By Juliana Adelman
I know that in the professional era of history, we are correctly reluctant to allow our personal lives to enter into the history that we write. Nevertheless, there are very personal reasons that we choose our topics. Of course, twists and turns on the career ladder (read: need to find job doing some kind of history, any kind) tend to have important effects. But when we have the chance, we all come back to the topics that we love. And why do we love them? I thought I’d get the ball rolling on what I hope might become a discussion or a dialogue by sharing some thoughts on how I ended up doing what it is that I do. As the title suggests, I blame my mother.
When I recently found myself reading When elephants weep: the emotional lives of animals, plucked from my mother’s extensive collection of animal-related books, I began to consider the possibility that I had succumbed to benign maternal brain-washing. It turns out my brilliant research project wasn’t really my own idea, it was planted there by my mother (tracker, naturalist, animal-lover). My mother’s interest in wildlife, however, is practical and environmental as much as it is intellectual. My own interest is, well, abstract.
The sight of a natural history museum fills me with inexpressable, childish joy. It’s not because I love dead animals. In fact, I don’t usually seek out the company of living ones either. My mother’s tracking expeditions involve far too much cold and wet and dirt. But I can relate to a nineteenth-century naturalist. I understand why, at an aesthetic and unscientific level, one might want to accumulate rows upon rows of different types of animals just to look at them. I do not condone the hunting of animals for sport or the accumulation of trophies, but this is really just my modern sensibilities speaking. If only my husband would let me, and flesh-eating insects weren’t such a problem, I would be collecting antique taxidermy and justifying my acquisitions by the fact that the animals had died a long time ago. Leaving aside my strange fascination with dead, skinned and slightly pungent animals, my interest in history continues to be influenced by my interest in science. My father was hopeful (but not expectant) that I might follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. Science has always seemed important to me, even if I have long since stopped believing it to be ‘true’.
Lest the preceeding paragraphs give a misleading impression of a destinty fulfilled I offer the following abbreviated play by play of my history career to date:
Go to college intending to study humanities of some kind/take year out to teach in primary school in Boston, unexpectedly reviving interest in science/return to college and decide to pursue biology, partly in effort to impress overly smart physics-major boyfriend/join microbiology lab to study typhoid fever/devise microbiology project to pursue in Vietnam, inspired partly by love of pho/go to Vietnam to find project not able to start due to communist bureaucracy/fall in love with Irish man in Hoi An/move to Dublin to do MSc in Science Communication thinking will become science journalist/not so good at journalism and become distracted by interest in the Victorian Dublin Natural History Museum/marry Irish man/by complete serendipity there is a PhD fellowship available in history of science in NUIGalway/complete PhD/have baby/get postdoc/start Pue’s Occurrences with Lisa and Kevin…
That’s right, the way to become a historian of science is to first try moving to Vietnam to study Salmonella typhi and failing that, try Dublin. Perhaps I should really be blaming my husband instead of my mother. On a more serious note, I think even the most professional of historians cannot escape the impact of their environment (or is that the scientific training speaking?). A highly personal enthusiasm for your subject is the only real reason to continue in this insecure and underpaid occupation. Add to this a generous pinch of luck. So now I invite you, dear reader, to explain why YOU do what you do.