Spotlight on Aileen Fyfe
April 5, 2013 Leave a comment
Dr Aileen Fyfe grew up in Glasgow, took all her degrees at Cambridge (Jesus College), and, after getting her PhD in 2000, spent ten years as a lecturer in the History Department at NUI Galway, in Ireland. She returned to Scotland to join the St Andrews School of History at the start of 2011. Her years on the extreme west coast of the British archipelago make the drier, sunnier climate of the east coast particularly welcome!
Aileen usually describes herself as a social and cultural historian of the sciences, but she’s equally likely to claim to be an historian of publishing, and at St Andrews she is described as a modern British historian. She did her graduate training in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, and an interest in the production, circulation and consumption of knowledge remains at the core of all her work.
Among the topics she has written about are: the readership of science books for children in the 1790s; university textbooks and examinations in the 1810s and 1820s; religious publishing charities in the 1840s; and the natural historical and geological content of tourist guidebooks in the 1850s. Her Science and Salvation: evangelicals and popular science in Victorian Britain (2004) investigated the authors and editors of the science works produced by the Religious Tract Society in the 1840s, arguing that evangelicals were far less opposed to the sciences than had previously been assumed. Her co-edited Science in the Marketplace: nineteenth-century sites and experiences (2007) has been widely recognised as making an important contribution to the debates on popular science, by drawing attention beyond the printed word, to include museums, exhibitions, zoos, lectures and conversations, and the interaction between these media.
Most recently, her prize-winning Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the business of publishing, 1820-1860 (2012) brought together the cultural history of technology and the history of publishing, to show how a publisher of cheap instructive works adopted and adapted the emerging new technologies of industrial printing and distribution, and integrated them into his goal of educating the English-speaking world.
This wide range of interests is reflected in Aileen’s teaching: she coordinates the Scottish-British sub-honours survey module (MO2008 Scotland, Britain and Empire, 1500-2000); teaches Victorian social and cultural history at 3000-level (MO3219 Print Culture in Britain 1750-1900 and MO3331 The Victorians: Religion and Respectability); and offers Victorian technology as a special subject (MO4930: The Technologies of Victorian Britain). She contributes to the MLitt programmes in Modern History, Early Modern History and Book History, dealing with topics as varied as the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the invention of copyright, and the Victorian family. She will be launching a new 3000-level module on ‘Nature and Society in Victorian Britain’ in the coming academic year.
Aileen likes to use material culture in her teaching, has taken her students on field trips to various nineteenth-century homes, to rare book collections, and to the National Museum for Scotland. She has also done a number of public events at MUSA, the university museum, the most recent of which involved dressing up in historic costume!
Aileen is currently suffering an embarrassment of riches, being the PI on two AHRC-funded projects as well as a member of an AHRC research network. Her small project focuses on the recreation of a Victorian popular science show, which will be performed for modern audiences in summer 2013. The big project, which will run until 2017, is a social, cultural and economic history of the world’s oldest scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Now the postdocs have been recruited, the project gets underway in May 2013, and the team will be planning lots of celebratory events – particularly for public audiences – in 2015, the year of the journal’s 350th anniversary.
Aileen has long been involved with the British Society for the History of Science, and will be organising its 2014 meeting in St Andrews. Since 2011, she has been a member of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland, and was elected co-chair in 2012. This has led to invitations to meet the US Ambassador, to attend a dinner-debate on enterprise and innovation in Scotland, and to meet Olympic medallist Katherine Grainger.
Aileen hopes one day to have the time to write a book on ‘The Victorian Information Revolution’ and to develop her interest in the links between tourism and the sciences.