Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Florence Nightingale: a pioneer of hand washing and hygiene for health



Helping the wounded.
Shutterstock/Everett Historical

Richard Bates, University of Nottingham

Florence Nightingale, who was born 200 years ago, is rightly famed for revolutionising nursing. Her approach to caring for wounded soldiers and training nurses in the 19th century saved and improved countless lives. And her ideas on how to stay healthy still resonate today – as politicians give official guidance on how best to battle coronavirus.

For example, although Nightingale did not fully subscribe to the idea that many diseases are caused by specific micro-organisms known as germs until she was in her sixties, in the 1880s, she was well aware of the importance of hand washing. In her book Notes on Nursing (1860), she wrote that:

Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day. If her face, too, so much the better.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856) Nightingale had implemented hand washing and other hygiene practices in British army hospitals. This was relatively new advice, first publicised by Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s, who had observed the dramatic difference it made to death rates on maternity wards.

Nightingale’s attention to international medical research and developments was just one factor behind her ability to make effective interventions in public health. Like many public health experts of her age, Nightingale considered the home to be a crucial site for disease-preventing interventions. This was the place where most people contracted and suffered from infectious diseases. (The same is true today: in Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak, around 75-80% of transmissions were reportedly in family clusters).

Nightingale’s book, Notes on Nursing (1860), was more of a public health instruction book than a nursing manual. It advised ordinary people how to maintain healthy homes – particularly women, in accordance with the worldview of the times. There was straightforward advice on everything from how to avoid excessive smoke from fireplaces (don’t let the fire get too low, and don’t overwhelm it with coal) to the safest material with which to cover walls (oil paints, not wallpaper).

Nightingale strongly counselled that people open windows to maximise light and ventilation and displace “stagnant, musty and corrupt” air. And she advocated improving drainage to combat water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

In her view, all domestic interiors must be kept clean. Dirty carpets and unclean furniture, she wrote with characteristic bluntness, “pollute the air just as much as if there were a dung heap in the basement”.

Notes on Nursing also called upon the “mistress” of every building to clean “every hole and corner” of her home regularly, for the sake of her family’s health. But Nightingale also recommended a more holistic approach to health. She encouraged soldiers to read, write and socialise during their convalescence so they would not sink into boredom and alcoholism.

Good data

During her youth, Nightingale’s father had introduced her to a leading practitioner of statistics, then a brand new academic field, and paid for her to have a mathematics tutor. During and after the Crimean War, Nightingale seized on statistics as a way of proving the effectiveness of different interventions.

She went on to produce her famous diagrams, which demonstrated the high proportion of soldiers’ deaths caused by disease as opposed to battle wounds, and became the first woman admitted to the London Statistical Society in 1858.

Thereafter she designed questionnaires to obtain data on such questions as the sanitary condition of army stations in India, or the mortality rates of aboriginal populations in Australia. Her guiding principle was that a health problem could only be effectively tackled once its dimensions were reliably established.

In 1857, around a year after returning from the Crimean War, Nightingale suffered a severe collapse, now believed to have been caused by a flu-like infection called brucellosis. For much of her subsequent life, she was racked with chronic pain, often unable to walk or leave her bed.

Working from home

Having been declared an invalid, she imposed a rule of seclusion on herself because of pain and tiredness rather than from fears of contagion – a form of self-isolation that extended to her closest family (though she still had servants and other visitors).

During her first years of working entirely from home, Nightingale’s productivity was extraordinary. As well as writing Notes on Nursing, she produced an influential 900-page report on the medical failings during the Crimean War, and a book on hospital design.

This was in addition to setting up the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas’ hospital in London in 1860, and a midwifery training programme at King’s College Hospital in 1861, plus advising on the design of a number of new hospitals.
Later in the 1860s, Nightingale proposed a reform of workhouse infirmaries to make them high quality taxpayer-funded hospitals; and also worked on sanitary and social reforms in India. All of this she accomplished without leaving her house (though government ministers sometimes came to her home for meetings).

Having said this, it is worth remembering that Nightingale’s was a privileged form of self-isolation. Her father’s fortune, derived from Derbyshire mining interests, meant she had no money worries.

