Category: Speaking

Plague Movie

I recently had the chance to talk to the sixth-graders at Friends’ Central Schoolabout the Black Death. I really enjoyed translating scholarship on the plague into terms that middle-school students would both understand and enjoy. Some of it is easy—Gabriele de’ Mussis’s account of plague-infested corpses catapulted[1] into Kaffa, for instance:

The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.

Boccaccio’s discussion of the pigs that died of the plague in Florence was also popular:

This pestilence was so powerful that it spread from the ill to the healthy like fire among dry or oily materials. It was so bad that it could be communicated not only through speaking or associating with the sick, but even by touching their clothing or anything else they had touched. What I must say here is so strange that if I and others had not seen it with our own eyes I would hesitate to believe it, let alone write about it, even if I had heard it from trustworthy people. The pestilence spread so efficiently that, not only did it pass from person to person, but if an animal touched the belongings of some sick or dead person it contracted the pestilence and died of it in a short time. I myself witnessed this with my own eyes, as I said earlier. One day when a poor man had died and his rags had been thrown out in the street, two pigs came along and, as pigs do, they pushed the rags about with their snouts and then seized them with their teeth. Both soon fell down dead on the rags, as if they had taken poison.

I hoped to convey to them how quickly the plague moved through Europe. To do so, I put together a short film illustrating the spread of the plague. In this film, from 1347 until the end, each month takes about 2 1/2 seconds. This worked to show the rapidity of the spread at the outset and the gradual slowing over the years.

Initially, I set each month to 1 second, but I found that I didn’t have time to fill in details. So I slowed it down to give me more time to fill in relevant or interesting details.


  1. If we accept that de’ Mussis‘s account is accurate: The Tartar armies probably did not use catapults, which are generally incapable of hurling heavy objects very far. It seems more likely that the Tartars used something like a trebuchets, which can send much heavier objects much further.  ↩

Speaking at the Wagner

The Wagner looms over 17th and Montgomery.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit The Wagner Free Institute of Science and to speak to a group of students from Drexel University. As part of a class on the history of museums, they had spent considerable time at the Academy of Natural Sciences—last year Drexel acquired (the official term is became affiliated with) the Academy. A visit to the Wagner is a bit of a shift. In the first instance, the Wagner is in a very different part of town. Whereas the Academy is on the parkway, next to the Franklin Institute and across from the Free Library, the Wagner is in a largely residential neighborhood in north Philadelphia. And unlike the Academy, which still bridges the worlds of scientific research and museum display, the Wagner has had to relinquish its scientific efforts and concentrates now on being a “museum of a museum.” Even in its heyday the Wagner was very different from the Academy—it had different goals and served a different demographic.

The Wagner “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.”

Stepping into the Wagner feels like stepping into the past. As the webpage says, the museum “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.” The institute was founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a wealthy merchant who had amassed a large collection of natural specimens. He established his institute to bring science education to the masses. Admission and lectures were and remain free, and all lectures were held at times when working Philadelphians could attend. Initially, he housed his collection and held his lectures in his home. As his collections and his audiences grew, he had to find a new place for both. The current building was built in 1865. Later the first branch of the Free Library system in Philadelphia opened at the Wagner.

Famously, Joseph Leidy became the director of the Wagner in 1885, when William Wagner died. Leidy supported original research, which was published in the institute’s journal, The Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and reorganized the collections. Leidy used the collection to make a visible and physical argument for evolution. He grouped the organisms according to type and arranged them in cases of increasing complexity. He arranged the fossils according to their age. The result is a two-fold argument for evolution. In one half visitors encounter increasingly complex organisms. In the other half visitors move through geological time.

Knowing that Leidy reorganized the collection reveals how museums shape knowledge and provides a way to think about about how and why Leidy’s argument for evolution would have been compelling, about how artifacts deliberately arranged make an argument more powerful or persuasive. At first glance, the arrangement of artifacts seems natural—students today typically show up accepting some form of evolution, even if they can’t articulate it clearly. The challenge is getting students to understand that in reorganizing the collection Leidy redefined the important relationships between artifacts—what those artifact meant.

One way students can begin to see the deliberateness of the collection is by opening the drawers under the display cases. In a sense, the drawers contain the superfluous artifacts. They are the Wagner’s stores. Opening these drawers reveals the chaotic nature of unorganized artifacts and, consequently, the artificiality of organized specimens. Frequently the items in the drawers bear little relationship to those displayed in the case and have fascinating notes on scraps of paper identifying the objects. A number of drawers contain items “from Wagner’s original collection” that “have not been cataloged.” I try to get students to think about how the objects in the cases can be related to those in the drawers and why somebody chose to display some of the objects and not others and what would happen if everything were on display?

