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Moral fibre: The negotiation of microscopic facts in Victorian Britain

Jacyna, LS; (2003) Moral fibre: The negotiation of microscopic facts in Victorian Britain. J HIST BIOL , 36 (1) 39 - 85.

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Abstract

During the 1840s and 1850s the British embryologist and histologist Martin Barry (1802-1855) propounded a bold and original thesis about the microscopic structure of animal and vegetable tissue. He maintained that minute double spirals were virtually ubiquitous in the makeup of a wide range of structures. This paper considers how a claim of this kind was consonant with a romantic image of scientific creativity with which Barry identified. It describes his partially successful strategies to convince contemporaries of the veracity of his claims. Major figures in the field, such as Richard Owen and Jan Evangelista Purkyne, affirmed that Barry's spirals were real objects in nature. Others, notably William Sharpey, became convinced that the spirals were mere artefacts and that Barry was deeply flawed as a scientific investigator. The ultimate rejection of his hypothesis had much to do with the moral repugnance that Barry's attempts to gain credit for a major discovery evoked among influential medical scientists. This negative assessment of Barry as an investigator reveals the lineaments of an alternative ethic of scientific practice.

Type:Article
Title:Moral fibre: The negotiation of microscopic facts in Victorian Britain
Keywords:cell theory, credibility, histology, romanticism, trust
UCL classification:UCL > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Life Sciences > Biosciences (Division of) > UCL Centre for the History of Medicine

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