She lived in a nice house in London with various assistants and servants to help, shop and cook for her, and had no children to look after. Her entire waking time could be devoted to reading and writing. So while this is an appropriate time to recall and celebrate the huge contribution Nightingale made to modern nursing and public health care, we shouldn’t feel too bad if we don’t quite live up to her high standards of isolated productivity.The Conversation

Richard Bates, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The hidden history of women’s filmmaking in Britain



Ruth Stuart, the filmmaker of To Egypt and Back with Imperial Airways (1933)
EAFA, Author provided

Melanie Williams, University of East Anglia

The history of women making excellent films but not having their achievements fully acknowledged stretches back a very long way. This was most recently seen in Pamela B Green’s documentary Be Natural about the “lost” foremother of film, Alice Guy-Blaché. The French-American filmmaker was largely forgotten in formative accounts of the history of cinema. This was despite her important innovations, including making what is arguably the first narrative film La Fée aux Choux (1896).

It is vital historical work to recover women’s filmmaking, which is always prone to being overlooked, downplayed or forgotten. Organisations like the Women Film Pioneers Project and the Women’s Film and Television History Network, alongside other initiatives and people, have laboured to prevent its erasure from the historical record, but there is always more to be done to ensure its preservation and celebration. Archiving is key to this.

The recently released report, Invisible Innovators: Making Women’s Filmmaking Visible across the UK Film Archives, strives to rewrite women into history. Commissioned by Film Archives UK, the report surveys work by women held in UK media archives and proposes strategies for making it more accessible. It suggests there are incredible riches waiting to be unlocked, and compelling stories that deserve to be more widely known.

Creative amateurs

Amateur film of various kinds constitutes a large proportion of those collections. Many are home movies, which women were actively encouraged to make at the advent of home movie-making technology in the early 20th century. This was because it was seen as an extension of their roles as wives, mothers and custodians of family keepsakes.

Although some amateur films might have interest solely as historical or familial records, others are much more aesthetically inventive. Such films suggest how filmmaking could become a vehicle for unleashing women’s creativity.

For instance, one of the most intriguing filmmakers discussed in the report is Ruth Stuart. A teenage prodigy, she was described as “the maestra of Manchester” by Movie Maker magazine after her 1933 travelogue To Egypt and Back (begun when she was only 16) and her 1934 apocalyptic vision Doomsday. Both won the highest accolades for non-professional work from American Cinematographer and Amateur Cine World.

However, a gendered double standard was in operation around the status of amateur film at this time. While amateur filmmaking could act as a launchpad for the professional filmmaking careers of talented young men like Ken Russell and Peter Watkins – who both went from amateur filmmaking to the BBC and onto acclaimed feature film production – no such leverage seems to have been available to their female equivalents, however talented. As such, Stuart’s filmography is frustratingly brief. Little is known about her life or why she appears to have stopped making films altogether by the 1940s.

Clearly some women relished their adventures as hobbyist filmmakers and enjoyed the freedom of amateurism. In the flourishing cine club culture from the 1930s to 1960s, women were key participants, and not merely as helpful companions or tea-makers. As early as 1928, an all-female amateur filmmaking team put together the madcap comedy Sally Sallies Forth. Featuring an all-female cast, it was a rare gynocentric achievement.

A still from the 1928 film Sally Sallies Forth.
EAFA, Author provided

More often women worked collaboratively with men, but this has resulted in systemic problems in their work’s attribution. When the prize-winning films made by married couple Laurie and Stuart Day were discussed in amateur film magazines, it was automatically assumed that Stuart was the main filmmaker and Laurie just his wifely assistant. Evidence from the films themselves seems to suggest that actually the reverse was true. However, these kinds of assumptions have impacted the cataloguing of films when deposited in archives, inadvertently effacing women’s contributions.

Films by female filmmakers to watch:

Women’s films should be a priority for digitisation, and archival catalogues and records should accurately reflect female contributors. If all relevant works across all film collections could be marked with an easily searchable term like “woman filmmaker”, it would really help to bring these women’s works out from the shadows.

