Universiteit Leiden

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Fenneke Sysling

Assistant Professor

Dr. F.H. Sysling
+31 71 527 2737

Fenneke Sysling is an assistant professor at the Institute for History, specialized in the history of science, medicine and colonialism. Her interests include ethics, race, colonial heritage and museum objects.

More information about Fenneke Sysling

Fields of interest

My research interests are in the history of science, medicine and anthropology, Dutch colonial history, history of Southeast Asia, ethics, race, colonial heritage, museums and objects.


I am a historian of science, medicine and colonialism. Central to my work is the question of how knowledge is constructed and how all sorts of actors influence knowledge and engage with it. I explore the everyday practices of science and how they affect people’s lives.

I am the PI of ERC Starting Grant COMET: Human Subject Research and Medical Ethics in Colonial Southeast Asia. This project is about ethical practices in human subject research in colonial Southeast Asia (ca. 1890-1960), with the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and the American Philippines as comparatives cases. Colonial physicians in this period pursued research on all sorts of diseases, from leprosy to beriberi, and local people took part in this research as research subjects. The COMET project team looks at the scope and nature of these experiments, at the ethical considerations of doctors at the time, and at patients’ responses.

A second project I lead is the NWO XS project Who did all the work? The hidden labour of colonial science. This project explores the roles of non-western assistants, informants, translators and hunters  in the making of scientific knowledge in colonial Indonesia. It aims to start rewriting the history of colonial science as a collective project involving many non-western actors.

In an earlier project (NWO VENI 2016-2020), The Quantified Self, I looked at how western lay individuals since 1800 engaged with the technologies and knowledge of the human sciences and applied methods from the sciences such as quantification to their own bodies, to re-think their bodies and selves.

My PhD dissertation analysed the work of racial scientists in colonial Indonesia (1880-1962) and showed how their everyday practices produced and maintained ideas about race in the Dutch colonial context but also emphasised how these ideas were thwarted by encounters with Indonesians. This research was published in my Racial Science and Human Diversity in Colonial Indonesia (2016) and De onmeetbare mens (2015).

A final line of inquiry that has followed from my interest in science and colonialism – and continues to feed into my projects – is the heritage of colonialism in the form of museum objects (often studied and collected by scientists) and the meanings different actors such as formerly colonized peoples and contemporary curators attach to them. I published about colonial human remains and fossils in museums.

Assistant Professor

  • Faculty of Humanities
  • Institute for History
  • Algemene Geschiedenis

Work address

Johan Huizinga
Doelensteeg 16
2311 VL Leiden
Room number 2.72A



  • No relevant ancillary activities
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