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BSHS Postgraduate Conference 2024

On the 19th and 20th April 2024, the annual British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) Postgraduate Conference took place in the Zeeman Building, University of Warwick. The conference was kindly funded by the BSHS as well as the Global History & Culture and History of Medicine Centres at the University of Warwick. This breadth in institutional support mirrored the conference’s similarly broad theme: the global history of science, technology, and medicine. The focus on the ‘global’ extended beyond the academic focus of individual papers. The call for papers attracted students from all over the globe, with delegates traveling from locations as far as Brazil, the United States, India, Japan, and continental Europe.

The keynote speech was given by Dr. Sabine Clarke from the University of York. Titled Forever Chemical? DDT, Malaria Control and Path Dependency in the Global South, the presentation challenged the popular historical narrative around malaria control. Drawing on her research into DDT eradication programmes in Mauritius, Clarke argued that the language of eradication was at best rhetorical. Rather than what Clarke termed a chemical and colonial fantasy of eradication, the result was a perpetual state of malaria management. Clarke’s speech led to a topical discussion on the role of surveillance and population management in twentieth and twenty-first century societies.

The papers that formed the conference were equally topical. The conference brought together a global sample of early-career historians of medicine and science. As such, it acted as an interesting opportunity to reflect on the historiographical sensitivities that may well go on to shape the next generation of professional historians in this area.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research areas that made up the conference were incredibly broad. Panels explored environmental history, colonial science, global China and methodology. A panel focusing on language included papers on Esperanto in South Asia (Bipasha Bhattacharyya, University of Cambridge), the legacy of Benjamin Hobson in China (Shuyang Shi, University of Pittsburgh), and the Penny Cyclopaedia, an affordable 19th century British encyclopaedia (Alexander Sean King, University of Leeds). Even more striking were the apparent synergies between disparate projects, which made panel discussions consistently rich and often inundated with audience questions.

I was struck by the consistent engagement with interdisciplinarity. One striking example came from Nathan Cornish’s presentation (Uppsala University, Sweden). Titled Mechanical Learning and the Book of Nature, Cornish’s paper argued that the ‘generation of nonsense from…uncritical plagiarism’ is a feature shared by both renaissance herbal literature and twenty-first century General AI. Cornish exploited this synergy by using AI imaging models to recreate botanical imagery, which Cornish displayed for delegates to admire. These images juxtapose the present with the past, producing a complex and discursively intertangled piece of art that invites critical reflection on the epistemological dimensions surrounding both renaissance herbals and twenty-first century artificial intelligence. As an organising committee made up of historians, we were initially uneasy that the conference was to take place in the university’s mathematics building. In fact, the conference’s setting encapsulated the dynamic interdisciplinarity that suffused individual presentations.

Beyond interdisciplinarity, there was a discernible influence of 21st century progressive politics on the directions of historical research, at least as reflected in the conference. Some presenters did this by opening their presentations with trigger warnings. Others explicitly asserted the political utility of their research. The political inclination inspired rich discussions on positionality. Audiences and presenters considered whether we should leave it to historians of the future to look back on our generation and retrospectively highlight these influences, and whether we ourselves should acknowledge these influences today. This sort of methodological complexity and richness formed the subtext of many of the presentations.

Organisationally, we benefited infinitely from the support of Keri Husband, the history department’s research centre co-ordinator. With her help, administrative processes (including but not limited to room bookings, meal planning, and budgeting), became smooth and relatively easy endeavours. support in these areas meant that we were able to focus on the academic choices that shaped the conference. For instance, we were able to devote considerable time to choosing abstracts and designing panels. This made not only the overall process more enjoyable but also the conference itself more effective in terms of its goals.

Over the course of the two days, we received a range of feedback. Most rewardingly, delegates often relayed to us that they had a great amount of fun over the course of the conference. I think the fact that it was a postgraduate conference contributed to this. For many of the delegates, this was their first time presenting. Being able to do this in an environment largely populated by peers (as opposed to more senior academics) made the general environment of the conference casual and comfortable.

Beyond this, delegates often mentioned that they were impressed by the level of organisation behind the conference. This reflected the collective contribution of Keri and the team to the creation of the conference. At the same time, we admit that we were pleasantly surprised to hear these comments, as none of us found the process of organising the conference debilitating or extremely time consuming. I think this speaks to what is achievable when collaborating with a group of like-minded colleagues. Especially when supported by an efficient professional services team, a group of doctoral students each contributing the odd hour here and there can achieve something quite rewarding and substantial.

In the broader context surrounding the completion of a PhD project, participating in the organisation of this conference has made me more aware of the peripheral possibilities that exist surrounding one’s thesis. The PhD really is what you make of it. Putting one’s hand up for opportunities that might initially seem distracting or time-consuming can culminate in something that contributes much to one’s development as an academic. The opportunity to collaborate with peers and meet doctoral students from other departments / universities can counterbalance the isolation that can sometimes come with research. Ultimately, participating in the organisation of this conference has improved my self-confidence as a historian and I am incredibly grateful to the rest of the rest of the committee, Keri Husband, the BSHS, and the Global History & Culture / History of Medicine Centres for making this experience possible!

Nathan Cornish’s Mechanical Learning and the Book of Nature

Credit: Ars Electronica / Martin Hielsmair’