Here are five films by female filmmakers that have been successfully digitised from the East Anglian Film Archive which give a flavour of the range and richness of women’s filmmaking across the 20th century:

  • Doomsday (1934): Ruth Stuart’s haunting vision of a very English apocalypse.

  • 1938, the Last Year of Peace (1948): Laurie and Stuart Day’s montage of memories of suburban family life just before the outbreak of the second world war.

  • England May Be Home (1957): A moving documentary about Italian migrant workers. Bedfordshire cine-club member Margaret Hodkin is part of the team behind this.

  • The Stray (1965): Marjorie Martin’s moody tale of an errant wife with laddered stockings returning to her taciturn shepherd husband.

  • Make-Up (1978): A hand-drawn animation about “putting on a face” from Joanna Fryer, who went on to work on The Snowman(1982).The Conversation

Melanie Williams, Reader in Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Crimean War



Bronze Age discovery reveals surprising extent of Britain’s trade with Europe 3,600 years ago



© Great Orme Mines Ltd

Alan Williams, University of Liverpool

Britain’s wrestling with the scope of its future trade links with Europe may seem a very modern phenomenon. But early trade between Britain and Europe was much more widespread than previously thought. Our new research reveals remarkable evidence of a copper-mining bonanza in Wales 3,600 years ago that was so productive that the metal reached France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Understanding Britain during the Bronze Age (c.2,400-800BC) relies entirely on archaeological research. During this period, agricultural communities combined stock rearing with cereal cultivation. While they constructed numerous circular monuments, evidence for settlement is generally scarce before 1,500BC and on a small scale. Despite this somewhat insular vision of scattered farming communities, there is growing evidence of strong trade or exchange links with continental Europe. What the nature of these contacts were, in a pre-monetary economy, remain a matter of debate.

Copper objects (daggers, axes) first appeared in Britain around 2,400BC and were associated with people arriving from continental Europe. According to recent DNA studies, these arrivals eventually replaced most of the preexisting Neolithic population over the following centuries.

Britain’s copper supplies initially came mostly from southwest Ireland – Ross Island. As this source became exhausted, around 1,900BC, however, small mines opened in Wales and central northwest England. Production in these mines was relatively small, and had to be supplemented with metal from the continent.

Palstave axe found near the Great Orme. It is a type associated with Great Orme metal.
© Great Orme Mines, Author provided

This all radically changed around 1,700BC, with the discovery of the exceptionally rich copper ores of the Great Orme mine on the north Wales coast. This was one of the largest Bronze Age copper mines in Europe. Probably in response to the sheer richness and easily-worked nature of the Great Orme ores, all the other copper mines in Britain had closed by 1,600BC. The Great Orme mine met an increasing demand for metalwork of all types (axes, spearheads, rapiers).

Great Orme

Until recently, it was thought that the Great Orme mine was only large in size due to nearly a thousand years of small-scale seasonal working. This assertion was based on claims that the mine only produced high purity copper, which is uncommon in the artefacts of that period.

But our new research, which combines archaeological and geological expertise with the latest scientific analytical techniques, reveals a radically different picture. Extensive sampling of ores throughout the kilometres of Bronze Age workings, along with associated bronze tool fragments and copper from a nearby smelting site, have allowed “fingerprinting” of the mine metal based on chemical impurities and isotopic properties.

Distribution map of bronze objects (palstave axes) that are thought to be linked to Great Orme copper.
© R.A.Williams, Author provided

The surprising results revealed a distinctive metal rich in nickel and arsenic impurities and, combined with its isotopic “signature”, closely matched the metal type that dominated Britain’s copper supply for a 200-year period (c.1600-1400BC) in the Bronze Age. Remarkably, this metal is also found in bronze artefacts across parts of Europe, stretching from Brittany to the Baltic.

This very extensive distribution suggests a large-scale mining operation (in Bronze Age terms), with a full-time mining community possibly supported or controlled by farming communities in the adjacent agriculturally richer area of northeast Wales, where there are signs of wealth and hierarchy in grave goods. Geological estimates suggest that several hundred tons of copper metal were produced. This would have been enough to produce thousands of bronze tools or weapons every year, equivalent to at least half a million objects in the 200-year period.