A visit to the Wagner is always a poignant reminder of the amount of effort and the resources needed to maintain a collection. One reason the Wagner is “the past itself” is because its endowment has never been sufficient to keep it up to date. It is a museum of a museum because its development ossified in the late 19th or early 20th century, when resources were too constrained to enable it to continue developing. It is an endearing image of the past because it couldn’t continue to be a reflection of the present.

Thoughts on Life, Sex, Death (and Food)

Last night’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food)” was great fun. Having gone through this once before, the people from the Philly Improv Theater and the returning academics had a better idea about how to prepare and set up the show. While it was still a bit hectic and last minute—something tells me such preparation is always hectic—we arrived early enough to have one quick run through and to test the equipment. Speaking just for myself, I will confess that I was a bit nervous until it was too late to worry any longer.

Paul and Patrick setting up.

More than 100 people showed up (I was told the event sold out) to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The audience seemed to be a nice mix of science-festival goers most interested in science, people looking for some laughs, and at least a handful of historians and historians of science. Judging from the laughs, the applause, and the number of people who stayed around after the show to talk with the historians of science as well as the comedians, the show seems to have been a success.

A recent ad for banana flavored milk.

Karen Reeds and Chip Chantry opened the evening with a funny bit on the banana as the perfect food. Karen explained how Linnaeus was able to grow the first banana in Europe. He enjoyed it so much that he thought it most likely to have been the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, he named it the Musa paradisiaca. Chip then recounted all the ways the banana was the perfect comedic fruit.

The “Hear Ye” reporter in the village.

I paired with Secret Pants, a sketch comedy group. I talked about how a small village in 16th-century England tried to understand how a woman could give birth to a dead, hairless cat and how they could prevent it from happening again. Secret Pants had put together a brilliant parody of the breaking news programs, sort of a 16th-century version of CNN: Hear Ye.

Michael Yudell and Asteroid! Covered Sex.

Michael Yudell teamed up with Asteroid!, an improv group. Michael spoke about sex—hysteria, sex toys, and Alfred Kinsey’s sex research. Between each topic Asteroid! stepped in to offer a humorous interoperation.

Elly Truitt and Emily & Micah McGraw on Death.

Finally, Elly Truitt paired up with Emily and Micah McGraw to talk about death. Earlier ideas about death make our binary understanding of life and death seem incredibly simple-minded. Elly explained how ideas about death and when somebody was actually dead varied across Europe. Moreover, richer people and saints seemed better able to avoid the inevitable, or at least to prolong a strange period of limbo between life and death.

Such a format is a bit odd for historians of science who are more comfortable in a classroom and with a captive audience of students. It also can feel a little strange giving up control of your material to comedians whose job it is to make fun of things. In the end, however, it provided a forum to reach beyond the walls of the academy and to engage a general audience.

History of Science and Comedy

When was the last time you got to see historians of science and comedians on the same stage together? For that matter, when was the last time you saw historians of science on stage? Come this Thursday to Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us and laugh with (or at) local historians of science and local comedians as they try to make the history of science engaging.

I am really excited about this event because I see it as a great chance to bring history of science to a broader audience and to make history of science interesting. Events like Life, Sex, Death (and Food) offer one way to combat the professional boredom that has attracted considerable comment lately. It can be uncomfortable because it challenges historians to give up some control over their material. But I think the payoff is worth the effort.

From last year’s event, “It Seemed Right at the Time”

Last year’s show, It Seemed Right at the Time, was a great program that featured a dramatic reading from Darwin’s Origin of Species, a mesmerizing introduction to, well, mesmerism, Benjamin Rush (okay, just an impersonator) and his miracle cure for Yellow Fever, fire-breathing ancient robots and medieval robots that “soaked the ladies from below,” witches and all things witchy, and an astrological explanation for the Frenchiness of Frenchmen. This year’s show promises to be as good as last year’s.

One cast of characters from this year’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food).”

I am taking part again this year. Also returning are Elly Truit from Bryn Mawr College (see her Medieval Robots blog), and Michael Yudell from Drexel University (he contributes regularly to The Public’s Health, a blog at Philly.com). Joining us is Karen Reeds (she recently curated a show Botanica Magnifica at the New Jersey State Museum). Once again the Philly Improv Theater is supplying the comedians. This year I get to work with Secret Pants. We spent a recent Saturday preparing for our skit. All of this is made possible thanks to the efforts of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science.

I want to join Michael Yudell in urging you to Join Us at the Philadelphia Science Festival. Turn up and see historians of science out of their element—on stage speaking to a public that chose to be there rather than a captive set of students. Or, as one of the comedians put it, come watch really funny people mocking academics.

The Philadelphia Science Festival runs from 21-29 April.

Life, Sex, Death (and Food) is part of the Philadelphia Science Festival, which started yesterday and runs until next Sunday. See the full calendar for a list of more than 100 events for all ages.
[A slightly different version of this post is here.]