published several illustrated flora (1871). The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew outside London became “the center of a worldwide network of colonial gardens”. Acknowledging these developments, the French Jesuits (who had already received some training in the natural sciences in Europe) promoted the teaching and learning of the biological sciences at Shembaganur. A part of the novice’s education also included plant taxonomy; the novices had to venture into the nearby Palni hills to identify and collect plant specimens. The young novices had several Jesuits to guide and inspire them. Pierre Labarthere (1831–1904)  cultivated botanical gardens on the novitiate premises (of course, with the help of the novices). Emile Gombert (1866–1948) collected orchids and established a garden dedicated to orchids (which survives till date). Louis Anglade (1873–1953) documented local plants through a collection of nearly 2000 paintings. George Foreau (1889–1959) assembled a collection of mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi while Alfred Rapinat (1892–1959) collected flowering plants and ferns. These Jesuits and the young novices often sent plant specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for proper identification. Santapau, though not a resident of Shembaganur, had begun his life’s work at the Kew Garden. Soon enough, the French Jesuits encouraged the young novices to interact with Santapau, who was then in the Jesuit college of St. Xavier’s at Bombay (1940). It was only expected that the younger Jesuits would follow his botanical legacy.

Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills 1903 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy
Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills, 1903. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy.

As a young novice at the Sacred Heart College, KM Matthew (1930-2004) was acquainted with botanical surveys in Shembaganur. With the nomination of Santapau to the Botanical Survey of India, Mathew was encouraged to pursue his doctoral research with the senior botanist. In 1962, under the supervision of Santapau, KM Matthew became the first Indian Jesuit to acquire a PhD in botany, focusing on the alien plants of the Palni Hills. In 1963, another pupil of Santapau, Cecil Saldanha (1926-2002) was awarded his PhD for his thesis on Taxonomic Revision of the Scrophulariaceae of Western Peninsular India. Like Santapau, both the Jesuits made significant contributions to plant taxonomy: KM Mathew published the four-volume Flora of Tamil Nadu Carnatic (1981-1988) while Saldanha published Flora of the Hassan District, Karnataka (1976).

Matthew and Saldanha were among the first Indian Jesuits to engage with science in a globalized, industrial era, where science and technology came to be seen as intertwined with “social, political and cultural issues of societal relevance”. Observing the wider implications of modern science and technology for the Catholic Church, its bishops observed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that “if these instruments (of science and technology) are rightly used they bring solid nourishment to the human race”. After Vatican II, the Jesuit Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) named the first delegate for what came to be known as the “scientific apostolate” of the Jesuits. In 1979, the Jesuit scientists of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka came together to organize the first ever meeting of south Asian Jesuit scientists. Responding to a report of this meeting, Arrupe noted the “apostolic aspect of the Jesuit [s]cientist’s work” and emphasized the need for Indian Jesuits “to reflect more on Indian problems”. This provides a hint of how the “new” Jesuit scientific activity became “localized” in the backdrop of the Catholic Church’s wider embrace of modern science and technology. Further investigation of how Jesuit science is manifested locally in the context of a global missionary ethos is required, especially with respect to Jesuit botany in southern India.

Contemporary Jesuit botanists in India have widened their horizons beyond the plant taxonomy of their French mentors. This engagement has extended into specialized terrains like molecular systematics and agricultural biotechnology for solving “Indian problems” like drought, crop pests and diseases, extinction of native flora, and deforestation. While Jesuits have also ventured into the twenty-first century (and contentious) disciplines like genetic engineering, there is little scholarship on how the trajectory of Jesuit biological sciences evolved in India. The establishment of the Shembaganur novitiate and the arrival of European Jesuits like Santapau signify a milestone for exploring the dawn of post-Restoration Jesuit science in southern India.

The election of the first Jesuit Pope (Francis) in 2013 has renewed interest in Jesuit studies. Historians of Jesuit science and historians of post-colonial science could consider stepping into this uncharted domain of why the quintessential Jesuit botanist did what he did in independent India. Young historians of Jesuit science must wonder why then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi observed after Santapau’s death in 1970 that:

In Rev. Fr. Santapau’s death we have lost an eminent scholar who has served education and science for over 40 years. His deep love for India urged him to become a citizen of the country. He had a great knowledge of, and concern for, our plant wealth and wrote intensively on it for experts and laymen. May his memory long continue to inspire all those interested in our flora.

Joseph Satish V is a PhD student in Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) at the Centre for Knowledge, Culture and Innovation Studies (CKCIS), University of Hyderabad, India. His research focuses on the work of Jesuit scientists in the botanical sciences in independent India.

Categories
Dispatches from the Archives

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus

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Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.

 

 

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John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.

 

Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.

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Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.

 

 

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Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.

 

The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

Categories
Intellectual history

Review Essay: Caomhánach on Hamlin, Milam, and Schiebinger

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

Kimberly A. Hamlin. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Erika Lorraine Milam. Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Animals, History, Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Londa Schiebinger. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Although women were excluded from the biological sciences, women were very much on the minds and the scientific research of the men who excluded them. The three books under review explore gender and natural history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and European society. I argue that the books form a triad of analytically distinct interlocking pieces about the construction of sexual difference as a means of excluding women from the public sphere and science.  The authors use the categories of science, class and gender, not because they perceive them as natural, but because they recognize that these categories form lines of historical power. Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (2014) examines how American feminists responded to and integrated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Gilded Age America. Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (2010) presents the history of post-Darwin biological research on the concept of female choice, showing how men were mediators between biology as a body of knowledge and society. Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science explores how the gender-binary has molded biology since the eighteenth century. This triad demonstrates how science reinforced the binary of gender and created associated traits, how science is not external to culture but forms a symbiotic relationship that reflects societal and political order, and how biology “is not value neutral but participates in and continues to support scientific knowledge that is highly gendered” (Schiebinger x).

