Scent Track

Today’s guest post is written by Ann-Sophie Barwich, Ph.D., scholar in the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program at the Center for Science and Society, Columbia University. Her work is on current and past developments in olfactory research (1600 to today). On Wednesday, April 26, Barwich will give her talk, “Scent Track: What can the History of Olfaction tell us about Theorizing in the Life Sciences?” To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

Scientific interest in the senses has always been preoccupied with vision and its underlying mechanisms. In comparison, smell is one our least understood senses. This may sound surprising given the importance of smell in flavor perception. Human cuisine represents one of the most central elements of human culture. While the cultural history of scent has gathered sufficient attraction in the humanities and social sciences, its scientific history has yet to be told.

Many of the central research questions about the characteristics of olfaction remain unresolved even to date. How do we classify smells? How many smells are there, and is there such a thing as olfactory primaries? Modern research on smell was revolutionized with the discovery of the olfactory receptors by Linda Buck and Richard Axel in 1991. Their discovery presented the key causal entity to model the molecular basis of smell and granted them the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine. Since then, olfaction started to emerge as a modern model system in neuroscience.

Nonetheless, records of scientific theorizing about the material basis of odor reach much further back. These hidden experimental records of research on smell offer us an intriguing, yet untold, history of creativity in scientific reasoning. For large parts of the history of science, scientific approaches to smell were faced with its apparent lack of testability. An inherent difficulty for odor description and classification is that sense of smell is incredibly hard to study in a controlled setting. How do you visualize and materialize odor to turn it into an object of objective measurement and comparison? In reply to these questions, several answers were developed from various disciplinary perspectives throughout the past centuries. These ideas present a hidden heuristic source for widening our theoretical understanding of smell even today.

Figure1

Linnaeus’ classification of odors in medicinal plants in his Clavis Medicinae (1766).

My talk reconstructs a conceptual history of materiality that has informed scientific approaches to smell, and I analyze this material history of olfaction by three stages. First, smells are investigated as “objects in nature,” drawing on 18th-century expertise in botany and horticulture that arranged odors according to their diverse plant origins. Botanical classifications, such as in Linnaeus’ Odores Medicamentorum (1752) and Clavis Medicinae (1766), conceptualized odors as objects in nature. Here, the affective nature of smell was investigated with regard to the medicinal powers of plants. Meanwhile, perfumers have always experimented with odorous plant substances but their knowledge was a well-kept secret. Some records, such as George William Septimus Piesse’s The Art of Perfumery (1857), illustrate that these practices addressed the various possibilities for the material manipulation of odorous substances (e.g., through mechanical force, solvent extraction, distillation). They further conceptualized the psychological effects of odor by analogy with other sensory qualities such as taste, color, and sound. Can we blend odors like colors? Can we understand the harmony between odor notes in parallel with musical chords?

Figure2

Analogy of odors with sounds to define harmonic chords in perfumery. Source: Piesse 1857, The Art of Perfumery.

Second, smells are framed as “objects of production” in light of the industrialization of perfumery after the rise of synthetic chemistry at the end of the 19th-century. In earlier chemistry, smells were modeled as immaterial spirits that represented vital forces, such as in the Spiritus Rector theory by Herman Boerhaave. This theory was soon abandoned by a more mechanistic causal understanding of odorous particles, especially after Antoine-François de Fourcroy’s extraction of urea as the ‘smelling principle’ of horse urine. This discovery of the chemical basis of odors and its subsequent exploration with the rise of synthetic chemistry presented a fundamental conceptual liberation of smells from their plant origins. New scents, sometimes even unknown in nature, were now produced in the laboratory.

Figure3

Vanillin was first synthesized by Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann in 1874. It’s synthesis, illustrated above, was further refined by Karl Reimer in 1874. Source: Wikipedia (Yikrazuul).

