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Saturday, 27 July 2013

A brief taste of the ICHSTM in Manchester

The International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine took place in Manchester this week and is still going on. While I didn't have the time - or the stamina! - to attend the whole week-long event, I did get in a very enjoyable day and a half of participation.

I travelled up on Tuesday afternoon, had a preliminary meeting with the other members of the two-panel symposium The science of man? Bounds of knowledge in the twentieth century within which I was presenting my thoughts on Naomi Mitchison engaging with the issues around reproduction and breeding which had been so salient in her own life, and in the circles in which she moved, in her late-life move into science fiction. I then attended the Civic Reception in Manchester Town Hall, a neo-Gothic monument to Victorian municipal pride: very crowded, rather hot, and the acoustics/PA system not perhaps all they could have been for the speeches, but I managed to spot, and chat with, some people I knew.

The next morning I popped into 'Governing minds and bodies with the human sciences' in order to catch Alice White's fascinating paper on Constructing consensus: human relations and the War Office Selection Boards in World War II but then panel-hopped into Expanding women’s sphere: knowledge and the re-definition of women’s work in the twentieth century and stayed with this for the following session, in which I found Rosemary Wall's paper on British nurses in the field of tropical medicine of particular interest.

The 'Science of Man?' symposium on Wednesday afternoon went very well, I thought (kudos to Graham Baker for organising this) and I thought raised issues about complexity, muddle, and definitions that recurred in the following morning's papers. Sometimes looking back we draw lines and create categories that were not there, or at least not taken into account, by the people there in the past moment. And thinking about Graham's paper on Julian Huxley, the useful interrogation of the mainline/reform eugenics dichotomy suggested to me that this (like Old/New Feminism in the 1920s) has perhaps outworn its usefulness.

There was an excellent reception in the Fossil Gallery at the Manchester Museum to launch WISRNet - I think sipping fizzy wine (and eating delicious canapes) under a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Stan adds tone to an event, even before the splendid inaugural speech by Ludmilla Jordanova.

On Thursday morning I made a special effort to get up in time to get checked out my hotel and to the conference venue to catch the first session of the symposium From patronage to biotech: new perspectives on medicine and commerce. Given my own research interests, I was particularly excited by Claire L Jones' work on the supply and marketing of contraceptives in Britain in the late C19th-earlyC20th, as I have long felt that understanding of the industry and its activities has been a major lacuna in the history of birth control. Even if artificial contraception played less of a part than previously thought in bringing about population decline, enough people must have been using it to make manufacture and distribution a profitable, if marginalised and stigmatised, commercial proposition. All three papers were looking at forms of health activity within the home: I am interested to see where James Stark's work on the Overbeck Rejuvenator goes!

I then ventured into the Science as Public Culture revisited symposium session on media, which again, was indicating that narratives of science have tended to impose a clear but sometimes simplistic picture of what was actually happening. I did perhaps want to suggest, in response to Katherine Pandora's lovely paper, that there are some instances of the laboratory becoming an intimate and perhaps quasi-familial space rather than an austere location for the solitary scientist (e.g. Honor Fell at the Strangeways, and her 'tea ceremony' for researchers there). Also, on thinking further about Rebecca Onion's intriguing work on environmentalism in children's picture books, early 1970s, I wonder if this relates to wider issues of children's literature expressing concerns over contemporary problems, but also to the longer tradition of didacticism and purpose in books for children.

All in all, a very stimulating experience which has provided me with a lot to keep thinking about.

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