Featured Fellow: Xiaona Wang

Xiaona Wang

I feel deeply honoured to receive this year’s Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellowship at IASH. It seems to be a scarcely believable accolade to someone who still feels a novice at trying to understand European history and culture. I was originally trained in the natural sciences, specializing in chemistry (in China). I then became interested in the history of Western science, and soon realized that I had to come to Europe to study these matters. I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the MSc Course in Intellectual History in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and pursued a PhD in the history of 17th-century English science in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies. My doctoral dissertation was focused largely on the intellectual background to Isaac Newton’s thought, and my IASH project will look at the subsequent influence of Newton, and will shift the focus from England to the Scottish Enlightenment. 

During my Fellowship, I will carry out research on the early Scottish Newtonians, and in particular on Newtonian medicine in 18th century Scotland. Newton always appears near the top of any list of the greatest scientists of all time and interest in him is always high, with historians of science no less than with the general public. But his important role in the history of medicine has not received sufficient scholarly attention, and has been virtually ignored since the late 1980s. This seems a particularly fruitful time for Newtonian studies because three major works have recently appeared, each of which deal with his work and influence in subjects other than the physical sciences: his work in history, religion, and alchemy (by Mordechai Feingold and Jed Buchwald, Rob Iliffe and William Newman). The time is ripe, perhaps, for a major study of Newtonian medicine, and my work at IASH will be the beginning of what I hope will lead me to longer-term research on Newtonian medicine in 18th century Scotland.

In fact, it is surprising that the earliest thinkers to take up Newtonianism were medical writers—many of them Scottish, beginning with Archibald Pitcairne, but also including James Keill, William Cockburn and George Cheyne. These writers tried to develop new systems of medicine, based on Newtonian methods and Newtonian ideas. Some work was done on these thinkers back in the 1980s (by Anita Guerrini), but hardly anything since. I want to try to uncover what attracted these medical men to Newtonianism, whether it was just a way of exploiting the authority of Newton to enhance their own reputations, or whether they saw real possibilities for medical science in Newtonianism. By comparing their published writings with their own private casebooks, and with letters to patients, it should be possible to assess how much of their practice was based on Newtonian theory, and how much on mere rhetoric. Correspondence between patients and practitioners ought to provide valuable insights also into what patients made of their doctors’ emphasis upon supposedly Newtonian principles. Valuable, and underused, collections of such correspondence, and of casebooks, can be found in the Edinburgh University Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and in various collections in Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen and in the British Library in London.

I have now just started my research at IASH and I hope my work in this area will constitute an important contribution to scholarship in the history of science and medicine, and in studies of the Scottish Enlightenment. IASH is the most wonderful place for me to do this research, and I very much look forward to an enjoyable and fruitful time here.