Apurva Kanneganti ‘20, THURJ Writer
One of Harvard’s newest and brightest faculty additions, Professor Hannah Marcus is quickly making a name for herself in the History of Science department. Within a year of her arrival at Harvard, Marcus is already finishing up her first book, a translation of letters written by an enigmatic 16th century female apothecary and philosopher. A few of her numerous other projects including studying medical censorship in the Early Modern era and examining the literary proclivities of the great Galileo Galilei. THURJ writer Apurva Kanneganti had a chance to chat with Marcus about her story and her passion for research.
AK: Thank you for giving us this opportunity! To start off, could you give me some information about your educational background and career thus far?
HM: Absolutely! I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, which was a big change from the small town in Maine where I grew up. I also spent all of my junior year at the University of Bologna where I learned Italian and fell in love with the early history of science and doing research in archives. I took a year off after my undergraduate and worked at the State Archives in Maine on Civil War materials while I applied to graduate school. Then I moved to California to do my PhD at Stanford, and finally spent a postdoctoral year based in Princeton before I started working here at Harvard in 2017.
AK: If you could name the single largest influence on your work until now, who or what would it be?
HM: My PhD advisor at Stanford, Paula Findlen, is not only one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, she’s also generous and a model of scholarship. I strive to emulate her in my academic career.
[Paula Findlen is the Professor of Early Modern Europe and History of Science at Stanford and recipient of the 2016 Premio Galileo prize. She and Marcus are currently working together on The Galileo Correspondence Project.]
AK: When you were an undergraduate, were there any classes that you think really had an impact on you? If so, what were they and why?
HM: Yes! Two classes hugely influenced my future career. The first was Econ 001 where I learned about opportunity cost and decided that I should be starting to learn a new language rather than toiling with advanced French and biding my time for study abroad. As a result, I started taking Italian classes, which is why I ended up going to Italy and discovering the incredible joy of archival research. Every discipline has a necessary skill set. One of the unspoken skill sets of doing historical research is reading different languages. I now work in six languages on a regular basis.
The other class that made a huge impact on me was actually not a class, but a book history seminar series that met on Monday evenings in the Rare Book Room at Penn. I was working in the library as a job, so I started going to the seminar with my colleagues after the library closed, and that’s where I learned about academic community and how academics engage in and share their research.
AK: Speaking of classes, what classes are you teaching right now, and do you have any ideas for classes you’d like to teach in the future?
HM: Ooh! I’m having such fun teaching History of Science 117—Inventing Science, right now. It’s a new course for me, and it’s a wonderful project to synthesize and weave together the many strands that make early science such a fascinating topic. (I’ll also be teaching it again next spring for those of you who missed it this year.) In the fall, I’m excited to be developing an undergraduate seminar on the early history of medicine in Europe.
AK: Turning to your work, could you talk briefly about your research focus?
HM: My research focuses on the interaction between science and religion in the period following the Protestant Reformation. My first book looks at the Catholic censorship of scientific books in the 16th and 17th centuries, and also pays particular attention to books as physical, material objects. In addition to understanding how censors and early modern readers dealt with the content of the science, I’ve also spent a lot of time examining how censorship has left physical traces on books in the form of missing or blacked out pages, changed words, and passages that are pasted over with other paper to cover up illegal content. This is the kind of research methodology that was modeled in the book history seminar I sat in on as an undergraduate.
AK: What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments at this point in your career?
HM: I’m very proud of the book I’m finishing right now [Translation of Camilla Erculiani, Letters on Natural Philosophy], but probably my most sparkly finding is an article that will come out next year on Galileo writing in cipher, which has escaped notice for the past 350 years. This article is part of a larger project I’ve been working on that looks at Galileo’s correspondence and has related digital history components as well.
AK: What type of role do you think the Harvard environment has had in shaping your research?
HM: Harvard is all about research. Everything about my job here helps advance my research agenda. I have the incredible privilege of teaching classes that relate to my research interests, inspirational colleagues who support my work, and the world’s greatest libraries at my fingertips. Harvard is a remarkable place!
AK: As for your specific department, what resources are in place to facilitate research and thought?
HM: Working groups are run by graduate students and are a venue for getting feedback on works in progress. It’s a place for forming intellectual community and engaging with our peers on a regular basis.
AK: Coming to a question I think many people have, how would you classify History of Science in the traditional scheme of classification (natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, etc), and why?
HM: The History of Science is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field. It’s one of the aspects that’s most exciting about being in this department. As someone who works on early science (most of my research is on the 16th and 17th centuries), my own research is more humanistic than that of my colleagues working on more modern materials. Also, many historians of science have background in the hard science area that they study. For my department as a whole, I think aspects of all of these classifications apply to our work.
AK: Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to the students at the College wanting to pursue research or academia?
HM: I think for students in any field my advice would be the same: be clear about your research interests, and then find great mentors to help you pursue them. This is a big place with many opportunities, so look for allies among faculty, staff, and other students to support you in your goals.
Marcus’ first book, Translation of Camilla Erculiani, Letters on Natural Philosophy, is due for publication soon from the University of Toronto Press. Those interested in her area of research are also encouraged to check out the Early Sciences Working Group, which Marcus co-sponsors.
The interview was edited for clarity.