Dr Michelle PfefferBack to People

Department: History
Academic position: Fellow by Examination


I gained my BA at The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, and my MSc in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. I completed my PhD in History at UQ in 2020. Before joining Magdalen as a Fellow by Examination in October 2020, I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at UQ, and a Lisa Jardine Grant Awardee at the Royal Society of London.


I am an early modern historian with research interests in the history of science, religion, and scholarship in Europe. I am currently working on three projects. The first, an extension of my doctoral research, examines the history of the idea of the soul in early modern England, focusing particularly on the development of the heterodox view that humans did not possess immortal souls. The early modern debate over this issue was an interdisciplinary one: it involved religion, medicine, and natural philosophy, but also historical scholarship. I am also working on an intellectual biography of William Warburton (1698–1779), a clergyman who became a major celebrity as a result of his controversial claims about the Old Testament. In a highly technical book that became a public sensation, Warburton argued that the absence of teachings about immortality in the Hebrew scriptures paradoxically proved the divine origins of Judaism. I am studying Warburton’s research methods by examining his surviving library and extensive correspondence. My third key interest is the history of astrology in the early modern world. I’m interested in how astrology, once a vibrant aspect of European cultural and intellectual life, came to be rejected as a superstition outside the bounds of science – a huge shift that remains a major puzzle in the history of science. My research engages closely with university disputations, and in addition to these projects I will also be preparing a digital edition of the records of Oxford student disputations from the early modern period.


‘The Society of Astrologers (c. 1647–1684): Sermons, Feasts, and the Resuscitation of Astrology in Seventeenth-Century London’, The British Journal for the History of Science, online First View, 2021.

‘The Pentateuch and Immortality in England and the Dutch Republic: The Confessionalisation of a Claim’, in The Worlds of Knowledge and the Classical Tradition in the Early Modern Age: Comparative Approaches, eds., Ian Maclean and Dmitri Levitin (Brill, forthcoming 2021).

‘Paganism, Natural Reason, and Immortality: Charles Blount and John Toland’s Histories of the Soul’, Intellectual History Review 2020, online First View, 2020.

‘Christian Materialism and the Prospect of Immortality’, 148–61 in Science without God? Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism, eds., Peter Harrison and Jon Roberts (Oxford University Press, 2019).

‘Physicians and the Soul: Medicine and Spirituality in Seventeenth-Century England’, 15–28 in Medicine, Health and Being Human, ed. Lesa Scholl (Routledge, 2018).

Public Engagement:

Before epidemiologists began modelling disease, it was the job of astrologers’, The Conversation, 19 May 2020