Third, the introduction of molecular visualization and computational techniques in the 20th century abstracted smells further from their natural origins, and this advancement laid the foundation for smells to turn into what Hans-Jörg Rheinberger calls “epistemic objects.” This transformation signifies the integration of smell into the growing scientific domain of biochemical science. Confronted with the sheer diversity of chemical structures responsible for odor qualities, the classification of smells now required the integration of two seemingly separate data sets: a stimulus classification of chemical similarity on the one hand and an ordering of perceptual classes on the other. In this context, the food scientist John Amoore proposed a classification of five to seven primary odors in the 1960s and 1970s.

While this classificatory strategy was soon rendered too simplistic, it provides one of the earliest expressions of a central question in modern olfactory research: How does the chemical basis of odors relate to their perceptual quality? Can we predict smells from the molecular structure of their stimuli? Notably, this question remains open but of central scientific interest today.

Join us on Wednesday, April 26 to learn more about this topic. To RSVP to this free lecture, click HERE.

 

De Revolutionibus

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

Today marks the 543rd birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born February 19, 1473 at 4:48pm.1 What better way to celebrate his birth than to look at his seminal work: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). The library owns a 1566 second edition.

The work was originally published in 1543, a few months before Copernicus’ death and the same year that Vesalius published his Fabrica. That year is considered by many scholars to be “the veritable annus mirabilis of the sixteenth century.”2 This miraculous or amazing year was a culmination of late Renaissance humanistic thinking. Indeed, Copernicus was a true renaissance man; he was a scholar, physician, clergyman, and astronomer.

Cover photo: Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.

Cover photo: Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.

Yet Copernicus was reluctant to publish De revolutionibus; his pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus, had to convince him to do so. Copernicus feared the controversy that would come if he published that the Sun was the center of the solar system. At the time, the Church was burning people at the stake for their views on Aristotle.3 De revolutionibus expounded upon Ptolemy’s idea of planetary motion from his treatise Almagest. As one biographer questioned: “Did Copernicus fail to see that he was pushing the dear Lord out into the infinite void?”4

Copernicus, a bishop himself, did have the support of two other bishops, Nicholas Schönberg and Tiedemann Giese, both of whom encouraged him to publish his work. Schönberg wrote an encouraging letter stating: “I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology … I entreat you … to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars…”5

According to historian Guy Freeland, “Copernicus was cautious about printing his treatise on the motion of the earth because the act of printing was politically and epistemologically loaded; and while he seemed to understand enough about politics of knowledge at the time to attempt to control the reception of his work, he failed to grasp the ways in which that politics was being affected by printing.”

Title page of our 1566 edition of De Revolutionibus.

Title page of our 1566 edition of De Revolutionibus.

The publication of the Revolutions caused Copernicus great anxiety. He feared that “the devoted research of great men, should not be exposed to contempt of those who either find it irksome to waste effort on anything learned, unless it is profitable, or if they are stirred by exhortations and examples of others to a high-minded enthusiasm for philosophy, are nevertheless so dull-witted that among philosophers they are like drones among bees.”6

Copernicus passed away at the time of publication, “and so he was spared the shame of the failure of his Revolutions.”7

There was no immediate backlash or threats. Really, there was no major upheaval until later scholars began unfolding its contents. First in the 1580s by Giordano Bruno, forty years after its publication. Bruno would later be burned at the stake for his heretic ideas. Then Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton all followed suit.8 What made the work so revolutionary was the widespread interest and attention from outside the sciences and “certain embellishments contributed by other men.”9

De revolutionibus is divided into six books. Here are images taken from each section of our 1566 edition, alongside translations and explanations from Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.

Click on an image to enlarge and view the gallery:

References

1. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.

2. Freeland, G. 1543 and All That. Dordrecht ; Kluwer Academic Publishers; c2000.

3. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.

4. Ibid.

5. Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.

6. Freeland, G. 1543 and All That. Dordrecht ; Kluwer Academic Publishers; c2000.

7. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.

