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December 2009

Which terms do you use for 'first-person accounts' written by scientists and medical doctors?

By Biomedicine in museums

I think first-person accounts — that is, acccounts about oneself and one’s relation to the world told in ‘I’-form, as opposed to accounts of ‘you’, ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ — are fascinating. Such accounts tell something about the people who produce them and they also reveal much about their authors’ relations to others and the culture and environment they live in. In fact, one of my basic historiographical convictions is that even the concepts, theories and objects of science, technology and medicine are, at least to some extent, first-person accounts (‘science as autobiography‘).

First-person accounts appear in many forms, which you could call ‘genres’ (or ‘sub-genres’), like ‘autobiography’, ‘self-portrait’, ‘memoir’, etc. Turns out that the genre specialists Jean-Louis Jeannelle (known for his studies of the (anti)memoirs of André Malraux) and Philippe Lejeune (renown specialist in the study of autobiography) are currently interested in how we define, and in which terms we describe, different kinds of such first-person accounts, especially non-fictional accounts (i.e., excluding novels, short stories etc. in ‘I’-form).

Jeanelle and Lejeune are particularly interested in the linguistic distinctions we make between the different genres in which personal experience can be narrated, and they want us to reflect about the terms we use and to make us question our assumptions about them. They use the term ‘non-fictional first-person accounts’ as though it were a neutral description, but this isn’t true, of course — as they rightly point out in an email message to colleagues, this label “needs to be examined as much as any other label”.

And here are their seven questions they want us to think about:

1. What are the customary generic classifications used in your language to designate the different kinds of personal narratives, such as autobiography, journal, testimony? Can you provide a comprehensive list of these terms, and cite, in each case, a work that could serve as model for that category?

2. Among these various categories, are there any which you perceive as having fallen out of use or having been discarded because they no longer correspond to the texts that are being produced? Have others become more important over time? In both cases, what explains these changes?

3 Are there one or more categories that seem to you to function as overarching categories, under which other forms of life narrative can be classified?

4. What is your own special field of research? What are the principal generic terms that you use in that research? What synonyms do you use to avoid excessive repetition?

5. What sub-genres of non-fictional first-person accounts seem to you to be the most studied in your country? Which ones seems to attract the least attention or to be unduly neglected?

6. What theoretical works have the greatest influence on you and your colleagues?

7. Do you think that these widely read theoretical works have modified the way in which the different sub-genres of non-fictional first-person accounts are classified?

Jeanelle and Lejeune are interested in all kinds of non-fictional ‘first-person accounts’ — not just of scientists and medical doctors, of course, that’s just my own special interest — please send your answers to: and

'Oral history' on its way to insignificance? — isn't 'online history' much more relevant for the interpretation of the contemporary world?

By Biomedicine in museums

As one of those historians of contemporary science, technology and medicine who have tried my hands and brain extensively on interviewing scientists about the past (see, e.g., here and here), I have pretty ambiguous feelings about ‘oral history’ as a historical specialty in its own right

If you want to study the history of the science, technology and medicine of the near past, you often have no other choice but questioning living actors, since most written, visual and material sources aren’t yet deposited in archives and museums. Speaking with living historical actors also give a special additional flavour to a narrative based on written, visual and material source material. On the other hand, too many ‘oral historians’ use sloppy methodologies, ask questions without being properly prepared, don’t spend enough time to ‘warm up’ to their interviewees, and don’t think of using other kinds of sources to back up the results of their questioning.

Most importantly, the idea of a pure ‘oral history’ as a special kind of history that can stand alone, apparently untouched by ‘non-oral history’, is historiographically questionable. Utilising the speaking voices of historical actors in just one of many methodologies available to historians of the near past, especially in these days, when actors’ voices take so many forms. Today’s actors don’t just talk, they also write articles and books, memoirs and emails, and present themselves in chatrooms and blogposts and a host of other online media. Contemporary history must be based on all these kinds of expressions, not just oral voices. So ‘oral history’ is just one complementary methodology in the contemporary historian’s toolbox, nothing else.

I came to think of this when I read the call for papers for the 2010 annual meeting of the Oral History Association, to be held on the theme ‘Times of Crisis, Times of Change: Human Stories on the Edge of Transformation’. The theme as such is highly relevant, also for historians of science, technology and medicine:

The economic, political and environmental tensions of the present moment are powerfully reshaping our world. People find themselves trapped within global forces, whether economic collapse, war and genocide, forced displacement and relocation, or the threat of environmental disaster. These forces often appear to act upon people in ways beyond their control. At the same time, moments of great crisis engender powerful new visions of change and transformation. Whether as involuntary subjects or active agents, leaders or witnesses, people live and embody these changes. Their memories are critical windows on human struggles, resilience, myth-making, and the political power of stories, forcing a reckoning with the past as well as a reconsideration of the future. Such stories speak to both collective and contested understandings of life on the edge of transformation.

