Louis Gerdelan

Position title: Solmsen Fellow (2023-2024)

Haas Postdoctoral Fellow, Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, Science History Institute

This is a headshot of a man with short brown hair standing inside on a balcony with a library behind him.

Catastrophic Inquiries: Making Disaster Knowledge in the British, French and Spanish Atlantic Worlds, c.1605- 1755

In the early modern era earthquakes, storms, and epidemics not only wreaked human and material devastation but also formed the focus for discussions about the origins, significance, and character of nature’s upheavals.  Catastrophic Inquiries reveals how in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these discussions generated a plethora of projects that aimed to discover the hidden mechanisms that drove destructive phenomena. These investigations looked for answers not only to science but also religion, astrology, and a number of other traditions. The book ranges far beyond the European capitals to show what disasters meant and how they were studied across three great transoceanic empires. That broad scope makes it possible to see how people in Britain, France, Spain, and their far-flung colonies acquired information about remote events, as well as the effects of ignorance and of fake news. Growing information networks allowed governments, religious orders, scientific societies, and private individuals to acquire an increasing volume of disaster data.  This new evidence, along with new standards for vetting it, allowed the received wisdom of classical and medieval traditions to be supplemented or radically revised. In order to make sense of it, investigators needed to develop special forms of information management and analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, as well as new types of international collaboration. The book argues that the consequence of all this activity was a profound transformation of how disasters were conceived and approached, with important legacies for modern societies.

Louis Gerdelan is a historian of the early modern world, with interests in Europe, the Americas, and global history.  His work joins the history of science with intellectual and environmental history.  Gerdelan completed his Ph.D. in History at Harvard University in 2021, and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships, including from the Science History Institute, the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, the Omohundro Institute and the North American Conference on British Studies.  He has published work in the journals Studi Storici and (forthcoming) the Massachusetts Historical Review.