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We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

25 August 2015

Seals, Science and Nations

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In this blog post Helen Cowie, Eccles Centre for American Studies Visiting Fellow, writes about her research on the sealskin industry in late-nineteenth century Alaska. Helen will discuss her research as part of the Eccles Centre Summer Scholars Seminar Series

On 17 January 1891, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon showing a seal emerging from a hole in the ice. The cartoon depicts the animal propped up on its flippers and looking sagely at two squabbling men. The man on the left, in stripy trousers and cravat, represents the USA, embodied in the familiar character of Brother Jonathan. The rotund man on the right, with bulging stomach and a broad-brimmed souwester, is John Bull, a caricature of Great Britain. The seal addresses them both with soulful gaze, imploring them to ‘avast quarrelling! Give me a “close time” and leave the “sea” an open question’.[1]

YPP_15062015123210_001 - Copy - CopyPunch’s pithy cartoon was a humorous take on a serious international dispute over the future of the fur-seal fisheries of Alaska. Since the early nineteenth century, the fur seal had been hunted extensively in the Bering Sea for its valuable coat, which was used to manufacture ladies’ cloaks and jackets. By the 1890s, however, seal numbers were fast decreasing, triggering mutual recriminations between the USA and Canada. According to naturalist Henry Elliott, who visited the fur-seal islands of St Paul and St George in the summer of 1890, there were only 959,000 seals present during the breeding season; just a third of the number he had seen two decades earlier in 1874.[2]

 The fur-seal controversy centred on the different methods of hunting the animal. The USA hunted the seals on land on the Pribilof Islands, driving young male animals to a designated killing grounds and there bludgeoning them to death. The Canadians hunted the seals at sea, shooting them and spearing them with harpoons in the water. Pelagic sealing (hunting at sea) was regarded as more wasteful, since it killed females, pups and unborn young indiscriminately and mortally wounded many seals whose skins were not subsequently collected. One critic, D.O. Mills, estimated that ‘every skin placed upon the market by [pelagic sealers] represents the destruction of six or eight seals – an utterly unjustifiable inroad into the vitality of the herds’.[3]

YPP_12062015125231_001 - Copy - Copy
‘Killing a “drive” of fur-seals on St Paul’, The Illustrated London News, 24 June 1893

 Keen to protect the seals from destruction, the USA limited the number that could be killed on the Islands and began deploying naval vessels in the Bering Sea to seize ships engaged in pelagic sealing. The Canadians, however, disputed the US’s rights to board their ships in what they considered to be international waters and appealed to Britain to defend the rights of their sealers. By 1891, when Punch published its cartoon, the two nations were teetering on the brink of war.

‘Seals at Home’, The Animal World, 1 September 1882

 The fur-seal crisis offers an interesting early example of wildlife conservation and its international dimensions. Because the seal was a migratory animal, cross-border cooperation was essential to ensure its survival. The USA could introduce a complete moratorium on the killing of seals on land – as indeed it did in 1911 – but if the Canadians continued to slaughter the animals at sea, their efforts would be futile. Measures taken to protect the fur-seal set a precedent for similar transnational agreements concerning the protection of migratory birds and the preservation of game in colonial Africa.

 Another key aspect of the fur-seal debate was the important role played by scientists in the framing of conservation policy. To understand how best to preserve the species, the US Government commissioned several scientific surveys of Pribilof Islands, all staffed by zoological experts. These individuals conducted careful fieldwork on the islands and offered a detailed understanding of seal behaviour and ecology. They used the latest technology to support their studies, backing up their findings with carefully documented evidence. To show that large numbers of seals wounded by pelagic sealers were not subsequently caught, for example, the 1896 commission cited the case of ‘a wet [i.e. nursing] cow’ found at the bay of Polovina on 23 July ‘with bloody shot holes in her shoulder’.[4] To prove that pups required milk until they left the breeding grounds in November, the scientists killed a selection of the animals and examined the contents of their stomachs, which were found, in the vast majority of cases to be either empty (in the case of orphans) or ‘full of milk’ well into October.[5]

‘The Countenance of Callorhinus’, Drawing by Henry W. Elliott, Pribilof Islands, 5 July 1872

Scientists’ observations informed government policies and lent weight to proposed conservation measures, much as they do today. They did not necessarily provide definitive answers, however, for it was often the case that different studies arrived at different conclusions. One US scientist, Henry Elliott, for instance, advocated a moratorium on the land drive, because he believed that repeated driving impaired the fertility of male seals. His compatriot, David Starr Jordan, however, refuted this, arguing that the seal’s reproductive organs were ‘withdrawn into the body cavity when he is in motion, thus being entirely protected from injury’.[6] The Canadian Record of Science, meanwhile, reprinted an article on sealing in the South Pacific in 1893 which appeared to show that the damage there was done on land, and not at sea. We can therefore see science being used to support different national and ideological viewpoints.

