A type who's not for casting

January 30, 1998

Ludmilla Jordanova is the British Society for the History of Science's first woman president for half a century. She talks to Gail Vines.

For the first time in 51 years, the British Society for the History of Science has elected a woman as its president. Ludmilla Jordanova is due to move into the top post this June. A more committed ambassador for the field would be hard to find. When she first encountered the subject, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, "it was like falling in love; I knew this was right for me. It is a fantastic subject and I've never fallen out of love with it".

The history of science - as "one of the most important mediators between science and the outside world" - deserves a wider audience, Jordanova believes. Scientists may think they know best, but "the historical scholar has a critical distance that a practising scientist doesn't", she argues. "I think historians of science ought to be quite bullish about this."

Still in her forties, Jordanova is now professor of visual arts at the University of East Anglia, but this title is misleading. She is impossible to pigeonhole. When pressed, she calls herself a cultural historian, but even that label does not do justice to the range of her interests. She is a historian of science, of medicine, of art and of gender, with each perspective informing the others. No wonder her work centres on the 18th century: "The Enlightenment is the cultural historian's dream movement - everything is happening all together."

Onora O'Neill, now principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, was a member of the panel that appointed the young Jordanova as lecturer in history at the University of Essex in 1980. O'Neill remembers that "she was already head and shoulders above the rest''. Eight years later, Jordanova had become a senior lecturer with two young children to look after. "I remember seeing her bicycling in, with a rather large child on her back destined for the campus nursery,'' says O'Neill. "I don't understand how she could muster that kind of energy."

For her PhD at Cambridge, Jordanova unleashed her intellectual energies on the French biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, who proposed one of the earliest (superficially plausible) theories of evolution. Lamarck's lifespan - he was born in the 1740s and died in 1829 - has since become her favourite period of history. But in her thesis, she also tackled "his powerful afterlife'', exploring the "many layers of meaning and interpretation'' applied by subsequent generations. "This is a method I still like to use,'' she says. "To understand what other people could see in them.'' This work was the basis of her first book, an overview of Lamarck published in the Oxford Past Masters series.

After Cambridge, Jordanova moved to a research post in the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine in Oxford, where she wrote a paper that was to mark the beginning of a powerful preoccupation with images. It illustrated how seemingly arcane objects - the wax models of dissected men and women, produced as teaching aids for 18th-century medical students - could provide startling insights into the cultural history of ideas of femininity and masculinity.

Then, at Essex, she says, "it dawned on me that I really needed another qualification, in art history, if I were to take this kind of work further''. She enrolled as a part-time staff candidate in the art history and theory department, where she wrote her MA dissertation on relationships between art and medicine in the 18th century, and had a baby.

Appointed professor of history at Essex in 1991, aged 41, Jordanova was soon invited to take up a new chair in cultural history at York. But in 1996 she moved south again, for family reasons, to become professor of visual arts at the University of East Anglia. Here, she and her colleagues are looking for ways of making visual and material culture across the world come alive for students. Always experimenting in her teaching methods, she tries to "think of new ways to grab their attention''.

At Norwich, she has begun research on Richard Mead, a doctor and collector who died in 1754. He collected gems, medals, prints, drawings, paintings and books, and wrote medical treatises, including an interpretation of the Bible from a medical point of view, all the while maintaining a thriving medical practice. His afterlife was equally amazing,involving, not least, a gold-headed cane given to him by another physician, which passed to five other physicians before it became enshrined in the Royal College of Physicians in London. "You can see how these people are almost self-consciously constructing lineages, rather like male kinships," she says. "I am very interested in how scientific and medical communities construct their cultures. They do that pictorially and through objects like the cane or memorial sculptures, as much as they do through texts or through their actual work." Intriguingly, the activities of Mead and other prominent scientists and doctors were also perceived as central to the identity of the nation-state. "By the early 18th century, people already say about Mead, 'this man is a great glory to the nation'.

