Catastrophic Knowledge: Early Modern Disaster Science

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
12:00 p.m. EDT (UTC -4)


Meteorology: atmospheric effects. Coloured engraving by J. Emslie, 1846, after himself.

Meteorology: atmospheric effects. Colored engraving by J. Emslie, 1846, after himself.

Wellcome Collection

Disasters of various kinds are seldom out of the news, and they also formed an object of dreadful fascination for premodern people. In this talk Louis Gerdelan will look at how interactions among scientists, doctors, astrologers, and churchmen in the 17th and 18th centuries were responsible for forming the foundations of modern disaster knowledge.

Focusing on researchers from the British, French, and Spanish empires who collected and analyzed data about storms, earthquakes, and epidemics, the talk will discuss the emergence of methods for vetting and analyzing data from these destructive phenomena, and the implications these innovations had for the way people understood disasters in this period.

About the Speaker

Louis Gerdelan is a historian of the early modern world, with a particular focus on the British, Spanish, and French empires. His work joins the history of science with intellectual and environmental history. He is currently writing a monograph that examines how knowledge about disasters (with particular reference to earthquakes, storms, and epidemics) developed in the 17th- and 18th-century Atlantic world as a result of the research practices that scholars began to adopt in this period. At the Science History Institute Gerdelan will be concentrating on uncovering the ways in which chemistry, meteorology, and medicine combined within the context of disaster research.


Loius Gerdelan on library balcony

Louis Gerdelan.

Gerdelan completed his PhD in History at Harvard University in 2021, and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships, including from the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, the Omohundro Institute, and the North American Conference on British Studies. He has published work in the journals Studi Storici and (forthcoming) the Massachusetts Historical Review.

About the Series

Our virtual Lunchtime Lecture Series is for scholars and anyone curious about the history of science, technology, and medicine. Topics range from rigorous to entertaining, and help expand perceptions of the nature of science and how it’s done.