Helen Cowie
Senior Lecturer in Modern History



MA and PhD (University of Warwick)

Helen Cowie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and a member of the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies. Her research focuses on the cultural history of science with a particular focus on the history of animals.






My doctoral research explored the study of natural history in the Spanish Empire in the years 1750-1850. During this period, Spain made strenuous efforts to survey, inventory and exploit the natural productions of its overseas possessions, choreographing a series of scientific expeditions to the New World and cultivating and displaying American fauna, flora and minerals in metropolitan gardens and museums.

I studied the tactics used to acquire specimens, examining both the contribution of formal scientific expeditions, orchestrated by the Spanish Crown and the less glamorous, but equally valuable, remissions of specimens made by overseas bureaucrats, priests and military personnel, who responded to royal orders requesting plants, animals and ethnographic artefacts. I considered how and where knowledge about the natural world was created, assessing the relative merits of the field and the botanical garden or museum as sites for scientific research. I also highlighted the transatlantic dimension of natural history in the Hispanic World, discussing the role of colonial naturalists within the imperial scientific project and the emergence of national scientific institutions in Spanish America in the post-independence period.


Following the completion of my PhD I have been working on a new research project on the collection, study and exhibition of exotic animals in Britain (c.1750-1880), with a comparative focus on France and Spain. This project explores how contemporaries conceptualised rare animals, where they encountered them and what symbolic, pedagogic and scientific value they attached to specimens in zoological gardens and touring menageries.

I use animals as a vehicle through which to examine issues of race, class, gender and colonialism. I focus especially on travelling menageries, whose appeal transcended social boundaries and whose personnel included an eclectic range of individuals, from female lion tamers to West Indian elephant keepers.

Contact details

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

Tel: Internal 2970, External (01904) 322970