Hot And Dry in the Global South: Vanessa Heggie

Dr. Vanessa Heggie of the University of Birmingham, offers her reflections at the end of her visiting fellowship:

I’m currently writing a book provisionally titled Higher and Colder about extreme physiology, and the bio-medical science done on (and for) expeditions to high altitude and across the Antarctic. My three-month Fellowship, courtesy of the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, was in order to extend this work into desert expeditions and experiments (‘Hotter and Dryer’, maybe).

I ended up doing most of my archival work in Adelaide, where the papers of Dr Walter V MacFarlane, a key figure in international research into desert survival, are housed. But Sydney has provided me with many more resources, not least the conversations I’ve had with other scholars; notably, this has consisted of an extraordinarily interdisciplinary set of ideas, from helpful hints about the history of architecture, through a reading group in Gender Studies about fit bodies, to a conference on aviation history. I’ve also had the opportunity to present my work to three quite different audiences, at the history of science department, the History on Mondays Seminar, and at the Centre for Values, Ethics and Law in Medicine. REGS itself has provided a crucial context: so much of my work relies on the (often unacknowledged) assistance of indigenous peoples; Europeans use and appropriate indigenous knowledge of survival tactics when they travel to unfamiliar environments; and the scientific discussions of adaptation to different environments inevitably involve the use of racial science, including eugenics.

History of Science is, when done well, an inherently interdisciplinary activity, and in the book I’m currently writing part of my focus is on the ways that different groups of people – sometimes with very different aims – work together (or not) on group projects. Expeditions to extreme environments are rarely ‘purely’ scientific or ‘purely’ sporting in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, not least because they are often hugely expensive and require multiple sources of income. My work here shows that local researchers studying desert survival got funding from the American military as well as from their home universities and the Australian Government – likewise Antarctic research often had military, civilian, philanthropic and national government funding, while mountaineers could also look to NASA and to the popular media (one publishing company part-funded a trip only on condition that (Sir) Edmund Hillary should lead a hunt for a Yeti!).

There is a trend in some areas of the history of science for ‘retreading’, that is for a more embodied form of history that involves physical experience and travel in the spaces traversed by our historical actors. As a reluctant hiker, this trend fills me with fear about my chosen research topics. Australia has, however, provided a rather gentler set of historical experiences, including my first ever encounter with a cloud chamber (a crucial object in the history of science), and, of course, my first game of 2-up, played on Anzac Day (I won $5 on my first and only bet, for the record). I may not have ventured into the Red Centre, but now I know how entwined Australia is with my research and the stories I want to tell, I hope a return visit is possible, when I might even be tempted into the desert itself.