YPP_15062015123210_001 - Copy - Copy (2)As for the seals themselves, they were rarely consulted in the debate, but Punch at least gave one of them a voice. Next to the arresting image with which this blog post began, the magazine printed a short poem, supposedly written by the seal, in which the plucky animal begs both sides to stop squabbling and ‘Give me a thought in the matter’. In rousing nautical language, the seal complains of being ‘worried and walloped without intermission / Until even family duties quite fail’ - a reference to Elliott’s claim that the seal drive rendered males infertile. He protests loudly that his ‘poor wife and children have not half a chance’ – an allusion to the damage done by pelagic sealing - and he urges both sides to establish a ‘close time’ in which he and his family can recover. Since this is a British publication, it is no surprise that the seal refutes the US’s claim to sovereignty over the entire Bering Sea – ‘Men can’t thus monopolise oceans’. He does, however, advocate ‘compromise’ and friendship between nations, issuing a plea for international peace before he ‘dives under’ the water and departs the scene.[7] 

 Thankfully the seal’s call was heeded and the USA and Britain reached a compromise agreement in 1893. Seals were granted a closed season from 1 May to 1 October and a sixty-mile closed zone around the Pribilof Islands in which no pelagic sealing was permitted. Eighteen years later, in 1911, a further international agreement banned pelagic sealing completely, triggering the recovery of the fur-seal population. In 1920 conservationist William Hornaday described the preservation of the fur-seal as ‘the most practical and financially responsive wildlife conservation movement thus far consummated in the United States’.[8]


Helen Cowie is lecturer in history at the University of York. Her research focuses on the history of animals and the history of natural history. She is author of Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2011) and Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[1] ‘Arbitration’, Punch, 17 January 1891.

[2] Henry W. Elliott, Report on the Condition of the Fur-Seal Fisheries of the Pribylov Islands in 1890 (Paris:Chamerat et Renouard, 1893), p.91.

[3] D.O. Mills, ‘Our Fur-Seal Fisheries’, The North American Review 151 (September 1890), p.303.

[4] David Starr Jordan, Observations on the Fur Seals of the Pribilof Islands, Preliminary Report (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), p.44.

[5] Ibid., p.33.

[6] Ibid., p.38.

[7] ‘Arbitration’, Punch, 17 January 1891.

[8] The Times, 31 August 1920.

05 August 2015

Policy into practice

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Applications are now open for RCUK Policy Internships at the British Library at 2016. We are offering up to three NERC/MRC funded PhD students the chance to join us in team ScienceBL and help deliver a TalkScience event. In this blog post former intern Stuart Smith reflects on his Policy Internship placement at the British Library.

Stuart (red hat and trousers) in the Falkland islands (Photo: Marju Karlsson)

After finishing my BBSRC policy placement at the British Library in July 2013 and wrapping up my PhD thesis, I went in search of a job. Wishing to find a job that balanced both ecological research and public engagement, I was finally offered a 2-year position leading a Darwin Initiative funded project that aims to build capacity to enhance habitat restoration in the Falklands Islands. Despite only being a small island in sub-Antarctica, with a total population of around 3,000 people, there has consistently been a need to communicate scientific and environmental issues effectively. Working for Falklands Conservation, I have established an island-wide re-vegetation trial using native seeds and I regularly talk about my work to people with a range of backgrounds: farmers, landowners, policymakers, researchers, members of the public and military personnel. And while I might not have the opportunity to get a BBC presenter to pop down to lead a panel debate, like I did my when organising a TalkScience event at the British Library, I find myself involved in outreach activity on a weekly basis, whether writing an article for the Penguin News, the local newspaper, or giving a lesson on seeds or habitat restoration in a school. 


Bill Turnbull chairing the TalkScience that Stuart developed and delivered as part of his Policy Internship at the British Library

Following on from work on the Falkland Islands, I am about to start a post-doctoral position at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway as part of AfricanBioServices, an EU funded project, and will be working in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania/Kenya. My involvement in the project is to investigate the effect of different land-uses (both wild grazing versus domestic pastoral grazing) on grassland productivity and ecosystem functioning. Again, this role is likely to require excellent communication skills to a wide range of audiences from scientists involved in the international consortium to farmers and landowners on the ground. Even though I am still actively involved in ecological research, the essential skills of effective science communication and outreach are highly valued. The British Library has an incredibly supportive and friendly team and were happy to take on an ecologist, who particularly struggled to wear a tie. I would recommend that every postgraduate should take the opportunity to learn an increasingly important set of skills involved in outreach and public engagement and apply for a science policy placement.

Stuart Smith, BBSRC Science Policy Intern 2013

31 July 2015

Over the Ice: Polar Exploration from the Air

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This summer our colleagues over in the Eccles Centre for American Studies are hosting their annual Summer Scholars Seminar series - several of which have a scientific flavour. In this post Marionne Cronin from the University of Aberdeen discusses how aviation changed the nature of polar exploration ahead of her talk on 7th August. Tickets are available here.