"I want to show how the history of medicine and art and collecting are not really in water-tight boxes; they are all part of this wider history. I'm interested in thematic history that shows how what we think of as different domains are connected together. It is a kind of holistic view of the past, but a holistic view that is about ideas, about taking seriously what goes on inside people's heads, about how the work of culture goes on between the ears. Do you know that wonderful quotation - I think it's from Ivan Illich - where he says gender is not what happens between the legs but between the ears? Well, I think that's brilliant. I want to be a historian of what goes on between the ears."

Jordanova is also much admired for her efforts to make universities better places for women to work in. Tensions around gender in university life came as something of a shock after years in women-friendly environments. She went to Oxford High School for Girls when Mary Warnock was its head. Her decade at Cambridge, as an undergraduate, graduate student and research fellow, was spent in a women's college, New Hall. "It sounds incredibly naive, but I never realised that universities were run by men.'' She adds: "I didn't know what the issues were; no one ever told me. I just wish someone had explained them to me and offered advice."

Yet Jordanova wants to strike a positive note. "I've noticed a difference in recent years. There is now more support for younger women, and generally the role of women is more acknowledged. A handful of senior figures sympathetic to women have made a huge impact.'' All the same, the challenges facing women in academia remain very real, she says. Many institutions, including UEA, have few women in senior posts. What is more, she points out, "women tend to approach leadership and the exercise of authority differently from men. Gender in the running of universities remains a huge, contentious issue".

With characteristic generosity, Jordanova celebrates the "real pioneers''.At New Hall she particularly admired the late classicist Elizabeth Rawson. "She had an absolute sense of the seriousness and appropriateness of what she did. She wasn't defensive about it or pushing it, she just did what she did incredibly well.'' At Essex, she appreciated Onora O'Neill's ability to be "serious, cool and collected about what she does''. Jordanova says: "I don't really feel I have any of those qualities."

Yet Jordanova's colleagues could not disagree more. "She has a tremendous clarity of her own sense of purpose, and an inspirational effect on students,'' says Marilyn Strathern, professor of social anthropology at Cambridge. Roy Porter, professor at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, says: "The admirable thing about her is that she has always been really gutsy, never slunk away from a challenge. A large number of younger female scholars I know now look up to her as their role model.'' With a Bulgarian father and an English mother, Jordanova was brought up by just her mother, a teacher of English as a foreign language. She was an only child, and there was not much money. "I went to a wonderful girls' school, but being in Oxford and not coming from a university family, you did feel pretty much that you were a third-class citizen. I think I got through childhood and adolescence by reading - that was tremendously important to me.'' A key figure in her early life was her grandmother. "She was the one who looked after me. Every weekend till she died, between the ages of about five and 12, I got on the bus on the Woodstock road to go on my own to my grandmother's - a 45-minute bus ride away. "

As a teenager, Jordanova planned to study medicine, and then, on Mary Warnock's advice, nearly read anthropology. At the last moment she opted for natural sciences. But when she stumbled upon the history and philosophy of science, she found the perfect springboard for her subsequent intellectual explorations. "The history and philosophy of science is a very special kind of field ... It makes you not afraid of big ideas or abstractions, and it teaches you how to think."

Her focus now is the nature of history. She is writing a book, History in Practice for Edward Arnold. "History is so important and insidious that it cannot be reduced to simple formulae,'' she says. "People often want quick returns, they want to be told 'the lessons of history', but this is a notion I absolutely loathe. It implies that the past is usable just for didactic purposes - as if the past has one predominant meaning. One of the things I want to keep insisting on is that the past never has those kinds of simple meanings. Yet it is a kind of resource, rather like a dictionary of musical themes. The past is the place you go to, to think about human themes. In fact, people never separate off the past, present and future. Conceptually, we are always moving between the three. We may pick up resonances from the past, but these aren't explanations or prescriptions, they are tools for thinking or tools for feeling."

Nature Displayed: Gender, Science and Medicine, 1760-1820 by Ludmilla Jordonova will be published later this year.

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