I am currently working on two small bits of writing. The first will be a short article of 2,000 words on animal merchants that will be published in the October 2011 edition of Viewpoint, the newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science. The second, is a short blog post to be included on the forthcoming blog of the new research network The Culture of Preservation: the afterlife of specimens between art and science since the eighteenth century.
I have been asked to choose a object – a taxidermy or spirit specimen – and I have chosen to write my contributing post on a electric eel specimen made by or prepared for the London anatomist John Hunter between 1775 and 1793 (RCSHC/2185, Royal College of Surgeons of England). I’ll be using this specimen to talk about the cultural life of the electric eel in late eighteenth-century London. In the late 1770s electric eels could be seen alive in exhibitions and were experimented on by both spectators and electricians.* The surgeon John Hunter published on the electric eel and his dissections of this unusual animal. Electricity had some erotic connotations in this period and Georgian writers wryly observed the erotic electric spark that could be generated from the electric eel. Sexual and penile metaphors abounded. In one instance Hunter himself – exploring dead eels with a scapel – was written about as a erotic adventurer eager to explore the electrical organs of the mysterious eel. Relating my blog post to this rather unassuming and unpleasantly greyish object, I will attempt to write a short account of the cultural signficance of this object; looking particularly at a eighteenth-century historical experience of the body, sensations, and erotica.
*Eighteenth-century experimenters with electricity called themselves‘‘electricians’’