8. Armitage, A. Copernicus: The Founder of Modern Astronomy. London: George Allen & Unwin, LTD; 1938.

9. Drake, S. Copernicus philosophy and science: Bruno – Kepler – Galileo. Norwalk, CT: Burndy Library; 1973.

The Private Lives of Galileo

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

February 15, 1564, is Galileo’s birthday according to the Julian calendar; in our Gregorian calendar the date is February 26. Our collections hold two of his books published during his lifetime: Dialogues on two world systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632) and Discourses on two new sciences (1638). The first was the book that got him into trouble with the Church, eventually leading to his sentencing and house arrest for his defense of Copernicus’ sun-centered astronomy. The second was in a sense his vindication, a physical treatise that was a summation of his investigations into the strengths of materials and the motions of bodies. As Galileo was forbidden to publish, the manuscript was smuggled abroad and appeared in Leiden, away from the censoring arm of the Church.

The mid-nineteenth century saw a flowering of biographical works on Galileo and other scientists. Biographies of scientists allow many things to happen: first of all, they become the occasion to do some popular science writing. Second, they often lend themselves to a progressive narrative, positioning a discovery, insight, or theory into a triumphant march of knowledge and improvement, undertaken against regressive forces of oppression. Finally, biographies provide narratives that shed light on individual motives and character, holding up personal qualities as keys to broader cultural and social understanding.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).  Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Nineteenth-century biographies of scientists did all three. But often they did so in ways that defy our expectations.

One early effort in English was David Brewster’s The Martyrs of Science (1841), subtitled “The Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler.” A noted Scottish natural scientist (who had written a biography of Isaac Newton some 10 years previously), Brewster refused to follow the usual script for discussing Galileo: noble scientific reason versus conniving religious superstition. While the theme of “science versus religion” was present in his biography, a stronger argument was that Galileo brought his calamities on himself, and all the worse for the rest of us! Galileo evinced cowardice for giving in to the Inquisition: “what excuse can we devise for the humiliating confession and abjuration of Galileo?”1 Adding cowardice to his rashness, his sarcasm, and his boldness, Galileo ensured that the cause of truth—the reality of Copernicus’ sun-centered system—was set back for centuries:

One of the most prominent traits in the character of Galileo was his invincible love of truth. . . . His views, however, were too liberal, and too far in advance of the age which he adorned; and however much we may admire the noble spirit which he evinced, and the personal sacrifices which he made, in his struggle for truth, we must yet lament the hotness of his zeal and the temerity of his onset. . . . Under the sagacious and peaceful sway of Copernicus, astronomy had effected a glorious triumph over the dogmas of the Church; but under the bold and uncompromising sceptre of Galileo all her conquests were irrecoverably lost.2

After Brewster’s book, Galileo studies began in earnest, notably in Italy in the 1850s and ’60s. Of particular interest was Galileo’s correspondence with his daughter, a Franciscan nun, Suor Maria Celeste.3 Twenty-seven of her letters were published in Florence in 1852, and 121 in 1863. The correspondence formed the basis for an anonymously published biography, The Private Life of Galileo (1870). The author was Mary Allan-Olney, an Englishwoman, about whom nothing more has been found except her books: the novels, Junia (1878), Estelle Russell (1880), and Harmonia (1887); a two- volume travel narrative of life in Virginia under Reconstruction, The New Virginians, (1880); and The Private Life of Galileo.

Allan-Olney_PrivateLifeOfGalileo_1870_watermark

Title page of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870. “Galileo’s Tower” is his house at Arcetri, outside Florence, adjacent to the convent where his daughters resided, and where he remained under house arrest after his condemnation.