When the mining boom turned to bust by around 1,400BC, the distinctive Great Orme metal gradually disappears. This major decline was probably due to the exhaustion of the richly mineralised central area of the mine that corresponds today to an impressive manmade underground cavern and an extensive deep area of surface mining (possibly a collapsed cavern). Both of these can be seen at the mine visitor centre. The bonanza was followed by a twilight period of many centuries, when all that remained were narrow ore veins that required a huge effort for a small output and probably only satisfied local needs.

Aerial view of the Great Orme Bronze Age mine site above Llandudno.
© Great Orme Mines, Author provided

Bronze Age trade

Tracing the metal from the extraordinary 200-year copper boom across Britain and into continental Europe suggests that Britain was much more integrated into European Bronze Age trade networks than had previously been thought. This is reinforced by fascinating new isotopic evidence from other researchers suggesting that the copper replacing that from Great Orme may have come from the Eastern Italian Alps, which would further extend the long-distance trade networks.

The next big challenge is to understand how important the exceptionally rich British tin deposits in Cornwall and Devon were in enabling the complete changeover from copper to bronze (10% tin, 90% copper), not only in Britain (c. 2,100BC) but also across Europe and beyond, where tin is very scarce. Researchers in Germany recently suggested a link between Bronze Age Israeli tin ingots and European tin deposits, rather than Central Asian deposits, and tentatively suggested a source in Cornwall, although much more research is required.

So we now have increasing evidence that Britain’s trade with continental Europe – although currently turbulent – has deep roots that go back several thousand years.The Conversation

Alan Williams, Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sydney’s 9,189 ‘sister politicians’ who petitioned Queen Victoria


Kiera Lindsey, University of Technology Sydney

One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.

It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.

Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.

By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.

However, Henry George GreyColonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.

The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.

They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.




Read more:
Stain or badge of honour? Convict heritage inspires mixed feelings


Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.

Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.

These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.

While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.

For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.

Reading the petition

Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.

By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.

While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”

The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.

Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.

Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.

The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.

A rising of ‘sister politicians’

When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.

He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.

He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.

Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: how women gained the right to vote


A role for women

The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.

It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.

The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.

In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.


The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.The Conversation

Kiera Lindsey, , University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The USA & UK as Allies



Naval Build Up to WWI



Why the UK Gave Up Hong Kong to China



Who won the war? We did, says everyone



Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, 1945.
Wikipedia

Nick Chater, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Ask any of the few remaining World War II veterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer. But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution to the war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest. A new study suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average all think their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting World War II.

Our national collective memories seem to be deceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from those veterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have a general psychological tendency to believe our contributions are more significant than they really are.

You can see this in even the most mundane of tasks. Unloading the dishwasher can be a perennial source of family irritation. I suspect that I’m doing more than my fair share. The trouble is that so does everybody else. Each of us can think: “The sheer injustice! I’m overworked and under-appreciated.”

But we can’t all be right. This strange magnification of our own efforts seems to be ubiquitous. In business, sport or entertainment, it’s all too easy for each participant to think that their own special stardust is the real reason their company, team or show was a hit.

It works for nations, too. A study last year, led by US memory researcher Henry Roediger III, asked people from 35 countries for the percentage contribution their own nation has made to world history. A dispassionate judge would, of course, assign percentages that add up to no more than 100% (and, indeed, considerably less, given the 160 or so countries left out). In fact, the self-rating percentages add up to over 1,000%, with citizens of India, Russia and the UK each suspecting on average that their own nations had more than half the responsibility for world progress.

A sceptic might note that “contributing to world history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret to its advantage. (The Italians, at 40%, might focus on the Romans and the Renaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific world events? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of national contributions to World War II.

The researchers surveyed people from eight former Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side ranked their own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to 309%. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries had contributed more than 50% of the war effort and were more than 50% responsible for victory.

World War II deaths by country. How would you work out which country contributed the most?
Dna-Dennis/Wikimedia Commons

You might suspect that the losing Axis powers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable human suffering of the war, might not be so proud. As former US president John F Kennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Perhaps the results for the Allied countries just reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positive achievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares of the war effort (totalling 140%). Rather than minimising their own contribution, even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.

