Academic Writing

Peer-Reviewed Academic Publications

Whitney Barlow Robles, “Squid: Natural History as Food History, c. 1730–1860.” In Natural Things in Early Modern Worlds. Ed. Mackenzie Cooley, Anna Toledano, and Duygu Yıldırım. New York: Routledge, 2023.

The history of science and the history of food have largely been narrated as separate stories. But many natural entities in the early modern period were, at their core, consumable. Natural histories documented the viability of plants and animals as foodstuffs; trying circumstances could force naturalists to eat their specimens instead of preserving them; and naturalists used food itself—from rum to oats to bread—to prepare and transport specimens. While food historians and material culture scholars rightly lament the scarcity of historical foodstuffs preserved in archives (given food’s transient nature), the collections of natural history museums offer tangible evidence of early modern foodways. Objects’ simultaneous status as curiosities and as foods drove the material practices of nature studies, particularly in British imperial investigations of so-called new worlds in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic and Pacific. By retracing the journey of a squid that fed crewmembers of James Cook’s Endeavour voyage, this chapter argues that the framework of natural things offers a unique means of connecting food history and the history of science, as it also uncovers long-lasting hierarchies that underwrote natural history investigations. This book chapter is a companion piece to the digital exhibition The Kitchen in the Cabinet: Histories of Food and Science.

Whitney Barlow Robles, “The Rattlesnake and the Hibernaculum: Animals, Ignorance, and Extinction in the Early American Underworld,” William and Mary Quarterly 78, no. 1 (January 2021): 3–44.

This essay asks how a history goes missing. Though rattlesnakes have been enduring objects of fascination for scholars of early America, almost all existing studies approach them as revolutionary icons, representations, or mere occasions to explore human politics. This article uses a long-forgotten specimen to uncover the lost history of timber rattlesnakes as material beings that shaped everyday life and colonial science in the long eighteenth century. As animals with subterranean social networks hidden from view, a cryptic sensorium, semiotic rattles, and fear-inducing lethality, rattlesnakes brewed a perfect storm of ignorance for colonial science and expansion. Many Euro-American naturalists preferred to avoid studying them. European settlers attempted to wipe rattlesnakes from existence by preying on their unique kinship structures and reproductive ecology, setting practices and attitudes in motion that have led to the local extirpation or endangerment of timber rattlesnakes throughout much of their historical range. Meanwhile, various Native Americans shielded the snakes from settler violence through calculated obfuscation of their whereabouts. Today’s conservationists continue an unacknowledged legacy of eighteenth-century Native peoples by hiding the locations of rattlesnake dens, called hibernacula. By employing a species-specific approach and interdisciplinary methods, this article considers the intractability of animal histories writ large.

Whitney Barlow Robles, “Flatness,” in The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, ed. Ethan W. Lasser (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2017).

This book chapter traces the creation, circulation, and use of flattened fish specimens affixed to paper like plant herbarium sheets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I consider how this material practice literalized the metaphor of the “book” or “page” of nature, converting these specimens into objects of natural theology and a form of scientific paperwork. While naturalists would use this technique to standardize nature and render it visible, the lifeways and material form of fishes influenced and often resisted such representation. This essay also compares the difficulties of forcing fish into two dimensions with problems facing eighteenth-century portraiture and microscopy.

Whitney Barlow Robles, “Atlantic Disaster: Boston Responds to the Cape Ann Earthquake of 1755,” The New England Quarterly 90, no. 1 (March 2017): 7–35.

This article examines religious, scientific, and newspaper responses to the Cape Ann earthquake of 1755, a major temblor that affected Boston and other regions throughout the Atlantic world. The collective experience of the earthquake remained a fractured one, not only due to its discontinuous effects across the region and the diverse ways of interpreting it, but also because an event of this magnitude and scope continuously put forth new information, prompting those in the eighteenth century to partake in their own revisionist histories. As ministers and natural philosophers rushed to amend and expand their statements on the earthquake with appendices to their printed works, news of a far more devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon, Portugal on November 1, 1755, reached the American colonies. Reports from Lisbon drove Americans to revise their picture of the New England event once more and broaden their horizon of environmental upheaval to one that extended into and across the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean also provides a link to bridge disparate historiographic trends, reconciling the seeming tension between the movement toward larger Atlantic or global histories and calls for local, fine-grained histories.

Daan Witters, Bing Sun, Stefano Begolo, Jesus Rodriguez-Manzano, Whitney Robles, and Rustem F. Ismagilov, “Digital Biology and Chemistry,” Lab on a Chip 14 (2014): 3225–3232.

This article examines how microfluidics can be used in chemistry and biology to study natural switching systems and single molecules, cells, and organisms.

Web-Based Academic Publications

Whitney Barlow Robles, “Science for the History of Science: An Imperfect Tool,” Uncommon Sense (Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture blog), March 3, 2021.

In this companion piece to my William and Mary Quarterly article on rattlesnakes (see above), I reflect on the use of recent scientific research as a tool for reconstructing the lives and environments of historical animals.

Whitney Barlow Robles, “Natural History in Two Dimensions,” Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life 18, no. 1 (Winter 2018).

This essay recounts my reenactment of an eighteenth-century method of preserving fish on paper in flattened form, revealing how enslaved laborers, kitchen knowledge, and craft techniques helped build major eighteenth-century zoological collections. It received Harvard University’s Bowdoin Prize in the Natural Sciences and was named Best Historical Reenactment by Bunk in their Best American History Reads of 2018. 

Whitney Barlow Robles, “A Naturalist in Historian’s Clothing,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History (November 27, 2017).

In this post, I describe the influence of nature writing on my own work.