Friday, August 17, 2012

London 2012: A Research Trip in an Olympic Year

By Jason Underhill (Ph.D. student)

The Olympic Stadium
 They all said I was crazy embarking on a research trip to London during the Olympics. “It will be impossible to get around!” they cried. “You’ll never get any research done during the Olympics” others warned. I am happy to report that the naysayers were absolutely wrong.* I went to London this summer looking for alchemical recipes and returned with enough material for my dissertation, a 100 level history course, and a 300 level chemistry course.

The British Library
I love the British Library. I think it’s one of my favourite buildings in the world. It’s one of the few places where, just by entering, you stand upon the steps of tomorrow. A place in which something innovative is always being developed that will take the world by surprise. Contained within the holdings of the library, however, are manuscripts that allow you to sink into the past and discover all the plans and schemes that have led to the dreams of all mankind.

Letter from William Medley to Lord Burleigh, process for transmuting iron into copper (1572)
The staff at the library were exceptional even during a time when the library was overrun with a combination of tourists, scholars, and literary fanatics visiting the “Writing Britain” exhibit. I was able to finish my research in only two days and obtain copies of the five recipes I needed, plus a few letters that I'd missed last year.

The first of these recipes was one that detailed the process by which Edward Kelley (John Dee’s skryer) coated copper with silver in such a way that it would convince all those watching that it had been transmuted. The second is the process that William Medley used to supposedly transmute iron into copper, copperas and alum. This recipe would form the foundation of the Society of the New Art which attracted many prominent Elizabethan nobles including secretary of state Thomas Smith, Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, the queen’s favourite Robert Dudley, the poet Edward Dyer, the Countess of Pembroke Mary Sidney Herbert and her husband and brother. The final recipes were by Raymond Lully and detailed ways in which to manipulate lead, antimony, silver, mercury and other metals to become potent medical treatments for various diseases.

These will be used for my dissertation, as part of a potential publication--and my joint project with the Chemistry Department this term: to test alchemical recipes in theory, which may lead to practical tests of these recipes in the future.

That, of course, was not the end of my work. Knowing that I would be teaching History 110 this fall I visited the British Museum to take advantage of their Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Chinese and Roman exhibits.
At the British Museum
I look forward to using images like these in my teaching when we examine ancient art and architecture. Of course, my experiences at the London 2012 Olympics will also be used to lecture on the Ancient Greek games. In all, this turned out to be one of my most promising and productive summers yet despite all of the doom and gloom forecasts for London 2012!

* The editor, having spent the summer in London, agrees with Jason. The centre of London was very quiet--and reading rooms at various libraries, nearly empty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Research Tales: Remembering That You're Not in Charge

By Sarah York (M.A. student)

When I started research for my thesis three months ago, I was mistaken. I believed I was in charge. The truth is I’m only partly in charge.

It first struck me while I was speaking with a librarian on the telephone. I was trying to arrange a date to visit his library’s archive when he explained, “We’re a small library with only a handful of staff. Since it is the summer most of our staff is away on holidays. You can try to come do research but I can’t guarantee anyone will be able to retrieve anything for you.” Since this library is in a community several hours away, I was not going to show up and hope someone could help me.

I watched helplessly as the days I planned to do ‘out-of-town’ research passed by. I kept myself busy reading newspapers on microfilm and visiting local archives. But then I hit a roadblock. I was running out of sources and I did not know where to look for new ones.

My supervisor suggested I e-mail James Gray’s daughter, Patricia Fennell. James Gray’s book Red Lights on the Prairies is the first investigation of the early sex trade in Canada’s Prairie Provinces. I coveted Gray’s sources. Not only did he use newspaper articles and police reports, he had access to first-hand accounts of the early sex trade – sources that were impossible for me to acquire today. I learned from Patricia that Gray had destroyed these accounts to protect his informants. However, Patricia’s husband, Bill Fennell, had some information he wanted to share with me.

Bill is the great-nephew of Walter Johnson, a name I immediately recognized. Johnson was the Police Chief and subsequent mayor of Moose Jaw during my period of study. Bill wrote:

When he [Johnson] was Police Chief, he used to park his vehicle in front of the Police Station with one of the windows rolled down a bit. Every Friday afternoon, weather permitting, the Ladies of the Night would stroll by and, somehow, they would drop a few envelopes into Chief Johnson's vehicle through the window, containing their political contributions to his cause.

Moose Jaw’s sex trade workers wanted to see Johnson become Mayor.

Bill’s family history was the human element I was searching for. But I came across it in an unexpected and serendipitous way. Our e-mail ‘conversation’ showed me again how much I am not in charge. I’ve learned to cope with this disconcerting fact by surrendering to it and by recognizing that sometimes relying on other people isn’t so bad.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Public Lecture: Baseball and Race in Canada

Baseball fan? Interested in race? Canadian history buff? Then mark your calendars now for John Herd Thompson's (History, Duke University) lecture “Baseball and Race in Canada: The Case of Jackie Robinson”. 

Discussing the intersections of sport and race in Canada from the late 19th Century through the 1940s, Thompson will focus on baseball and Robinson's year in MontrĂ©al to consider changing conceptions of "race" in the city, the province, and in Canada. He will consider Canada's role in creating, maintaining, and (eventually) breaking Organized Baseball's "color line" during Jackie Robinson's year with the MontrĂ©al Royals from October 1945 until the end of the 1946 International League season. 

Date: Monday, September 24, 2012 
Time: 7:30 pm 
Place: Arts 241 (Neatby-Timlin Theatre)  

For more information, please contact Bill Waiser ( 

The lecture is sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity and the Department of History.