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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

A history of biology in 20 objects

BIOL10381 (available for 10 credits only)

Lectures Monday 11.00-12.00 and Wednesday 11.00-12.00; Seminar Monday 13.00-14.00

Contact: Dr Elizabeth Toon


  1. To gain a broad perspective on how today’s life sciences have grown out of past investigations of living nature and the nature of life.
  2. To bring biology’s past to life as something that helps us understand our present by focusing on “objects”: topics of inquiry and tools used to carry out these inquiries.
  3. To understand how biology works, how it has changed, and how it may develop in the 21st century. 4. To gain insight into the motivations that inspired scholars in the past to study living things and the circumstances in which such research was pursued.

Intended Learning Outcomes

We will address the following central questions:

  1. What did it mean to investigate living nature, to develop a science of life at various points in history?
  2. Who was interested in this?
  3. How was it done, in different historical, national, social or institutional settings?
  4. Why did biology develop in the way it did?

The course will look and feel different from history courses that students may remember from school. We are not particularly interested in the deeds of great men and women and their dates of birth or death. Lectures will be organised around “objects”: topics of inquiry, key organisms or research tools.


There will be 20 lectures on the history of selected objects.

Objects include:

  • The human body (as studied by anatomists since antiquity)
  • Sex (and reproduction) - Plants (collected and classified by botanists)
  • Skeletons and Embryos (exhibited in museums)
  • The Field (and voyages of discovery)
  • he Cell (one of the unifying concepts in modern biology)
  • The Kymograph (an important device used by experimental physiologists)
  • The Pigeon (and other animals studied by Darwin)
  • The Gene (another unifying concept)
  • Behaviour (Pavlov, Skinner and others)
  • Populations (and the role of statistics in biology)
  • Standardised laboratory animals
  • The ultracentrifuge (and the birth of molecular biology)
  • Information (and the structure of DNA)


  • 1 hour examination: essay-style - 75%
  • Group project on the history of an object, tool, concept or key organism (peer reviewed) - 25%


Students work on their group projects in a series of workshop meetings with the lecturer.

Students  submit a practice essay to prepare for the exam.

Employability Skills

Oral communication - Teaching includes a weekly tutorial where students are invited to discuss topics addressed in the lectures.

Written communication - Students write a project proposal for the group work component of the unit. There are also discussion boards inviting students to share opinions on pieces of reading, broadcasts and other materials.

Group/Team working - A group project forms an integral part of the unit. Students work in groups of three or four towards creating a resource on the history of a concept or object of choice.

Project management - Project management is needed for the group project.

Leadership - Leadership skills help with the group project.

Innovation/Creativity - The group project invites students to create various forms of resource, including web based time lines, or audio or video clips.

Research - The group project relies on independent research.


Selected background readings

  • Allen, Garland E., Life Science in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
  • Bowler, Peter J. and Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  • Cobb, Matthew, The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists who unlocked the Secrets of Sex and Growth (The Free Press, 2006)
  • Coleman, William, Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function and Transformation (Wiley 1971).
  • Mayr, Ernst, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World (Belknap Press, 1997).

Teaching Staff

Dr Matthew Cobb, Dr Elizabeth Toon. With guest lectures by Drs Robert Kirk and Duncan Wilson.

A recent copy of the course outline is available to view (pdf). Please note that course content may change in the next academic year.