Why? The simplest explanation is that we piece together answers to questions, of whatever kind, by weaving together whatever relevant snippets of information we can bring to mind. And the snippets of information that come to mind will depend on the information we’ve been exposed to through our education and cultural environment. Citizens of each nation learn a lot more about their country’s own war effort than those of other countries. These “home nation” memories spring to mind, and a biased evaluation is the inevitable result.

So there may not be inherent “psychological nationalism” in play here. And nothing special about collective, rather than individual, memory either. We simply improvise answers, perhaps as honestly as possible, based on what our memory provides – and our memory, inevitably, magnifies our own (or our nation’s) efforts.

How do you calculate real responsibility?

A note of caution is in order. Assigning responsibilities for past events baffles not just everyday citizens, but academic philosophers. Imagine a whodunit in which two hopeful murderers put lethal doses of cyanide into Lady Fotherington’s coffee. Each might say: “It’s not my fault – she would have died anyway.” Is each only “half” to blame, and hence due a reduced sentence? Or are they both 100% culpable? This poisoning is a simple matter compared with the tangled causes of military victory and defeat. So it is not entirely clear what even counts as over- or under-estimating our responsibilities because responsibilities are so difficult to assess.

Still, the tendency to overplay our own and our nation’s role in just about anything seems all too plausible. We see history through a magnifying glass that is pointing directly at ourselves. We learn the most about the story of our own nation. So our home nation’s efforts and contributions inevitably spring readily to mind (military and civilian deaths, key battles, advances in technology and so on). The efforts and contributions of other nations are sensed more dimly, and often not at all.

And the magnifying glass over our efforts is pervasive in daily life. I can find myself thinking irritably, as I unload the dishwasher, “Well, I don’t even remember the last time you did this!” But of course not. Not because you didn’t do it, but because I wasn’t there.The Conversation

Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Hidden women of history: Eleanor Anne Ormerod, the self taught agricultural entomologist who tasted a live newt



Wikimedia Commons

Tanya Latty, University of Sydney

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

Insects have always been intimately connected with agriculture. Pest insects can cause tremendous damage, while helpful insects like pollinators and predators provide free services. The relatively young field of agricultural entomology uses knowledge of insect ecology and behaviour to help farmers protect their crops.

One of the most influential agricultural entomologists in history was an insatiably curious and fiercely independent woman named Eleanor Anne Ormerod. Although she lacked formal scientific training, Ormerod would eventually be hailed as the “Protectress of British Agriculture”.

Eleanor was born in 1828 to a wealthy British family. She did not attend school and was instead tutored by her mother on subjects thought to increase her marriageability: languages, drawing and music.

Like most modern entomologists, Eleanor’s interest in insects started when she was a child. In her autobiography, she tells of how she once spent hours observing water bugs swimming in a small glass. When one of the insects was injured, it was immediately consumed by the others.

Shocked, Eleanor hurried to tell her father about what she had seen but he dismissed her observations. Eleanor writes that while her family tolerated her interest in science, they were not particularly supportive of it.

Securing an advantageous marriage was supposed to be the primary goal of wealthy young women in Eleanor’s day. But her father was reclusive and disliked socialising; as a result, the family didn’t have the social connections needed to secure marriages for the children. Of Ormerod’s three sisters, none would marry.

Ormerod as a young woman.
Wikimedia Commons

The Ormerod daughters were relatively fortunate; their father gave them enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Their status as wealthy unmarried women gave them the freedom to pursue their interests free from domestic responsibilities and the demands of husbands or fathers. For Eleanor, this meant time to indulge her scientific curiosity.

Foaming at the mouth

Ormerod’s first scientific publication was about the poisonous secretions of the Triton newt. After testing the poison’s effects on an unfortunate cat, she decided to test it on herself by putting the tail of a live newt into her mouth. The unpleasant effects – which included foaming at the mouth, oral convulsions and a headache – were all carefully described in her paper.