Allan-Olney focused her biography on the celebrated trial. The biography’s backdrop was the first Vatican conference, running 1868 through 1870, which affirmed the infallibility of the Pope. She wrote that Galileo’s sentence had not been signed by the Pope, thus leaving it in the realm of the fallible!4 She concluded her book with two appendices, translations of the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s abjuration.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Just as Brewster wished to make character the touchstone of the story, so did Allan-Olney. She saw Galileo as paterfamilias, benevolent toward his pupils as well as his children and family.5 And if rashness and ambition were Galileo’s besetting sins according to Brewster, for Allan-Olney these were a too-generous spirit and a naiveté towards the ways of the world. She brings out the richness and softness of the letters that Suor Maria Celeste wrote her father (his letters have not survived), and highlights the generosity that Galileo showed to his son, daughters, and pupils. If Galileo has “secret enemies in court” and is subject to the “ill will of the Jesuits”6, he nonetheless supports his extended family, often in the face of their ingratitude. His pupils no less benefited from his generosity, as Allan-Olney often attests, but in their case it was from his generosity of mind:

This letter [sent by pupil Paolo Aproino] is another instance of the undying attachment which Galileo’s pupils felt toward their great teacher. Aproino refers to the time he spent in Padua while studying mathematics under Galileo in terms of enthusiasm, and thanks God daily “that he had for his master the greatest man the earth had ever seen.”7

Allan-Olney ends her biography with these words:

Pages might be filled with expressions of gratitude and affection such as these, culled from the correspondence of Galileo’s disciples. And truly, the great master himself might adjudge them to be of higher value as a testimony to his merit, than the marble monument under which his body now lies in Santa Croce [church, in Florence].8

To this day, Galileo sparks interest—two major biographies were published within the last five years.9 And, like these two 19th-century authors, each writer needs to come to terms with the man behind the story. Only these days, character is not held to be the key.

References

1. Brewster, Martyrs, p. 94.

2. Brewster, Martyrs, pp. 117–18.

3. Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel (Walker Publishing Co., 2001), especially p. xiii.

4. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 260.

5. The stretching of Galileo’s life to fit a mid-19th-century ethic shows its strains. The hero of this story, Galileo, showed his concern for his daughters—all three of his children were illegitimate, but his youngest, a boy, was legitimized to allow him a place in society—by placing them as vowed nuns in a monastery when they were 13 and a bit younger (the birthdate of the second daughter is in doubt). The letters between Galileo and his oldest child show signs of real affection, though, which Allan-Olney then uses as the center of her work.

6. These are chapter subheads in Private Life of Galileo.

7. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 208.

8. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 298.

9. John Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

The title page of Hooke's Micrographia.

The title page of Hooke’s Micrographia.

Robert Hooke was born on July 28 (O.S. July 18), 1635. To commemorate his birthday, we are featuring his book Micrographia as July’s item of the month.

Hooke published Micrographia in 1665 when he was 30 years old. At the time, Hooke was the curator of experiments for the Royal Society of London, which involved conducting several experiments a week and presenting them to the society. Hooke made many of the observations found in Micrographia through his activities for the society, and the Royal Society commissioned and printed the book.1

An extraordinary work, Micrographia details Hooke’s observations on objects as varied as the point of a needle, a louse, and the moon (he also utilized telescopes). The book includes 38 copperplate engravings of microscopic views based on Hooke’s drawings. Micrographia was not the first book of microscopic observations, but it was more successful and accessible than its predecessors. Who wouldn’t marvel at a close up shot of a flea?

Here is a selection of Micrographia’s plates (click to enlarge):

Fig. 1 shows a microscopic view of kettering-stone. In observation XV, Hooke notes, “We may here find a Stone by the help of a Microscope, to be made up of abundance of small Balls…and yet there being so many contacts, they make a firm hard mass…”

Fig. 1 shows a microscopic view of kettering-stone. In observation XV, Hooke notes, “We may here find a Stone by the help of a Microscope, to be made up of abundance of small Balls…and yet there being so many contacts, they make a firm hard mass…”

In his observation on cork, Hooke compared its structure to that of honeycomb and. He discovered plant cells, “which were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps that were ever seen…,” and coined the term “cell.”

