Ross Brooks

Thesis title: Queer Science in Britain, c.1900-1939: Narratives of Naturalisation and Eradication

Start year: 2017


Supervisor(s): Professor Marius Turda

Research topic

My thesis examines changing concepts and practices relating to sex variations—intersexualities, transformations of sex, and non-heteronormative sexual desires and behaviours—derived from the biological sciences and their impact in Britain through the Edwardian and interwar eras. Using a variety of published and archival sources the thesis makes three main contributions to scholarship. Firstly, it identifies tensions between narratives of naturalisation and narratives of eugenic and medical manipulation that emerged as British biologists reconceptualised sex variations, and sex differences and sexualities more generally, following major discoveries in genetics and endocrinology around 1900, especially X and Y chromosomes and ‘sex’ hormones. Even as biologists produced a new biology of sex within a profoundly patriarchal and queerphobic cultural environment, sex variations were pivotal to their endeavours, posing a plethora of challenges to long-standing cultural, theological, and legal proscriptions that construed such variations as unnatural and/or immoral. Secondly, the thesis contributes to a vibrant scholarship on science popularisation by examining how leading biologists, F. A. E. Crew and Julian Huxley chief among them, exploited semi-popular and popular platforms, including Britain’s newspapers, to relate their sexological studies of sex variations to their social and eugenic agendas. By way of better understanding this dynamic use of non-specialist scientific platforms, the thesis presents a new, adaptationist model of science popularisation. Thirdly, the thesis explores the relationship between the private lives of scientists and the production of their science. In this regard it pays particularly close attention to Julian Huxley, arguing that his ‘unresolved conflicts about sex’ (his term) are reflected in his sexological studies, especially his inability to unify his field studies of avian courtship with laboratory-based studies of sex. By expanding scholarship on the rapid development and impact of biological models of sex differences and sexualities through the Edwardian and interwar eras, the thesis reaches towards a queerer science historiography.

2021 marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s major sexological work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). The occasion presents an opportune moment for historians to reassess the ways in which modern understandings of sex differences and sexualities have both shaped, and been shaped by, the biological sciences. My thesis therefore makes a timely contribution to diverse historiographical fields – history of science and medicine, queer history, gender history, and modern British studies – and helps to provide greater historical context for today’s socio-political debates pertaining to designer babies, sexed brains, ‘gay gene’s, marriage equality, and same-sex parenting.


History of science; queer history; sexuality; homosexuality; heterosexuality; bisexuality; sexology; biology; sociobiology; zoology; ethology; genetics; endocrinology; evolution; eugenics; biopolitics

General research interests

History of science and medicine in Britain (nineteenth and twentieth centuries); queer history; 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).

Academic school / department

School of Education, Humanities and Languages


Journal articles

  • Darwin’s Closet: The Queer Sides of The Descent of Man (1871), Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society (in press).
  • Beyond Brideshead: The Male Homoerotics of 1930s Oxford, Journal of British Studies59 (2020): 821-856. DOI:
  • 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 Sciences70 (2015): 34–73. DOI:
  • 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 Sciences67 (2012): 177–216. DOI: 10.1093/jhmas/jrq064.
  • 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. DOI: 10.3366/e0260954108000703.

Conference papers

  • ‘How Devastating is Truth!’ Thomas Haining Gillespie’s Queer Penguins. Sex & Nature Salon, Arts & Culture University of Exeter (21 October 2020)
  • Do the History You Want to Do: Studying Queer History at Oxford Brookes. Guest lecture for OBU History Society (1 October 2020)
  • Edmund Selous’s Queer Birds and the Transmutation of the Sexes in Edwardian Ethology. Environmental History Workshop 2020 (8 September 2020)
  • Wolfenden’s Biologists. Public lecture for LGBTQ History Month, Oxford University Museum of Natural History (27 February 2020)
  • Expressions of Queer Love Through the Ages. The Power of Love: A Valentine’s Day Celebration. Think Human Festival, OBU (14 February 2020)
  • No Lustmord Please, We’re British! The Whitechapel Murders and the Initial Reception of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis (1886) in Britain. BSHS Twitter Conference (12 February 2020)
  • Edmund Selous’s Queer Birds. EML/HPC Winter Symposium (30 November 2019)
  • Darwin’s Queer Plots: Sex beyond Selection in The Descent of Man (1871). HSTM Network Ireland annual conference, Ulster University, Belfast campus (part of LSE Narrative Science panel with Dominic Berry and Andrew Hopkins, 18 October 2019)
  • Queer Birds – II: Transforming Sexuality in Edwardian Britain (poster). HSS Research Conference 2019: Borders and Transformations, OBU (9 September 2019)
  • Unresolved Conflicts about Sex: Julian Huxley and the Progress of Sexology in Britain, 1916-1930. History of Science Society annual meeting, Utrecht, The Netherlands (24 July 2019)
  • Queer Birds – II: Sexual Transitions in Edwardian Britain. Narrative Science in Techno-Environments, LSE (19 July 2019)
  • Darwin’s Closet: Sex beyond Selection in The Descent of Man (1871). Sex and Nature: 1800-2018 conference, University of Exeter (10 June 2019)
  • Beyond Brideshead: Queer Oxford, 1919-1945. Public lecture, Ashmolean Museum (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)

Further details

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

  • 2018 Rees Davies Prize for outstanding Master’s dissertation (Royal Historical Society), proxime accessit.
  • 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