All posts by gagrielemarcon

Race and the Environment: Cerebral and Missionary Approaches to the Human Body

Brain images of a Simia Satyrus (Orangutan) and of a Simia Troglodytus (Chimpazee).
From Friedrich Tiedemann, « On the Brain of the Negro, Compared with That of the European and the Orang Outan », Philosophical Transactions, 1836.

On Monday 8th November, Sala del Torrino, Villa Salviati (Florence), Maxime Guttin (PhD Researcher, EUI) and Jan Becker (PhD Researcher, EUI) will present their projects on the making of racial hierarchies through the studies of the brain by European scholars (1770–1848) and the medical discourses and practices of missionaries in South-East Asia, respectively. Through their case studies, they shall particularly discuss the shifting relationship between the human body and its environment.

Racial theories and the environment share a closely intertwined history. Ethno-climatology constituted a scientific and medical topos to account for differences in human groups since Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. In the 18th century, the key concept to account for these differences, namely race, was perceived to be fluid, determined by climate, and thus dependent on external factors. In this framework the environment was considered the major agent of bodily changes. However, during the 19th century, medical sciences, such as anatomy, physiology, and bacteriology, began to challenge this influential scholarly tradition. These novel knowledges and disciplines redefined the conceptualization of the human body, diminishing its permeability to environmental influences and rendering racial differences fixed.

German missionary physician in Eastern Africa in the 1920s. From Müller, Samuel. Der Doktor in Bumbuli. Von den Anfängen der ärztlichen Mission in Usambara, 2. expanded edition. Bethel/Bielefeld: Schriftenniederlage der Anstalt Bethel, 1928, 3.

Maxime Guttin researches how the brain became a systematic determinant of race from the last quarter of the 18th century onward. During this period, European scholars produced a vast body of anatomical and physiological literature, linking the study of the brain its various parts and functionswith racial hierarchies. In this sense, studies on the brain constituted a way to incorporate the notion of race in the body and to redefine the knowledge involved in the anthropological inquiry. However, the brain remained one determinant of race among others. 

How did studies on the brain engage with the framework of the “theories of climates”? What was their place within the broader medical discourse on the human body?  How did these studies redefine the nature of race and integrate the debate on slavery? Under which conditions were experiments on brains especially on non-European brainsfeasible? The history of the sciences of the brain thus constitutes a way to assess the growing materialization of the notion of race as well as the permanence of the environmental factors in the definition of the human body.

While scientists in Europe looked for traces of race’s nature within the human body, Christian missionaries outside of Europe experienced the alleged potency of foreign climates and environments directly. Jan Becker’s work focuses on the shifting ways French and Dutch missionaries in South-East Asia experienced their own and their communities’ bodies as well as their respective embeddedness in their surroundings. 

Did missionaries approve of the scholarly tradition of ethno-climatological theories? What knowledge about race, the environment, and medicine resulted from their religious convictions and their intercultural context? And how were scientific theories such as germ theory translated and applied in the colonies? Whereas the scope of this argument is yet to be determined, germ theory arguably split the bond between the human body and its environment. Did germ theory also influence the relationship between race and place?

The Magic of Medicine. Introducing Professor Lauren Kassell

As of September 2021, Lauren Kassel takes up the Chair in the History of Science at the European University Institute. In the years to follow, her expertise and guidance will extend the activities of the Working Group towards the field of the History of Medicine. 

What was the link between magic and medicine in the early modern times? What role did alchemy and astrology play in the history of science, and in early modern medicine especially? What are the histories of sex and reproduction? And how can we exploit the potential of digital humanities for the preservation of historical sources? These are some of the key questions informing Lauren Kassell’s research.

Lauren Kassell has taught in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University since 2000, where she is also a Fellow of Pembroke College. Kassell became Professor of History of Science and Medicine in 2018. She is on leave from September 2021, to hold the Chair of History of Science in the EUI’s Department of History and Civilisation.

Professor Kassell was a founding director of the MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society that launched in 2017, and co-director of research for Cambridge Digital Humanities from 2018 to 2021. She was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, in May 2019, and a distinguished visiting professor in the Department of History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University from January to June 2020.

Before joining the EUI, Kassell was one of the co-applicants of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award on Generation to Reproduction (2004–14). She was also the Director of the Casebooks Project (2008–19), a digital humanities project focused on the records of two 17th century English astrologer physicians. These are one of the largest surviving sets of private medical records in history and they represent a fascinating account of everyday life in early modern times. The casebooks have also inspired a story-driven comedy videogame, Astrologaster, for which Kassell worked as historical consultant.

As co-editor of Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day (CUP 2018), she contributes to a long-term account of how modern “reproduction”—an abstract process of perpetuating living organisms—replaced the old “generation”—the active making of humans, beasts, plants, and minerals.

“As a historian of science and medicine, my work has been attentive to different sorts of voices and questioned the scopes and scales with which we think about the past,” says Kassell.

She is currently writing Astrology: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press, and beginning to develop a pair of projects.

“I am completing a small book on the whole history of astrology and launching two new projects. How to Live Forever brings together disparate approaches to ageing and the end of life to explore ‘prolongevity thinking’. Second, as prospective General Editor of The Cambridge History of Medicine, 6 volumes, I have assembled a team of editors, and secured a first tranche of funding for workshops to develop a proposal for an ambitious and inclusive reassessment of what the history of medicine means.”

Welcome Professor Kassel!


Davide Martino (University of Cambridge)

The serie “Taliking About Science” of the EUI History of Science Working Group continues with a new presentation.

On Wednesday 16th June 2021, 15pm (CEST), Davide Martino (University of Cambridge) will present on the practical traditions of early modern hydraulic philosophy.  

‘Machina Augustana’ (Georg Loscher’s 1535 hydraulic machine at the Mauerberg, Augsburg).
Woodcut from G. Cardano, De subtilitate libri XXI (2nd edn; Basel: Ludovicus Lucius, 1554).
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (online).

In addition to physics, astronomy, and optics, Galileo and his disciples explored a wide variety of disciplines including hydraulics, the science of waters. The 1628 treatise by Benedetto Castelli, Della misura dell’acque correnti [Of the measure of running waters] has often been ‘considered to be the beginning of modern hydraulics’ (Drake 2008). Castelli, however, did not write in a void. Ancient Greek and Roman sources remained important reference points for him: he often dismissed the conclusions of one ancient authority only to endorse those of another. Furthermore, Castelli was indebted to the medieval tradition of hydraulic practice, which had introduced several machines unknown in antiquity. This paper will use a selection of late medieval and early modern machine books, both manuscript and printed, to illustrate this practical tradition, visually and technologically. By highlighting the continuities between these machine books and Castelli’s treatise, this paper will argue that the Galileans did not found a ‘new science’ of waters. Instead, they enriched, expanded, and reformed a large body of theoretical and practical knowledge which, by analogy with natural philosophy, ought to be known as hydraulic philosophy.

The seminar will be held in hybrid mode. Please register by contacting and