In his observation on cork, Hooke compared its structure to that of honeycomb. He discovered plant cells, “which were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps that were ever seen…,” and coined the term “cell.”

For observation XXXIV, Hooke examined the eyes and head of grey drone-fly.

For observation XXXIV, Hooke examined the eyes and head of grey drone-fly.

Hooke seemed enamored with the white feather-winged moth, calling it a “pretty insect” and “a lovely object both to the naked Eye, and through a Microscope.”

Hooke seemed enamored with the white feather-winged moth, calling it a “pretty insect” and “a lovely object both to the naked Eye, and through a Microscope.”

The flea is one of several fold-out plates in the book. Again, Hooke has a scientist’s appreciation for the insect, commenting equally on its strength and beauty. He is particularly fascinated with the anatomy of its legs and joints, which “are so adapted, that he can…fold them short within another, and suddenly stretch, or spring them out to their whole length.”

The flea is one of several fold-out plates in the book. Again, Hooke has a scientist’s appreciation for the insect, commenting equally on its strength and beauty. He is particularly fascinated with the anatomy of its legs and joints, which “are so adapted, that he can…fold them short within another, and suddenly stretch, or spring them out to their whole length.”

In the last observations, Hooke turned his attention to celestial bodies. His study of the moon lead him to believe it might be covered in vegetation. He thought the hills seen in Fig. 2 “may be covered with so thin a vegetable Coat, as we may observe the Hills with us to be, such as the short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains.”

In the last observations, Hooke turned his attention to celestial bodies. His study of the moon led him to surmise that the hills seen in Fig. 2 “may be covered with so thin a vegetable Coat, as we may observe the Hills with us to be, such as the short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains.”

The National Library of Medicine’s Turning the Pages project has a selection of images from Micrographia available. It is well worth flipping through; you’ll find curator’s notes and you can even open the folded plates. If you are interested in looking at Micrographia in its entirety, contact us at history@nyam.org or 212-822-7313 to make an appointment.

Reference
1. Espinasee, Margaret. Robert Hooke. London: Heinemann, [1956].

NYC History of Medicine Events in October — Hildebrandt, Tresch, Largent, and Warner

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

This month sees an exciting line up of history of medicine (and science) events in NYC. In fact, almost a festival. Hope to see you at some or all…

On October 10, NYAM’s Malloch lecture series begins with an exploration of the practice of anatomy under the Third Reich, with Dr Sabine Hildebrandt discussing the impact and legacy of the 1933-1945 period. More details here.

At the NYPL’s Cullman Center, John Tresch discusses his new book “The Romantic Machine” on October 11. Tresch explores the connections between Romanticism and industrialization in Paris after Napoleon, drawing on examples from art, literature, opera, scientific discoveries, and technological advancements. Find details here.

On October 17, Mark Largent is appearing at NYAM to discuss his new book “Vaccine: The Modern American Debate”. In it he explores the history of the vaccine-autism debate and argues that it obscures a constellation of concerns held by many parents.  More details here.

And on Oct 18 the A.C. Long Health Sciences Library at Columbia will host Prof. John Harley Warner, who will speak on “The Image of Modern Medicine: Professional Identity, Aesthetic Belonging and the American Doctor, 1880-1950.” Prof. Warner focuses on the visual choices that American physicians made in representing their profession, their work, and themselves during 1880’s through the 1940’s. Details here.

Click for larger size (possibly disturbing) images from Prof. Warner’s work with James Edmonson, Dissection.


University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, 1895. European-American dissecting teams (left) and African-American teams (right) were racially segregated after the medical student body at the University of Pennsylvania was integrated. DHMC

More upcoming events can be found on our Calendar. Please feel free to get in touch at please email history@nyam.org if you have an event you would like to see featured.