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How Scientific Studies of the House Fly in the 20th Century Influenced Language and Culture: The Rise of Filthy Flies, Flyswatters, and Barflies

Event Type
Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Levis Faculty Center, Room 210
Jul 13, 2023   2:00 pm  
Heidy Barcus
Originating Calendar
Center for Advanced Study

Among the multitudes of free-living insects closely associated with insects, there has arguably been no more constant human companion than the aptly named house fly Musca domestica L. As humans have modified their living spaces over time, house flies have readily colonized them; in turn, as the nature of the relationship between humans and house flies has changed, based in part on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, cultures and languages have changed to reflect these altered relationships. At the turn of the 20th century, an unusual confluence of events exacerbated the longstanding bifurcation of attitudes toward M. domestica, historically spanning the continuum from reviling them for their association with filth to drawing inspiration from them for their remarkable biological abilities. The discovery of their role as disease vectors led to increased efforts to eradicate them at the same time scientific tools (including cameras) captured behaviors leading to admiration and (often strange) bio-inspired applications. 

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