Staff Spotlight: Professor Aileen Fyfe

Blog written by Professor Aileen Fyfe. Professor Fyfe is a Professor of Modern History. Her research focuses upon the history of science and technology, particularly the communication of science, and the technologies which made that possible. She is currently investigating the history of academic publishing from the seventeenth century to the present day.

Prof Aileen Fyfe At the launch of ‘Academic Women Here’, 2018 (with Sharon Ashbrook)

I joined the School of History at St Andrews in January 2011, after ten years working at the National University of Ireland, Galway (where I learned much less Irish than you might imagine). I was born and brought up in Glasgow, so, thanks to those years in west-coast cities, I find myself still pleasantly surprised by how dry and sunny it usually is in St Andrews. I’m not so keen on the haar, though!

I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where I discovered a subject called ‘History and Philosophy of Science’. I haven’t done much philosophy since then, but that training continues to inform my research. I’m interested in knowledge – especially knowledge about the natural world, which we nowadays call ‘science’ – and I’m interested in the social practices that affect how knowledge is constructed, organised, and communicated. What determines who can claim to have knowledge? Or what forms of knowledge come to be regarded as trustworthy? And who decides who gets access to what knowledge? You could phrase those as philosophical or sociological questions, but I’m interested in them historically.

I pursue these questions in a variety of different contexts, which means I end up knowing about all sorts of things that might not be obvious from the label ‘historian of science’. A lot of it is to do with the history of publishing, since that has historically been one of the most effective ways for knowledge to circulate, but I’ve also written about museums and tourism. I wrote my PhD and first book on the popular science books published by the Religious Tract Society, a Protestant evangelical missionary organisation in nineteenth-century Britain – but I’ve also written about Enlightenment children’s literature, university set texts, and instructive penny periodicals. I’m particularly proud of my 2012 book, Steam-Powered Knowledge, which started off as a study of an Edinburgh educational publisher but turned into an investigation of the adoption of steam-powered technologies (including railways and steamships, as well as printing machines).

A few years after arriving at St Andrews, I won a large grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to enable me—in partnership with the Royal Society—to lead a team of researchers to investigate the 350-year history of scientific journals, and specifically, the Philosophical Transactions, founded in 1665. It has a good claim to be the world’s longest-running scientific journal and some claim to be the first scientific journal (but colleagues in France and Germany may disagree). It is about as far from ‘popular’ science as one can get, but I have found myself becoming fascinated with editorial practices, peer review, and journal finances. We have a co-authored book going through the press at the moment.

(from left to right) Professor Marmaduke Salt of the Royal Panopticon of Science (Iwan Morus); Miss Ann Veronica Stanley, learned scientific gentlewoman (Aileen Fyfe); and Mr George Wells, inventor and brother of H.G. (Katy Price). Credit:

The Philosophical Transactions project transformed the sort of researcher I am in ways I did not anticipate. I used to focus on the period from about 1790-1860, but now I range from the 1660s to the current day, and the last paper I published dealt with the 1950s. My medievalist colleagues may think this chronological range is normal, but to me, it seems pretty long! This longer durée allows us to ask different sorts of historical questions, especially about change over time. This has turned out to be really useful, because the other effect of the project has been to involve me in contemporary debates about research evaluation, the fairness of peer review, and the campaigns for open access publishing. Over the past five years, I’ve spoken at gatherings of publishing industry representatives and policy makers as much, if not more often, than at academic history conferences. And in those contexts, being willing and able to talk about the ‘big picture’—and to connect the past to the present day—is essential. My briefing paper, Untangling Academic Publishing (2017), has been read by far more people—and far more widely—than any of my regular academic writings.

The nature of my research encourages reflection on my own experiences as an academic, whether I’m undertaking public engagement (usually about the Victorians and their technologies) or exploring evidence for gender bias in the research communities of the past. I personally have found academia to offer a great deal of flexibility and personal autonomy, which is very useful to a woman with children in a dual-career household; but I know that this was not true historically, nor is it true for everyone today. That’s why I’ve been involved in various projects to support women academics (such as Academic Women Now! and Academic Women Here!), and why I’m currently working with colleagues and students to investigate the historical experiences of the women who studied, researched, and taught History in our own university. It’s still in the early stages, but we look forward to sharing some of the findings next year!

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime 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 Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, 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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