A Triton newt.
Wikimedia Commons

Omerod’s first foray into agricultural entomology came in 1868, when the Royal Horticultural Society asked for help creating a collection of insects both helpful and harmful to British agriculture. She enthusiastically answered the call and spent the next decade collecting and identifying insects on the society’s behalf.

In the process, she developed specialist skills in insect identification, behaviour and ecology.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Flos Greig, Australia’s first female lawyer and early innovator


During her insect-collecting trips, Ormerod spoke with farmers who told her of their many and varied pest problems. She realised that farmers were in need of science-based advice for protecting their crops from insect pests.

Yet most professional entomologists of the time were focused on the collection and classification of insects; they had little interest in applying their knowledge to agriculture. Ormerod decided to fill the vacant role of “agricultural entomologist” herself.

In 1877, Ormerod self-published the first of what was to become a series of 22 annual reports that provided guidelines for the control of insect pests in a variety of crops. Each pest was described in detail including particulars of its appearance, behaviour and ecology. The reports were aimed at farmers and were written in an easy-to-read style.

An early form of crowdsourcing

Ormerod wanted to create a resource that would help farmers all over Britain. She quickly realised this task would require more information than she could possibly collect on her own. So Ormerod turned to an early version of crowdsourcing to obtain data.

She circulated questionnaires throughout the countryside asking farmers about the pests they observed, and the pest control remedies they had tried.

Whenever possible, she conducted experiments or made observations to confirm information she received from her network of farmers. Each of her reports combined her own work with that of the farmers and labourers she corresponded with. The resulting reports cemented Ormerod’s reputation.

Ormerod was invited to give lectures at colleges and institutes throughout Britain. She lent her expertise to pest problems in places as far afield as New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa.

In recognition of her service, she was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1900 – the first women in the university’s history to receive the honour. Such was her fame that acclaimed author Virginia Woolf later wrote a fictionalised account of Ormerod’s life called Miss Ormerod.

Virginia Woolf wrote a book about Ormerod.
Wikimedia Commons

While she undoubtedly contributed to the rise of agricultural entomology as a scientific field, Ormerod’s legacy is complicated by her vocal support of a dangerous insecticide known as Paris Green. Paris Green was an arsenic-derived compound initially used as a paint (hence the name).

Although Paris Green was used extensively in North America, it was relatively unheard of in Britain. Ormerod made it her mission to introduce this new advance to British farmers. So strongly did she believe in its crop-saving power, she joked about wanting the words, “She brought Paris Green to Britain,” engraved on her tombstone.

A tin of Paris Green paint.
Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Paris Green is a “broad spectrum” insecticide that kills most insects, including pollinators and predators. The loss of predators in the crop ecosystem gives free rein to pests, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on chemical insecticides.

Paris Green also has serious human health impacts, some of which were recognised even in Ormerod’s day. The fact that arsenic was a common ingredient in all manner of products – including medicines – may partly explain why Ormerod seems to have underestimated the danger of Paris Green to human and environmental health.

Ormerod’s steadfast promotion of Paris Green seems naïve in retrospect. But the late 1800’s was a time of tremendous optimism about the power of science to solve the world’s problems.

Paris Green and other insecticides allowed farmers to cheaply and effectively protect their crops – and thus their livelihoods. In fact, less than 50 years after Ormerod’s death, chemist Paul Muller won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the infamous (and environmentally catastrophic) insecticide DDT. When viewed in light of the “pesticide optimism” of her time, Ormerod’s enthusiasm about Paris Green is easier to understand.

Interestingly, Ormerod wasn’t just an insecticide evangelist. Her reports gave recommendations for a variety of pest control methods such as the use of exclusion nets and the manual removal of pests. These and other environmentally friendly techniques now form the core of modern “integrated pest management”, the gold standard for effective and sustainable pest control.

Eleanor Ormerod was devoted to the cause of protecting agriculture at a time when few “serious” entomologists were interested in applying their knowledge to agriculture. She recognised that progress in agricultural entomology could only happen when entomologists worked in close partnership with farmers.

She continued working and lecturing to within weeks of her death in 1901; in all of her years of service, she was never paid.The Conversation

Tanya Latty, Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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