Welcoming a New Team Member!

Americans, Scientists, and non-American non-scientists: I’m very excited to be joining the AmericanScience team from my new home in Philadelphia, where I’ll be spending the next few months reading, writing, and—of course—blogging about all things history of science. I’m a PhD candidate in the Program in the History of Science at Princeton University, where I work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural history in a (mostly) global context. My interests, which range from Victorian botanical exploration to entomological museum displays, are decidedly less “modern” and physical sciences-based than the other bloggers on AmericanScience. Nevertheless, I hope that the discussions that will be had over the coming months will broaden not just my own dissertation work, but will deepen the historical bent of the blog as a whole.

I came to the East Coast by way of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I got my B.A. in the history of science, medicine, & technology with a minor in African studies. Over the past few years, I’ve focused my work on various strange species that challenged nineteenth-century conceptions of what it meant to be human, blurring boundaries between plants and animals, races and genders. Beginning with an exploration into Victorian explorer Paul du Chaillu’s gorilla-hunting expedition into West Africa, my research moved into studies of butterflies, the “stuff of séances” in Victorian spiritualist circles, and, most recently, Cryptogams and other plants that confounded men of science and oftentimes ended up in the hands (and hothouses) of women. My dissertation (at this early stage of conception) tracks several “reproductively confusing” species of plants—corpse flowers, mosses, deadly nightshade, and the like—from islands to museums and gardens, from field collection to preserved herbarium sheets and living hothouses, in an effort to understand the changing aesthetic, gendered, sexualized, and scientific practices and material cultures of nineteenth-century botany.

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about a range of historical topics (with presentist hooks) in the life sciences and in museum studies. Expect histories of pioneering natural history institutions (I just finished a stint at the New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute); of traveling men and women in pursuit of fame, beauty, and fortune; of the practices (and challenges) of display and scientific “popularization”; and of how science might interact with analyses of art and aesthetics from the eighteenth-century to now. I look forward to interacting with you and welcome suggestions of topics you’d like me (or any other team members) to approach. I also welcome suggestions of where to eat, drink, and read in West Philadelphia.

–Elaine Ayers

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