Ross Brooks

Ross Brooks



Thesis title: Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885–1871

Start year: 2017


Research topic

My research project explores approaches to homosexuality, with reference to non-heteronormative bodies and sexualities more generally, which were developed within the biological sciences in Britain in the wake of Charles Darwin’s momentous The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) through to the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s. This timeframe covers the period when “any act of gross indecency” between males was illegal in Britain, outlawed by the infamous Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which remained in force until the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Whilst certain socio-political, legal, and medical (mainly psychiatric) aspects of this long period of criminalisation, and the protracted process of decriminalisation, have previously been explored by historians, the diverse ways in which biologists and biology shaped attitudes towards the law and the wider cultural milieu relating to sexuality in Britain through the period has received barely any attention. My thesis will rectify this. It will demonstrate that whilst the major sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Magnus Hirschfeld had only marginal impact on elite and popular attitudes towards variations of sex development and sexuality in Britain, scientists from a variety of biological sciences-evolutionary biology, reproductive physiology, experimental zoology, genetics, endocrinology, agricultural science, veterinary science, and ethology-concerned themselves with developing new knowledge about sex variations and succeeded in impacting on prevailing attitudes through academic and popular publications, including Britain’s newspapers. Approaches were diverse and often contradictory and were invariably infused with fashionable eugenic ideologies and agendas. New discoveries in genetics and endocrinology in particular generated some profoundly homophobic medico-scientific responses such as hormone treatments and suggestions of prenatal interventions. But increasingly through the twentieth century such approaches vied for hegemony with new, alternative approaches which viewed biology as potentially liberating, an alternative to homophobic models of homosexuality and a gateway to assimilating same-sex relationships within metanarratives of evolution and nature and thereby justifying legalisation of homosexual acts between men.

2021 will mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Descent. The occasion presents an opportune moment for historians to reassess the ways in which modern understandings of sex differences and sexuality have both shaped, and been shaped by, evolutionary biology and allied sciences. My project will therefore make a timely contribution to diverse historiographical fields – history of science and medicine, history of sexuality, gender history, and modern cultural history – and help to provide greater historical context for today’s socio-political debates pertaining to designer babies, sexed brains, “gay genes”, marriage equality, and same-sex parenting.


Sexuality, homosexuality; heterosexuality; bisexuality; sexology; biology; sociobiology; zoology; ethology; genetics, endocrinology; evolution; eugenics; biopolitics; sexual revolution; law reform; Britain; Charles Darwin

General research interests

History of science and medicine in Britain (nineteenth and twentieth centuries); sex determination, sex selection, sexology; eugenics; anthropomorphism and zoomorphism; sexual revolution.

I also pursue a sideline in Oxford’s diverse queer history. My Queer Oxford project began in 2006 as a printed city guide and is now pursued across a number of platforms including a website ( and social media. I recently collaborated with Richard Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and author of A Little Gay History, on a new app-based LGBTQ+ city trail to accompany the No Offence: Exploring LGBTQ+ Histories exhibition at the Ashmolean (autumn 2018).


Journal articles

  • Queer Birds: Avian Sex Reversal and the Origins of Modern Sexology, Viewpoint: Magazine of the British Society for the History of Science, no. 117 (June 2019): 10–11.
  • One «Both» Sex«»es»: Observations, Suppositions, and Airy Speculations on Fetal Sex Anatomy in British Scientific Literature, 1794–1871, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 70 (2015): 34–73.
  • Transforming Sexuality: The Medical Sources of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–95) and the Origins of the Theory of Bisexuality, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 67 (2012): 177–216.
  • William T. Stearn Prize 2008, All Too Human: Responses to Same-Sex Copulation in the Common Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha (L.)), 1834–1900, Archives of Natural History36 (2009): 146–159.
  • ‘Vices Once Adopted’: Theorising Male Homoeroticism in German-Language Legal and Forensic Discourses, 1752–1869, Reinvention: A Journal of Undergraduate Research1 (2008),

Conference papers

  • Beyond Brideshead: Queer Oxford, 1919-1945. Public lecture, Ashmolean (31 May 2019)
  • A Little Queer Learning: Oxford and the Brideshead Generation. Histories of Queer Cosmopolitanism, Ertegun House, University of Oxford (20 May 2019)
  • So Much in the Shadows: The Homoerotics of 1920s Oxford. Queer Modernism(s) III, University of Oxford (25–26 April 2019)
  • Blackmail, Biology, and Activism: The Making of the Wolfenden Report (1957). Event convened by Oxford Human Rights and Oxford Brookes LGBTQ+ Staff Forum for 17th Oxford Human Rights Festival. Glass Tank, Oxford Brookes (14 March 2019)
  • Evolution’s Closet: Queering the History of Natural History. Out Thinkers (Pride in STEM), hosted by Institute of Cancer Research, London (28 February 2019)
  • Queering the History of Biology. Queering the History of Science: A Lunchtime Lecture on Narrative, Science, and Nonconformity. LSE / Spectrum / Narrative Science project. LSE, London (21 February 2019)
  • Blackmail, Biology, and Homosexual Law Reform in Postwar Britain. Modern British History Graduate Workshop, University of Cambridge (14 February 2019)
  • A More Objective Approach? The Science of the Wolfenden Report (1957). CHSTM PhDs Seminar Series, University of Manchester (05 February 2019)
  • No Lustmord Please, We’re British! The Whitechapel Murders and the Reception of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis (1886) in Britain. HPC ‘Borders’ Research conference, Oxford Brookes (23 January 2019)
  • Unresolved Conflicts about Sex: Julian Huxley and the Progress of Sexology in Britain, 1916–1930. Centre for Medical Humanities seminar series, University of Exeter (13 December 2018)
  • In or Out? Evolution, Homosexuality, and the Scientific Publications of the University Press, 1897-1901. Royal Holloway Research Seminar, Senate House, London (05 December 2018)
  • Secret History / Secret Science: Exploring LGBTQ+ Histories of Evolutionary Biology and Eugenics. Ways of Knowing in (and about) Modern Britain PG/ECR Conference, University of Birmingham (5–6 July 2018)
  • Beyond Brideshead: The Homoerotics of 1930s Oxford in the Photographs of Cyril Arapoff (1898–1976). Queer Localities: An International Conference, Birkbeck, University of London (31 November-01 December 2017). Paper also presented at Party at the Pitt: An LGBT History Month Celebration, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (25 February 2018)
  • Co-presentation with Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, Dame Katherine Grainger, on the University’s Scholarship Scheme. Annual Honorary Graduate event (17 October 2017)
  • Towards Wolfenden: Medico-Scientific Approaches to Homosexual Law Reform in Britain, 1946–1954. Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference, University of Exeter (29–30 June 2017)

Academic and professional training

  • PhD, Centre for Medical Humanities, Oxford Brookes, ongoing
  • MA History (History of Medicine), Oxford Brookes, 2016–2017 (Distinction)
  • BA (Hons) History and Combined Studies (Sexuality and Society), Oxford Brookes, 2006–2010 (First)

Scholarships and prizes

  • 2017 Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship
  • 2017 Detlef Mūhlberger Prize for best MA History/History of Medicine dissertation
  • 2016 John Henry Brookes Scholarship, MA History (History of Medicine)
  • 2010 Braudel Prize for best BA history dissertation
  • 2009 Ede & Ravenscroft Prize for academic achievement
  • 2008 William T. Stearn Essay Prize awarded by the Society for the History of Natural History
  • 2008 Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme Award for project: ‘Vices Once Adopted’: Theorising Male Homoeroticism in German-Language Legal and Forensic Discourses, 1752–1869