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Workshop Report: “The War of the Locust, 1940-45”

Published: 31 December 2017 - Sophie Greenway

There are so many great events going on at Warwick, it is sometimes difficult to work out which ones to attend. I was really pleased that I decided to go along to the The War of the Locust workshop, as it turned out to be a real eye-opener. I work on dirt, health and domestic horticulture in mid-twentieth-century Britain, so The War of the Locust interested me with its intersection of history and environmental issues, as well as its similar chronological span to my own project. My work has potential for interdisciplinarity, and I grapple with scientific understandings in history, of soil, and the risk of infection. Hearing about The War of the Locust project made me realise how well interdisciplinarity can work. The nature of the project itself, and the archive in which the team are researching, held by the Natural History Museum, makes it truly interdisciplinary.

The War of the Locust is a collaboration between Dr Robert Fletcher (Warwick, History), Dr Katherine Brown (Portsmouth, Forensic Entomology), Dr Greg McInerny (Warwick, Ecology), and Dr Amanda Thomson (Glasgow, Art). The team have set out to understand the twentieth-century campaign to monitor and eradicate the desert locust, which, it turns out, is a fascinating creature. At a time when we are being warned of the imminent catastrophic depletion of insect numbers globally, any opportunity to appreciate the incredible qualities of insect species feels more worthwhile than ever. However, the fact that their tendency to swarm is triggered by persistent touching of fine hairs on their leg, caused by proximity to other locusts when food is short, means that increased locust swarming must be added to the long list of possible threats associated with the unpredictability of climate change. The locust also neatly represents the tensions inherent in food security and ecology. Indigenous populations have long eaten the locust, and research projects are underway to assess insects as a viable future source of protein globally, so the locust represents both threat and solution at the same time.

From Saudi Arabia to Southwest London

Each member of the project team is working on individual, but intersecting, research. Dr Fletcher is studying the campaign against the locust as a world problem, and the way in which Empire and statehood intersect in the effort to understand and control the insect. Predictably enough, the involvement of British Empire researchers in the anti-locust campaign meant that the ‘hub’ for locust research ended up not in any location where the insects breed or live, but in Southwest London. It was intriguing to hear how locust research was actually boosted by the war, since the researchers were able to gain access to sites in Saudi Arabia that were normally inaccessible. Empire scientists began to value landscapes that had previously been perceived as waste, as new scientific frontiers.

Also fascinating was the way in which the nature of the archive itself is revealing hidden histories. Dr Thomson is using the material culture of photographs, films and log books to show how indigenous men and women were present in the anti-locust campaign’s day to day life, as cooks and porters, but only appear as anonymous bodies in photographs. Dr McInerny is approaching the archive itself as an ecological subject, exploring networks of knowledge and intersecting trails of the recording and valuing of information. This approach promises to be of huge importance in the advancement of interdisciplinary studies. In order particularly for historians and scientists to work profitably together, we need to better understand the resources that we have at our disposal. For me, this was a surprising thing for an ecologist to be doing, and prompts all sorts of questions about how we assign value within and between disciplines today.

Locusts and Interdisciplinarity

If I had to pick a ‘stand out’ element of the workshop, however, it would be the privilege of hearing about the work of Dr Brown, who is assessing the value of the archive as a resource for entomologists today. The archive, along with all its paper records including maps, photographs and film, also safeguards a vast collection of locust specimens collected in the mid-twentieth-century. Dr Brown has been trying to assess the validity of the findings of twentieth-century scientists. This has involved her in the sort of archival detective work that, as a historian, I know and love. She has begun an attempt to match individual specimens to the paper trail of where, when and by whom they were collected. The next stage is to use modern methods such as DNA analysis and 3D imaging to assess whether mid-twentieth-century scientists were correct in their classification of their samples, and therefore whether their conclusions about the life cycle of the locust, and particularly its swarming habits, stand up. This project is in its early stages, and Dr Brown has already overcome many hurdles that complicate the application of modern methods to samples that might be eighty years old.

The most interdisciplinary element of The War of the Locust, for me, was the way in which none of these individual endeavours would work without the efforts of the rest of the team. This project is, like all good research, raising many fresh questions for future work. Particularly exciting is the possibility of working in archives in Africa and the Middle East in order to compare local approaches and attitudes with those of the Empire scientists. I’ll certainly be keen to hear how this very stimulating project develops.

“The War of the Locust” is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s “Science in Culture” theme, and is led by Dr Robert Fletcher of the University of Warwick. You can find out more about the project here.

Sophie Greenway is a PhD candidate in the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick. Her thesis is entitled "Growing well: Dirt, health and the home gardener in Britain 1930-70". You can read more about her work on her profile page here, and follow her on twitter @SophieGreenway1.

War of the Locust Workshop

Desert Locust

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