Richard Evelyn Byrd (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For Americans, the spring of 1926 was an exciting time in long-distance aviation.  The newspapers were full of thrilling tales of pioneering flights, including three aerial expeditions aiming for the North Pole.  The excitement came to a head on 9 May 1926, when Richard E. Byrd, a young American naval aviator, returned to his expedition’s base at King’s Bay, Spitsbergen (Svalbard), after a flight of just over 15 hours, proclaiming that he and his co-pilot Floyd Bennett had become the first people to reach the North Pole by air.  Byrd’s announcement triggered a patriotic outpouring in the American press, with headlines trumpeting the United States’ polar conquest.  Byrd returned home a national hero, where he was met by cheering crowds and public accolades, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But what exactly were these crowds cheering? 

In part, they perceived Byrd’s feat as evidence of America’s technological progress and as a symbol of their nation’s modernity.  Celebrating the mechanical triumph, however, also risked undercutting the heroic nature of exploration, particularly when the flight was compared to previous expeditions, which had produced images of intrepid fur-clad explorers battling their way across the dangerous polar ice.  By lifting the explorer high above the ice and shielding him within the body of a machine that carried him towards the pole, the airplane seemed to make the process far too easy to be considered heroic.  Much as it jeopardized the explorer’s heroic status, the airplane also threatened to domesticate the Arctic, thereby destroying its imaginative potential as a space for heroic adventure.  In particular, the use of aircraft seemed to shatter the Arctic’s image as a theoretically untouched wilderness cut off from the modern industrialized world.

How was it, then, that Byrd continued to be seen as an exceptional man, even when ensconced in the machine’s protective shell soaring high above the polar ice?  The process of creating a polar hero in this context was not straightforward and the result was not a single stable image.  This heterogeneity, however, offers a window into how Americans in the interwar period sought to reconcile a celebration of mechanical progress with ideas about heroic masculinity.

Fokker F.VII plane with Byrd-Bennett in flight in 1926. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, many narratives rehearsed various longstanding romantic images of polar exploration in order to buttress Byrd’s heroic status.  But, perhaps more interestingly, several of these narratives also reimagined the practice of exploration itself.  These accounts extended the landscape of exploration vertically, imagining the skies as a new field to explore.  By underscoring the dangers present in the Arctic atmosphere – its extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather, and unknown aerial currents – newspaper stories created a new environment that could test both the polar explorer and his machine.  Much as the deep oceans and space would emerge as new frontiers later in the century, in these accounts the air became a new wilderness for a modern society to explore.  These stories also drew on popular interwar images of aviation, which imagined it as a technology of wonder and grace that enabled aviators to escape the quotidian mundaneness of everyday life and to enter a new, transcendent world.  Thus, much like the polar explorers of earlier eras, the pilot became a daring pioneer who stepped into the unknown and was transformed into a heroic figure.

To remain a polar hero, however, Byrd needed to be more than a mere passenger on this aerial adventure.  Instead, his ability to control the machine, to bend its power to his will, became a key component of what it meant to be an aerial explorer.  In particular, coverage emphasized the flight’s mental challenges, specifically the intense concentration demanded by the mathematical calculations required to navigate over the polar ice.  Thus, aerial exploration became as much a mental as a physical challenge.  By demonstrating the mental ability necessary to control the machine, Byrd acquired the power to penetrate previously inaccessible areas, to see further than terrestrial explorers, and therefore to pierce the Arctic’s secrets.  At the same time, risks from technology itself, in the form of mechanical failures, offered a new set of hazards for the technological explorer to overcome.  The technology itself thus became a site of exploration as the venture into new arenas tested both the explorer’s and the machine’s limits. The explorer’s willingness to brave these dangers and his ability to control the machine under difficult conditions became important signs of his heroic masculinity.

Coolidge awarding Medal of Honor to Byrd and Bennett 1927 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Through the newspaper stories covering Byrd’s flight, we can see their authors exploring the question of how to successfully incorporate the machine into exploration narratives without abandoning the hero’s central place.  By reimagining the nature of exploration and reconceiving of the air as a new frontier, these authors sought to create an image of heroic exploration that could accommodate the presence of the machine.  In doing so they articulated a vision of the technological explorer that would influence later depictions of figures such as Charles Lindberg and the first astronauts, and would continue to influence perceptions of heroic masculinity across the 20th century.

Dr Marionne Cronin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Northern Colonialism Programme at the University of Aberdeen, where her research investigates the place of technology in the culture of polar exploration. She is currently working on a book examining how interwar polar explorers’ use of new technologies – particularly airplanes – was incorporated into popular images of heroic exploration, masculinity, and modernity. She will be an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow in North American Studies in June-August 2015.

If you want to learn more about science in extreme environments you can watch the video of our recent TalkScience event here.