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MSc History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Making Life: Biological Sciences since 1800

Unit code HSTM60702
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


This unit explores the radical changes in the character of the biological sciences over the last two centuries. Students taking this module will explore the development of key concepts and theories since 1800, will analyse how sites and institutions both shape and are shaped by biological sciences, and will consider how this history has shaped contemporary debates regarding issues such as genetic engineering and CRISPR. Our geographical focus will be on developments in Britain and Continental Europe, but with frequent reference where relevant to North America.


  • Provide students with insight into major trends in the history of biological sciences since 1800, such as the emergence of evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth century; the rise of laboratory-based specialisms around 1900; the increasing connections between biological science and medicine; and the dominance of genetics and molecular approaches after 1945;
  • Help students develop an understanding of how these changes have been understood and explained by historians and social scientists;
  • Locate these changes in their broader social, cultural, intellectual and political contexts;
  • Encourage critical reflection on the importance of sites, materials and institutions in the history of biological sciences;
  • Allow students to develop skills in analysing and discussing relevant secondary literature and locating primary sources relating to major issues in the history of biological sciences (see unit description below for examples).
  • Enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into the history of the biological sciences.  



Teaching and learning methods

The unit will be taught in six two-hour seminar sessions, where we will discuss a range of required readings (primary and secondary). While students are asked to read all required readings for the week, they will be expected to assign themselves a reading which they introduce and discuss to the group as a whole, analysing the author’s argument and placing it in context. All readings will be made available through Blackboard, and a week before each seminar the unit lead will also upload a number of questions to Blackboard that are designed to focus the students’ reading and act as prompts for the seminar discussion. The unit lead will start each seminar by giving a short (5-10 minute) background introduction, and discussion will then centre on the key readings and questions. Seminar performance is not marked, but each student will be expected to contribute equally. 

Knowledge and understanding

- Demonstrate extensive knowledge of major trends in the history of the biological sciences since circa 1800

Intellectual skills

- Place understandings of biological phenomena and working practices in their historical contexts
- Understand relevant secondary literature on topics listed above
- Use historical literature to understand and critique contemporary debates 
- Identify fruitful topics for research essays in the history of biological and biomedical sciences

Practical skills

- Locate relevant primary and secondary sources, for weekly seminars and for research essays
- Plan and write a research essay

Transferable skills and personal qualities

- Work independently when appropriate, e.g. in preparing for seminars and essay writing
- Work in groups to determine who takes the lead in discussing particular readings each week. 
- Discuss work in a group environment, contributing to discussion and listening. 

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

Detailed written feedback, delivered electronically and in person if requested. 

Recommended reading

Lynn K. Nyhart, Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1842 (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, ‘The New Biology’, in Making Modern Science (Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp. 165-88.
Pietro Corsi, ‘Before Darwin: Transformist Concepts in European Natural History’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 38 (2005) pp, 67-83.
Peter Bowler: Evolution: The History of an Idea (University of California Press, 2003).
Hannah Landecker, ‘New Times for Biology: Ross Harrison and the Development of Cellular Life In Vitro’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 33 (2002) pp. 667-93.
Robert E. Kohler, The Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Harry Marks, The Progress of Experiment: Science and Therapeutic Reform in the United States, 1900–1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Ilana Lowy, ‘Trustworthy Knowledge and Desperate Patients: Clinical Tests for Drugs from Cancer to AIDS’, in Margaret Lock and Alberto Cambrosio (eds), Living and Working with the New Medical Technologies: Intersections of Inquiry (Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp. 49-81.
Gregg Mitmann, The State of Nature: Ecology, Community and American Social Thought, 1900-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Georgina Montgomery, ‘Place, Practice and Primatology: Clarence Ray Carpenter, Primate Communication and the Development of Field Methodology, 1931-1945’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 38 (2005) pp. 495-533.
Duncan Wilson and Gael Lancelot, ‘Making Way for Molecular Biology: Institutionalising and Managing Reform of Biological Science in a UK University During the 1980s and 1990s’ Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 39 (2008) pp. 93-108.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 138

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Duncan Wilson Unit coordinator

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