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Helen Cowie
Professor of Early Modern History



MA and PhD (University of Warwick)

Helen Cowie is Professor of Early Modern History in the Department of History and a member of the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies. She completed her PhD at the University of Warwick and joined the department in 2011. Her research focuses on the cultural history of science with a particular focus on the history of animals. She also researches and teaches the History of Latin America.

Woman in nineteenth century dress with a macaw and an ostrich-feather fan.



Helen’s research focuses on the cultural history of animals. A growing area of study, the history of animals explores changing human animal relations, and can reveal a lot about the attitudes of different societies.

Helen's most recent book, Victims of Fashion, studies animal-based commodities in Britain in the period c.1800-1914. Focusing on six luxury animal products – birds’ feathers, sealskin, ivory, alpaca wool, perfumes (civet, musk, ambergris and bear’s grease) and exotic pets – she highlights the pervasive nature of animal-based consumables in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and trace their rise and fall in popularity in response to changing tastes, availability and ethical concerns.

Helen’s previous publications have looked at the study of animals in museums and their exhibition in zoos and menageries. Her first monograph Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire c.1750-1850 examines the study of natural history in the Spanish Empire in the years 1750-1850, a period in which Spain made strenuous efforts to survey, inventory and exploit the natural productions of her overseas possessions. Her second monograph, Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain examines the popularization of natural knowledge through zoological gardens and travelling menageries. It encompasses a wide array of characters, from female lion tamers to piano-playing elephants. Helen’s third book, a cultural history of the llama, charts the history of this charismatic camelid from Inca icon to therapy animal.



  • From Conquest to Colony: Spanish America, c.1400-1750  (first year Period Topic)
  • Reform, Revolution and Nation Building in Latin America, 1750-1900 (second year Histories and Contexts)
  • Wild Things: A Cultural History of Animals, 1700-1900 (second year Explorations module)
  • Animals (final year Comparative Histories module)
  • Ploughing the Sea? The Spanish American Wars of Independence, 1750-1830 (Special Subject)


  • Exotic Animals in Europe, 1650-1850: Exhibition, Education and Entertainment (MA Option module)

External activities


  • Council member, Society for the History of Natural History (2014 – present)

Media coverage


Public Talks:

  • ‘Stupendous Elephants and Ravenous Hyenas’: Travelling Menageries in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Birkbeck Arts Week, Public Lecture, May 2012
  • ‘Wonders from Down Under: The Kangaroo in Menagerie and Museum’, Exotic Anatomies Conference, National Maritime Museum, March 2015
  • ‘Don’t Joke with Elephants’: Life and Death in the Travelling Menagerie’, Highgate Cemetery, 20 February 2018 




Contact details

Dr Helen Cowie
Vanbrugh College V/A/226
Department of History
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: Internal 2970, External (01904) 322970

Student hours

Student hours

Semester 1 2023/4