A theme that gives rise to questions like: “How have people struggled and survived in times of crisis? How do people create change and bear witness to it? How do they construct their stories of these moments? In what ways have stories of crisis and change shaped public memories of pivotal historical eras? How do we reconcile contradictory stories of crisis and change?” (read the whole CFP here).

Excellent and very timely questions! But that said, why should historians of the contemporary world limit themselves to using ‘oral history’ methods to study these stories and memories? Why talk with people about these things with a voice-recording machine, when you have millions of written responses to the current political, economic and environmental crisis available on the internet? A single world news article on Huffington Post easily draws several thousands of comments, which bear witness to how people handle the present and the near past.

This fascinating cacaphony (or maybe symphony 🙂 of millions of daily public reactions — from the ultraright to the far left — to all kinds of current world affairs isn’t oral: it’s produced on keyboards, in writing. It’s a daily testimony to the fact that ‘online history’ and ‘social web history’ has become much more relevant for historians interested in the contemporary world than ‘oral history’ — which now seems to be a speciality on its way to insignificance.

Is the genre of conference proceedings a dying one?

By Biomedicine in museums

I stumbled over the following, rather sweeping, statement about the genre of academic conference proceedings in a recent book review by Anke Timmermann, formerly historian at Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia:

The genre of conference proceedings is a dying one, and in many cases for good reason. Too often they stage a cacophony of scholarly voices — some of them playing their discipline skillfully, others following a solitary, slightly offbeat tune far away from the crowd, and yet others missing the tone of the orchestration altogether.

(in Technology and Culture, 50: 687-688, 2009)

My immediate reaction is nodding agreement. Proceedings from big conferences are probably the last kind of collected volumes I would expect something exciting from. They are usually almost as bad a Festschrifts.

However, it depends on the kind of conference. Proceedings from world congresses are dying dinosaurs, agreed. But a volume of selected papers from a well-planned workshop on a well-defined topic at the research front is a different affair. So I don’t think you can generalise as Anke does.

Her remark was one in passing only. It opens up for a more systematic study of the rise and fall of genres of academic writin — and of the concept of ‘genre’ in academic publishing generally.

Biomedical molecules as jewelry

By Biomedicine in museums

Four years ago, San Francisco-based biochemist Raven Hanna quit protein sequencing and began designing silver necklaces and earrings in the shape of molecules instead. Today she sells more than 2000 pieces a year: 
neurotransmitter earrings, endorphin necklace, amino acid jewelry, serotonin cufflinks, and so forth. For details and order form, see her website, Made with Molecules:

See also interview in San Francisco Chronicle online. She could have been part of our Design4Science exhibition last spring.

(Thanks to Jessica for the tip)

Is snowstorm a good excuse for closing a medical museum?

By Biomedicine in museums

A laconic message from our colleagues at the NMHM in Washington, DC:

The Federal Government in DC is closed on December 21 due to the snowstorm, so the Medical Museum will [be] closed.

Here in Nopenhagen, it’s minus 2 centigrade, and the medical museum is closed for historical reasons (museums in the Nordic countries have always been closed on Mondays). Wouldn’t dream of closing down state institutions because of a few inches of snow.

Look out for the next 'Science and the Public' conference, July 2010.

By Biomedicine in museums

People interested in medical science communication in museums are well advised to broaden their vision to other domains of science communication studies and practices. There is much to be learned from science communication studies dealing with a wide array of sciences through a variety of media.

One forum for such learning from others is the series of annual ‘Science and the Public’ conferences in UK. These meetings aim to bring together, as the organisers put it, “the various strands of academia which consider science’s relationships with groups generally called ‘the public’”  (I must admit that I love that phrasing, “groups generally called’ the public'”, it sounds so academically keep-a-distance-ish :-).

I participated (and presented) at the meeting in Manchester in 2008 — a very positive experience; very informal atmosphere and high quality presentations; good scholarly karma.

