Shackleton on O'Sullivan, 'Geographies of City Science: Urban Life and Origin Debates in Late Victorian Dublin'

Tanya O'Sullivan
Stefanie Shackleton

Tanya O'Sullivan. Geographies of City Science: Urban Life and Origin Debates in Late Victorian Dublin. Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. 242 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4575-8.

Reviewed by Stefanie Shackleton (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Environment (November, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Tanya O’Sullivan brings together scientific biography and historical geography to examine the role of social, cultural, and physical environment in the shaping of origin theories in nineteenth-century Dublin. Geographies of City Science adds Dublin to the recent examinations of science in peripheral cities, like the edited volume Urban Histories of Science: Making Knowledge in the City (2018), edited by Oliver Hochadel and Agustí Nieto-Galan. It is also a welcome addition to studies within what could arguably be called the “geographical turn” in histories of science and knowledge, as approached by scholars like David Livingstone, Simon Naylor, and Steven Shapin. 

Focusing on the work and influences of eight scientists across the city, Geographies of City Science explores influences of institutional ties, social circles, and of course political and religious affiliations, in not only the shaping of origin theories but also the dissemination and reception of such ideas. Using these eight case studies within a life-space perspective, O’Sullivan seeks to go beyond the “model of religious division” used in previous studies of Victorian Irish science history to include “approaches from the more recent attempts to acknowledge the role of personal identities in the production of science” and the dissemination of scientific work (pp. 4, 9).

In her chapter titled “Ether,” O’Sullivan shows the contrast of ideas of the origins of matter between the center and periphery: between Anglican Unionist William Fletcher Barrett at Trinity College within elite scholarly circles in the center of the city and nonconformist George Francis Fitzgerald at a new coastal college pushing the boundaries between science and spiritualism. Fitzgerald found his ideas dampened by predominantly Catholic and Nationalist scientific elite at Trinity who found his sponge theory of ether to be untenable, preventing his ability to lecture on the subject or develop such ideas further with sufficient funding. Barrett, on the other hand, had more freedom in sharing his concepts that focused on ether as a “quasi-vital substance” that supported arguments for a divine design of the universe and spiritualism, as he worked “on the fringes of respectable science” and was focused more on education than discovery and innovation in the city’s periphery (p. 27).

The next chapter examines two scientists who navigated the theories around evolutionary biology in very different “life-spaces.” David Moore, a Scottish Presbyterian, was the curator of the public Botanic Gardens, and therefore in a prime position to cultivate and disseminate his concepts of intelligent design and adaptation of nature to the wider public, at the same time that he expanded experimental endeavors in the gardens to further scientific research in the city and on the wider world stage. His expansive social and professional connections with elite exotic plant collectors and other botanic gardens in cities around the world solidified his reputation as a respected scientist who was able to contribute to an Irish place in a global scientific discourse. Botany was a popular hobby as well as a respected science, which meant that discussion of the subject was far-reaching and well known in a variety of social circles. Alexander Macalister, on the other hand, was a professor of anatomy, a subject very much confined within the academy and not usually considered open for polite public conversation. The connection of anatomy studies to unsavory means of obtaining cadavers and the act of dissection, both of which were seen as pollutants to morality and character, meant that discoveries and theories that arose from such work were not as respected or widely disseminated in public discourse. He pushed back on theories of evolution due to his interest and involvement with what was then a rising tide of Celtic revival around the discovery of sophisticated ancient artifacts, which he argued was proof against evolutionary theories that relied on inevitable progress over time or that did not take into account the difference between the soul and animal lives.

The chapter titled “Human” explores theories around the origin of humans in transnational discourse, looking at racial sciences through the lens of the two men who founded the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory. Unlike the other chapters, this chapter involves a shared life-space for both subjects, but also consideration of their disparate experiences and understandings each brought into that shared space. Through the laboratory, both men were involved in the debates around the Irish “race” debate but held different views. Alfred Cort Haddon considered that the people of the British Isles were a “mixture of different stocks, and that there were no gross distinctions” between the Irish, English, Welsh, and Scottish. Daniel John Cunningham saw the Irish as a separate race, who he felt were in need of outside influence in order to counteract the negative effect of “‘priests’ or ‘Nationalist agitators’” who brought out their worst impulses. Both of these conceptions were shaped by prevalent debates in nineteenth-century Dublin around Home Rule. Cunningham’s ideas of Irish “degeneration” were used to argue for London control over the island, but Haddon purposefully avoided direct political discussion despite his “indirect allusion to the possibilities of Home Rule” (p. 115).

The fourth chapter expands the conception of space as it is used in the other chapters to include space for debate of culture and identity within scientific discussion through the study of linguistics and discourse around “origins” of the Irish people. O’Sullivan describes these as emotional spaces, and interactions between science and literature, during the revival of Irish national pride and use of the Irish language. George Sigerson, a well-known Nationalist poet, scientist, and president of the National Literary Society, and Eoin MacNeill, a Gaelic revivalist scholar of law and language and secretary of the Gaelic League, are used to examine science in the romantic revivalist movements. She argues that not only was the Gaelic revival in Dublin heavily influenced by scientific discourse but “Nationalist scholars’ engagement with these sciences was profoundly influenced by their Dublin spaces” as well (p. 159).

Scholars unfamiliar with histories of science may find themselves a little overwhelmed at times with the dense explanations of various scientific theories and their origins, but in each case, O’Sullivan manages to pull the reader back in from such excursions when she reiterates how the people and ideas specifically affect each of her case studies. In the chapter titled “Human,” her ability to take complex scientific debates and ground them into the social and cultural lives of each scientist is particularly powerful to her argument. Though one of the goals of the chapter is to place the debate in a global perspective, it is the impact of such ideas on the interactions and experiences of the people of Dublin, particularly around the issue of Home Rule, that stands out most.

O’Sullivan’s focus on origin theories provides a fascinating opportunity to delve into the creation and propagation of theories around race during the period, in the unique Irish context as well as from broad imperial influence, and the way the scientific debates by anatomists, botanists, and linguists could spill over into social and cultural arenas. Combining such multidisciplinary methods and theories into one study opens, or at least widens, interesting doors for scholars examining knowledge as it is created and disseminated within varying types of spaces. Using the lectures, books, and papers of each scientist, as well as their personal correspondence and papers, has allowed O’Sullivan to round out each scientist in a way that makes them more of a complete person rather than a scientific persona, taking into account their affiliations, social interactions, and experiences within the city.

Citation: Stefanie Shackleton. Review of O'Sullivan, Tanya, Geographies of City Science: Urban Life and Origin Debates in Late Victorian Dublin. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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