Sexual Difference and the Rank of Woman

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Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick, 2004).

Schiebinger argues that “scientific sexism” (xi), related to the concepts of the masculine and feminine, co-evolved with the emergence of modern biology. She shows the roots of sexual difference as being created by elite men who “read nature through the lens of social relations” (17).  When Hamlin’s Darwinian feminists challenged, and Milam’s (male) biologists tackled this sexual difference, they provide additional support for Schiebinger’s argument that the gender binary had become fully ingrained into society. Schiebinger explains how Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735) created a hierarchical system of the natural world. Although contemporary naturalists recognized his scheme being artificial, he placed female traits (pistils) into the rank of order and male traits (stamens) into the rank of class. In the “taxonomic tree of life”, order was subordinate to class (Schiebinger 17). In taxonomy, traits mattered; Linnaeus prioritized male traits for identification. Schiebinger argues that Linnaeus had “ no empirical justification” (17) for this decision and here lay the origins of gendering science.

For Hamlin, the Bible created the gender binary. Hamlin argues that the biblical creation narrative, for Darwinian feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was “the single most powerful barrier to female equality” (49). The legacy of Eve had shaped conceptions of womanhood. When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were published, these texts enabled woman’s rights activists to upend traditional ideas about gender roles. Hamlin shows how Darwin’s Origin provided the ideal “ballast” to fight this legacy by offering an alternative narrative of human origins (52). This new theory enabled woman’s rights activists to use objective science to subvert the assumptions that women were created from Adam’s rib and, therefore, subordinate to men.

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Erika Lorraine Milam, Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (Baltimore, 2010).

Milam argues that Darwin’s sexual selection theory was “built on his assumptions about normative relations between men and women” (10). Darwin argued that the “psychological continuity of all animal life” proved sexual difference and supplied the reason why women were intellectually inferior to men (Milam 11). Darwin applied Victorian gender roles to nature, suggesting that females were “less eager” to mate and acted “coy” and “passive” to the aggressive, hypersexualised male (Milam 15). As males competed for females, females chose males. This implied a “rational choice-based behaviour” (1) of aesthetics which required an intelligent mind and “in such cerebral evaluations lay the problem” (15).  Biologists were hesitant to ascribe to animal minds this cognitive ability and reframed female choice as a reaction to male dominance. The female body, thus,  became the site of analysis.

Animal-Human Kinship and the Female Body

Schiebinger demonstrates how the masculine morphology in humans became representative of the normal form and the feminine an anomaly. Linnaeus delimited hairy, lactating quadrupeds as being mammals (Mammalia); at first this seems to invert Schiebinger’s argument but she shows how this descriptor did not elevate the feminine. It was a patriarchal lesson for women to return to their natural functions, such as breastfeeding and motherhood. As naturalists became obsessed with the primate order— Linnaeus coined the term “primates,” meaning “of the first rank,” in 1758 (Schiebinger 78)—they reinforced notions of sexual difference along the animal-human continuum.  Schiebinger argues that a focus on female primates’ primary and secondary characteristics advanced the masculine form as rational and intellectually superior. Milam explains that the biologist’s model of the female assumed they were naturally passive and always  “needed stimulation to persuade them to mate” (34). Biologists never questioned the male-female binary. The research of scientists Vernon Kellogg, Julian Huxley, and the Fisher-Haldane-Wright triumvirate rarely focused on female choice because they felt that Darwin’s natural selection theory sufficiently explained female-male interactions.

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Kimberly A. Hamlin, From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (Chicago, 2014)

Hamlin explains how this animal-human kinship model supported Darwinian feminists’ demand for the equitable division of household labor, “fit pregnancy” (98), and ability to work outside the home because gendered differences did not characterize the animal kingdom. Hamlin shows how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Antoinette Brown Blackwell declared the separate-spheres ideology a man-made construct. When Darwinian feminists argued that women as mothers could improve the genetic stock of the human species, it became a powerful tool for women to claim a natural right to reproductive autonomy. Hamlin notes that Margaret Sanger’s fight for autonomy over the female body and her birth control movement was shaped by these popular discussions. Milam shows how biology was intrinsically at odds with popular discussions of evolutionary theory.  Biologists and physiologists struggled to frame female choice, and thus they dismissed it as a viable mechanism in nature because females were limited in cognitive ability.

Science as a Male Pursuit

Hamlin shows how science became an “unwitting ally” (17) for Darwinian feminists and states that it metamorphosed into a “sexist science” as it increasingly “professionalized and masculinized” (59). Schiebinger, however, finds that science was always exclusionary. Schiebinger shows that botany was considered suitable for upper-class women, but they did not have the ability to shape biology.  Hamlin argues that women did shape science. Blackwell and Helen Hamilton Gardener tried to redefine the female “mind-body dualism” by asserting their distrust in the research findings of male scientists (59). Blackwell suggested that women needed to create the “science of feminine humanity” (60) because to study female bodies “one must turn to women themselves” (62). As science gained more cultural authority, Hamlin argues, Darwinian feminists played an active role in shaping science because they rejected biological determinism and demanded accurate research. Milam’s book provides historical evidence that biology was a male pursuit and women were always excluded.

Conclusion

These authors show that biology is not a neutral practice but emerges from complex cultural and political networks. They are impressive books that shed light on the development of modern biology and the popularization of evolutionary science by dethroning notions of objectivity in science, providing  a significant contribution to gender and science studies.