Report from the Conference
The annual meeting of the History of Science Society has returned to Canada, meeting this year in Montreal, Quebec. The conference attracts an international crowd of presenters and attendees who come to discuss a wide spectrum of topics within the history of science. This year the group is meeting in conjunction with the Philosophy of Science Association.
Tonight’s evening session was certainly one of the highlights of the first full day of programming: “Psychology in the 20th Century” ran during the 7:30-9:30pm time slot. Jeremy Blatter (Harvard University) opened the session with a discussion of Hugo Munsterberg’s use of film as a venue to promote and popularize psychology. The presentation included a clip that illustrated what participants would have seen in some early psychological research that used film. Blatter also mentioned an extension of the project for which he is recreating the psycological test films that Munsterberg created for Paramount based on the remaining archival material relevant to the project. Next was Brian Casey’s (National Institute of Health) talk on re-emergence of psychosurgery in the 1970s and the relationship between the National Institute of Mental Health and society. Some of the many elements Casey highlighted was how the psychosurgery story showcases how the NIMH weathered the anti-psychiatry movement and their role in civil rights history. Jason Richard Miller (UCLA) discussed Henry Murray’s development of the Thematic Apperception Test and the role he played with the OSS during the war as an aid to recruitment. Finally, Justin Garson (University of Utah) ended the evening with a talk about the physiologist Edgar Adrian, who won the Nobel prize in 1926 for recording the electrical activity of a single neuron, and his use of terms such as “information”, “message”, and “signaling” to describe nerve action. Garson suggested that one of the elements that prompted Adrian to use these communication analogies was earlier research conducted in the field with vacuum tubes.
This afternoon I also attended a great session: “Objects of Science, Objects of Culture: Models and Specimens in 19th Century Natural History”. Although not directly psychological in terms of topic, I think AHP readers would have been interested in the discussion of how the use of an object determines its interpretative properties (and how this can change depending on place, time). For instance, Margaret Olszewski’s (University of Toronto) talk on Auzoux’s botancial models highlighted the use of the same models at Cornell and Mount Holyoke. She found that while Cornell used (and reportedly continues to use) the models in botany lessons as a tool to learn scientific practice, the same models at Mount Holyoke did not become intergrated into the classroom environment in the same way nor did they succeed in moving the learning environment indoors and, in effect, served more as an object of culture. Ruthann Dyer’s (York University) talk in the same session, “Tusks at Tufts”, also highlighted this distinction through the fascinating story of the fate of Jumbo, P.T. Barnum‘s giant African elephant, and his rebirth as a material object.
My own presentation today on the display of the material culture of asylums and psychiatric hospitals preventing me from seeing several talks that were being presented at the same time this afternoon but looked to be extremely interesting:
Elise Juzda (University of Cambridge): “The Rise and Fall of British Craniometry, 1860-1900”
Sherrie Lyons (Empire State College): “Taking Fringe Science Seriously: Examining the Connection between Phrenology and Evolutionary Theory”
Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau (University of Cambridge): “Frozen Bodies: Representations of Catalepsy in French 19th-Century Medical Texts”
Stephanie Shirilan (Syracuse University): “Allegrifying the Spirits’: Scholarly Melancholy and Study as its Cure in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.