Rebecca Woods

Lecturer in History

Columbia University

Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities 2015 - 16

Rebecca Woods received her PhD from MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society Graduate Program in 2013. Woods’s research explores the intersections of science, environment and the economy in the context of the British Empire in the long nineteenth century. During her tenure at the Society of Fellows, Woods will begin work on a new project—an epistemological and environmental history of cold, provisionally entitled Suspended Animation: Science, Nature and the Economy of Cold. This work will trace ideas of, and engagements with, cold itself through scientific experimentation with low temperatures, arctic exploration, and the commoditization of ice and cold in the nineteenth century. Sometimes a structuring limit to human endeavor, at others an obstacle to be overcome, or a profitable resource upon which to be capitalized, cold served both as a phenomenological reality and increasingly as an object of inquiry and exchange in the imperial world of the nineteenth century. Scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and an avid consuming public each engaged with, and in so doing, reshaped cold as a basic element of the natural world and one that structured much of human existence.

The project grows out of her dissertation, The Herds Shot Round the World, which analyzes the role of so-called native British breeds of livestock in nineteenth-century colonial places, primarily Australasia. Sheep and cattle bred for the particular cultural, economic, and environmental conditions of the British Isles underwent profound transformation in the imperial context, and played a crucial part in the commoditization of colonial environments and in the origins and growth of a nearly-global industrial system of meat production, while rhetoric surrounding these breeds in the colonies bolstered imperial claims to political and cultural legitimacy. The outcome of the expansion of British agropastoralism in the nineteenth century has been large-scale environmental and ecological change whose legacy we feel to this day.

Woods’s work has been recognized and supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Sciences Research Council, and a Fulbright fellowship. Her work has appeared in the Agricultural History Review.

In the 2013-14 academic year, Dr. Woods will be teaching “Contemporary Civilization” in the Core Curriculum.