Spotlight on John Clark

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Dr John Clark

In John Clark’s final year as an undergraduate, two senior academics suggested that he pursue postgraduate studies, preferably obtaining three degrees from three different institutions. He took their advice. After completion of a BA (Hons) at the University of Western Ontario and an MA at the University of Toronto, he attended the University of Oxford, where two separate Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada fellowships permitted him to complete his DPhil and to undertake two further years as a postdoctoral fellow. He then obtained a Wellcome-funded appointment as a lecturer in the history of medicine and the life sciences at the University of Kent, before joining the University of St Andrews as a modern British historian with interests in environmental history; and as Director of the Institute of Environmental History, which was a unique and innovative institution in Western Europe, when founded by T.C. Smout in 1992.

John Clark’s research has sought to demonstrate that a systematic study of nature has constituted a significant part of the culture of the modern Western world. Rather than seeing science as an endeavor to draw back the veil on existent truths which await discovery, John contends that changing knowledge of the natural world must be located in specific places and times: science should be firmly embedded in the social history of ideas. Moreover, he contends that we should seek to understand how and why science assumed a privileged cultural position. Paradoxically, science, which has become a central feature of modern Western society, is often perceived as peripheral to ‘mainstream’ history. Although historians are surrounded by nature, it has become part of the world that we have lost. John’s book, Bugs and the Victorians, therefore, examined insects and the people who studied them, over a long nineteenth century, as part of a realignment of Western culture. More recently, he developed this argument within a special issue of Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2014), which he guest edited.

Illustration from a booklet entitled 'The House Fly Danger: The Most Dangerous Animal on Earth' (1921).

‘The House Fly Danger: The Most Dangerous Animal on Earth’ (1921).

Through the agency of the house fly, John was led to the history of waste. In the early twentieth century, the house fly became the suspected transmitter of diseases that depleted the ranks of future generations through diphtheria and infant diarrhoea, and that decimated the fighting ranks of patriot soldiers through typhoid and other enteric disorders. Contemporaries became exercised about the habits and life histories of house flies, which they associated with filth and waste.

Shortly after taking up his position at St Andrews, John made a successful bid (with Dr Fiona Watson, University of Stirling) for major funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to undertake research in environmental history. They engaged in research projects organized around the theme of the history of ‘waste’. At St Andrews, John was fortunate to work with exceptional postdoctoral fellows from the disciplines of sociology, geography, and political history. All of these researchers have gone on to obtain full-time academic appointments in Britain, and they continue to research and publish on waste within their respective disciplines. John has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume on waste and modernity, Aesthetic Fatigue (2013), with John Scanlan, and he is co-writing a monograph on the history of waste in Britain with Tim Cooper.

John’s research continues to develop strands of the history of science, waste, and environmentalism, and it has increased in chronological breadth to encompass the twentieth century. As part of a larger project on the history of environmentalism, John received funding from the Carnegie Trust (in 2012) to investigate a local pollution incident, in Smarden, Kent, in the 1960s which assumed national and international significance in the wake of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

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The history of waste: an early twentieth century destructor, or incinerator.

John approaches his teaching as another facet of his scholarship. In 2012, for example, he received funding from the International Council for Canadian Studies to travel to Canada to acquire knowledge and materials for a new module on Canadian history, Canada – from age of exploration to age of energy. In general, John’s honours modules reflect the various strands of his research interests. By design, his courses cover relatively broad chronological periods and geographical areas. This provides students with the opportunity to step back and consider change and continuity over long stretches of time. When dealing with human interaction with the environment and biological processes, broader chronological and global perspectives are helpful. His honours options include Disease and the Environment, c. 1500-2000, Environmental History: Nature and the Western World, 1800-2000, and Filth and the Disease of Poverty in 19th-Century Britain. His special subject, Charles Darwin and the Politics of Progress, covers the period from 1789 to 1930 and beyond.

John Clark has spent his career engaged in interdisciplinary research and teaching, which he finds challenging and intellectually stimulating. He has been involved with several interdisciplinary initiatives at St Andrews. He was one of the founding lecturers for a Sustainable Development module which has since expanded into a designated degree programme. He provides a historical dimension to the teaching programme for sub-honours modules SD1001 and SD2002. He has had the privilege to teach Sustainable Development students at every level of their undergraduate studies, and at the Masters level. More recently, John helped to establish a new set of unique, cross-faculty sub-honours modules on ‘Great Ideas’; and he continues to teach on one of the resultant modules, ID1004. Within the School of History, he contributes to MO1008, Themes in Late Modern History, c.1776-1989.

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John believes that historiography provides an excellent means through which to introduce students to the rich possibilities of historical scholarship. Consequently, he contributes to the sub-honours module, HI2001 History as a Discipline: Development and Key Concepts. He also co-designed a core course for taught postgraduate students in Modern History, History in the Making, to which he continues to contribute.

As Director of the Institute for Environmental History, John convenes postgraduate studies in Environmental History.

John Clark can be seen talking about the history of waste on a television programme, entitled Trashopolis.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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