Next year’s meeting is going to be held at Imperial College in London, 3-4 July 2010. Alice Bell and her organiser-colleagues are expecting participants and contributions from a wide range of disciplines, like science and technology studies, history of science, geography, psychology, cultural studies, media studies, sociology, development studies, English literature, science policy studies and much more. And the range of topics covered may include (but are not limited to):

* Surveying public knowledge and attitudes.
* Science and the arts (including science fiction).
* Science, publics and personal identity.
* The role of industry and/ or the third sector in public engagement
and scientific research.
* The challenges of ‘upstream’ engagement.
* Popular science and professionalization.
* Specific public-science issues: e.g. climate change, MMR, energy policy, GMOs.
* Studies of specific media: e.g. film, books, the internet, museums, radio.
* Science, religion and the ‘New Atheism’.
* Politically engaged scientists.
* Churnalism vs. investigative science journalism.
* Edu-tainment.
* Scientific advisers, spin and secrecy.
* Patients and publics in health services.
* Science and the sceptics.
* Amateur science.

I guess that would cater for most science communication palates. Send a 300 word abstract to by 1 March 2010. You can also send in a panel proposals.

(Thanks to Alice for the info).

Why write a Masters thesis when you can buy one

By Biomedicine in museums

A new spam type has appeared in my Akismet filter, viz., announcements for dissertation writing services. For example, DissertationResearch is a “custom thesis writing service that will always give you custom written dissertations and original thesis and dissertation service”; they claim they can deliver 100% authentic, fully referenced Masters theses written by certified writers about all kinds of academic and professional subjects; customers are guaranteed privacy and confidentiality (I bet they need it) and they go out of their way to ensure that there is no plagiarism involved. EssaysExperts’s website looks somewhat less professional, but promises approx. the same.

This is academic capitalism in its purest form. Why bother to write a mediocre thesis when you can buy a first-class product written by a certified writer with a real (because he/she needs to know what they are writing about!) PhD?

I wonder how many dissertations that are actually being produced this way today? It must be difficult to get a realistic picture of how common this kind of fake thesis production is. A custom written dissertation with no plagiarism involved is almost impossible to expose. The quality of the websites indicates there are enough customers out there who are willing to pay (they don’t look like vulgar phishing operations).

Medicinhistorikerens magt

By Biomedicine in museums

Den fjerde årlige konference for det svenske medicinhistoriske netværk finder sted på Insitutionen for idé- och lärdomshistoria, Uppsala Universitet, den 10. maj. Fokus i år er teori og metode mht. “medicin og magt”, med følgende mulige udgangspunkter:

Läkarmakt och medikalisering (ex. maktrelationer läkare–patienter, läkarrollens makt över livets gränser, maktrelationer medicin–andra vetenskaper)

Professionalisering (ex. maktrelationer läkare–andra yrkeskategorier inom vården, maktrelationer medicin–kvacksalveri).

Medicinens roll i styrning av moderna samhällen (ex. biomakt och governmentality, teorier om samhälle, befolkning och politik, självstyrning och avancerad liberalism).

Normalisering (medicinens makt i förhållande till ”den andre”, definierad utifrån parametrar som kön, ras, klass etc.)

Eller, varför inte: medicinhistorikerns makt.

Det sidste lyder ret tiltalende 😉

Send interessetilmelding til Tony Gustavsson,, eller Annika Berg, annika.berg@idehist.uu.s

Scientists living transnational lives

By Biomedicine in museums

A new book titled Transnational Lives (eds., Desley Deacon, Penny Russell, and Angela Woollacott, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) discusses how the transnationalism of lives “threatens the stability of national identity and unsettles the framework of national histories and biography”. As the editors point out in the blurb, nationality has been determined by “complex combinations of birthplace, language, residence, citizenship, sex, ethnic identity, racial classification and allegiance”; but “human lives continually elude official classifications”.

Indeed. And many scientific lives are among the most transnational of all. In my experience, scientists often think about themselves in terms of their disciplinary background and research specialty rather than in terms of national identity (“I’m a molecular biologist”, rather than “I’m Swedish”). And most disciplinary identities are of course transnational, at least since the 19th century.

Immunologist and 1984 medical Nobel Prize winner (1984) Niels Jerne is a case in point. Born in London by parents who carried Danish passports, he grew up in the Netherlands, married a woman from the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, studied medicine in Copenhagen and then pursued his career in the US, Germany and Switzerland, before retiring in the south of France where he died at the age of 83. (More about his life story here.)

Nevertheless, biographical dictionaries continue to label Jerne as a “Danish” scientist. And so it is with most scientists; short biographers and obituarists are almost always classifying scientists in terms of their nationality, as if this was the most important distinguishing characteristic of a life in science: “American biochemist XX”, “German physiologist YY”, “British molecular biologist ZZ”, and so on. Why does nationality have this strong status in life descriptions and identity formation , even among scientists, who are among the most transnational of all human kinds?