Rebecca Woods

Lecturer in History Columbia University

Rebecca Woods is an environmental historian and an historian of science specializing in the British Empire in the nineteenth century. She received her PhD in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013.

Woods’s research explores on the intersections of science, environment and the economy in the context of the British Empire in the long nineteenth century. Her first project, The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900, will inaugurate a new environmental history series at the UNC Press, on “Flows, Migrations, Exchanges.” The Herds Shot Round the World 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 is also working on an epistemological and environmental history of cold, provisionally entitled Suspended Animation: Science, Nature and the Economy of Cold. This work traces 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.

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, The Appendix, and Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.