All about my mother

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.

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6 Responses to “All about my mother”

  1. Ciara Says:

    Juliana, that’s an interesting question and one that I often wonder about people’s research. It’s amazing how much of an influence parents play. I come from a very politically active family – my parents are in different parties so the dinner table at election time can be tense! From an early age I can remember watching the budget, without really knowing what was going on. It’s probably no wonder, then, that I developed an interest in Irish political history in general. However, I specialise in the history of Fine Gael – a party for which neither of my parents have much time, but they have always been restrained enough not to press their views on me. My specific interest in FG came from a three-part documentary series that coincided with the start of my postgrad studies. Fine Gael: a Family at War showed the party at its worst, and it really intrigued me. The interest developed from there leading to a PhD on the party’s forefathers, Cumann na nGaedheal, which is being published later this year, and then to my current postdoc topic of Fine Gael and the Just Society document.

  2. Felix Larkin Says:

    I agree that it is an interesting question, and it seems to me that too few people in Ireland have written about the factors that influenced their intellectual formation. One who did so was John O’Meara, Professor of Latin in UCD from 1948 to 1984 – in a very fine, short autobiographical study THE SINGING-MASTERS (Lilliput Press, 1990). His UCD colleague (and one-time student) Professor Denis Donoghue did likewise in WARRENPOINT (Jonathan Cape, 1991). Another example is Conor Cruise O’Brien’s STATES OF IRELAND (Hutchinson, 1972) – much better on his intellectual formation than his formal autobiography.
    What started me on history was the Kennedy assassination in 1963 – I was 12 years old, and began to read everything I could find in the local library about American history. I must have been a very boring little boy! I have tried to explore what it was like later to study history in UCD (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) in an essay about Howard Clarke, my medieval history teacher there, in John Bradley, Alan J. Fletcher & Anngret Simms (eds), DUBLIN IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD (Four Courts Press, 2009).

  3. jjk Says:

    my favourite post here – thank you for sharing something from your own past. An interest in people – along with a love of animals for some! – seems integral to being a historian. So nice and quite inspirational to hear stories of beginnings, and get a sense of the twists and turns of a life and a career 🙂

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks to all above for the comments! I enjoyed the autobiographical details from Felix and Ciara. Another interesting subject would be the importance of teachers, both college lecturers and primary/secondary teachers. My history teachers from high school stand out much more in the memory, but I took relatively few history courses in college. Probably most important was the ability and desire to encourage independent thought. I think lab work was surprisingly useful in this regard.


  5. David Evans Says:

    Juliana blames her mother for infecting her with history; Ciara blames both her parents; Felix blames poor old JFK. I, unfortunately, have no one to blame but myself.
    When I retired after forty-six years of hard slog, I thought it would be a good opportunity for following up on a lifelong – but healthy and arm’s-length – interest in history, and indulge myself by taking up a non too testing university course in UCD based on history. Unfortunately, the infection then took hold during the course, and when I was later accepted onto the BA degree course in history in TCD it became endemic. I fully expected the infection to pass by the end of four years but, sadly, this did not happen. I signed on for another two years while I worked towards an M.Litt. I can now see some light at the end of the tunnel – next September – and by then I trust that I will be restored to my normal, reasonable self and be able to enjoy a wholesome and natural lifestyle.
    I believe it would help me if I could blame someone else for my predicament, but I can’t.

  6. Georgina Says:

    This is a very interesting discussion and one which forces us all to look back upon past events to find out where we are now and why we are not somewhere else.

    I agree that teachers are hugely important. My own secondary teacher of history was a poet as well as a wonderful teacher of English, History and Irish. He combined a love of Patrick Kavanagh with a distaste for anything that failed to see the people behind the history. He thought 1913 was overlooked in terms of its importance in Irish history and preferred to talk about the founding of the ITGWU rather than the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. He also loved Russian history and was fond of quoting Marx.

    This combination of a border man ignoring nationalist Irish politics, while quoting Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’ [I made the Iliad from such a local row. Gods make their own importance.] resulted in a student who chose to ignore the major political events in preference to the personal battles in communities, homes and within ourselves. Played out in the context of major political events, my preference is for the community and the relationships people had within those communities that were personal, as well as the relationships people had with themselves. This prompted me to study psychiatry and medicine within Irish history. Because as people went around killing each other for politics, others were killing themselves for reasons unknown, and unknowable. And these people, as well as millions of ordinary Irish and women are only now being re-discovered by Irish historians writing about prostitution, crime, poverty and medicine etc. And they all had teachers who saw that the people of the past lived within and beyond the politics of their day.

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