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TRACKING HOW THE LIFE SCIENCES HAVE CHANGED THE ‘IDEAS’ ABOUT MILK OVER 300 YEARS

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Dr. Barbara Orland from the Pharmacy Museum of the University of Basel is investigating how scientific explanations of lactation and milk developed and changed over three centuries. Her findings are planned for publication in a monograph with the title Metabolism: Milk, Blood and Material Exchanges in the History of the Life Sciences (1620-1840).

What is milk? Modern people would argue it is a food – produced by the mammary glands of mammals – whose nutritional benefits result from its chemical compounds. Early modern people, in contrast, considered milk as a bodily fluid with many meanings and relations. Milk, at first, was a metabolic substance, closely related to blood, whose nature told much about the inner flows and generative processes within the human body.

How did this radical shift from a physiological to a chemical understanding of milk take place, and how did this transformation influence the use of milk? The knowledge history of milk, as it is told in this project, challenges the structure of most narratives about the development of the sciences and the usual boundaries that organise scientific disciplines. It further reveals how society’s shift in perception depended on the development of new research techniques and scientific theories. The Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation is supporting this special project in an effort to shed historical light on how milk was used as a food and medicine from 1620-1840.

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