History Professor Kathleen S. Murphy Awarded ACLS Fellowship

Kate Murphy Photo

California Polytechnic State University Assistant Professor of History Kathleen S. Murphy has received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) for the 2013-2014 academic year.  The award supports research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences that the Council considers to be particularly promising.  Murphy received the fellowship to support her research into the history of science of the slave trade. 

“Kate Murphy is an outstanding faculty member who excels in teaching and research” said Doug Epperson, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Cal Poly.  He went on to note, “This award confirms what we have always believed; Professor Murphy is one of the top young scholars in the country within this area.  In addition to advancing her research, this award will also inform her teaching, benefitting countless future Cal Poly students.” 

Department of History Chair Andrew Morris reported, "My colleagues and I are proud of Dr. Murphy's achievements and very happy for her.  She is an excellent scholar and a splendid teacher who truly deserves this honor." 

Murphy will spend her fellowship year researching and writing her book manuscript, Slaving Science: Natural  Knowledge and the British Slave Trade, 1660-1807. Slaving Science is the first book-length study to examine the intersection of the history of science and the history of the British slave trade. 

Murphy argues that the particularities of the British slave trade shaped the knowledge produced through its networks and that scientific knowledge, in turn, influenced the development of the slave trade. “We have a tendency to think of the development of early modern science and the transatlantic slave trade as wholly unconnected , yet my research shows that in fact they were deeply intertwined. As disturbing as it might be for us to consider, British naturalists exploited the slave trade to collect scientific specimens and observations of the natural world from West Africa, Spanish America, and British America,” Murphy said. 

In the first half of Slaving Science, Murphy explores how British naturalists exploited the slave trade to advance natural knowledge.  It reveals how naturalists recruited slave ship surgeons and captains to collect scientific specimens along the routes of the slave trade, while simultaneously engaged in the purchase of African captives.  In the second half of Slaving Science, Murphy reverses the perspective by emphasizing the ways that scientists and scientific thinking shaped the British slave trade. These chapters examine the efforts of scientists and medical practitioners to engineer a healthier and therefore more profitable slave ship, and how abolitionists employed the methodologies and genres of science to advocate for the end of the British slave trade in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. 

Murphy’s research employs archival materials gathered from repositories in Great Britain, Spain, Sweden, and the United States, including from the British Library, the British National Archives, the Natural History Museum in London, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the University of Uppsala, the American Philosophical Society, and the John Carter Brown Library.  She mines scientific treatises, slaving companies’ records, and correspondence to tell the stories of British slaving and science largely absent from the existing scholarship. 

Cal Poly also awarded Murphy a sabbatical for 2012-2013. Together the sabbatical and the ACLS fellowship will allow her to be relieved of her teaching duties for next year, and to focus on researching and writing her book manuscript. 

Murphy joined the faculty at Cal Poly in 2007. At Cal Poly, Murphy teaches courses in early American history and the history of science, as well as co-directs the History Department’s internship program. 

Murphy received her B.A. from the University of Virginia and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in History from the Johns Hopkins University.  At Hopkins, she specialized in the history of the British Atlantic World, 1500-1800. Murphy’s dissertation examined the pursuit of natural history in eighteenth-century British plantation societies, from the Chesapeake to the Caribbean. 

Murphy is especially interested in the history of science in the eighteenth century British Atlantic World.  She has presented her research at numerous national and international conferences, as well as published articles in Early American Studies, Atlantic Studies, and The British Journal for the History of Science. 

The Huntington Library in San Marino, California also awarded Murphy a Dibner History of Science long-term fellowship for the 2013-2014 academic year, which Murphy declined in order to accept the ACLS fellowship. 

In the international competition for ACLS fellowships this year, 65 of 1121 projects were funded (25 at the assistant professor level). The fellowship is funded by many institutions and individuals, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and individual friends of the ACLS. 

The ACLS is a private non-profit federation of seventy-one national scholarly organizations that seeks to advance studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and related social sciences. The ACLS offers fellowships and grants in over one dozen programs. 

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