Thomas Söderqvist, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen

Abstract for presentation at 12th European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts Conference, Copenhagen 13-16 June 2018 (talk was cancelled)

From light green to dark green to brown, beige and black – does life change colours from birth to death?

The genre of autobiography/memoirs deals with a huge variety of aspects of the life course, from birth to death. Autobiographers write about their lives in terms of careers, success and failure, development of ideas, achievements of different kinds, social and intimate relations, and so on. They also assign a large variety of cognitive, physical and emotional properties to their lives, like being clever, intelligent, aggressive, shrewd, sturdy, agile, introvert, optimistic, sad, happy, and so forth. Other personal identities can be built on metaphors drawn from the realm of music or from the world of animals. But memoirists rarely think about their lives in terms of colour; indeed, they may sometimes write about their ‘black moments’ or periods when they felt ‘blue’, but they do not consistently apply colour schemes to their lives; they don’t view the life course in terms of a specific colour (like ‘I’ve always been an orange person’) or a  change in a colour pattern over life (like ‘I’ve gone from being a yellow child to become a red senior citizen’).

In this paper I will explore the idea of assigning (changing) colour properties to the life course, from birth to death. Drawing on my current autoethnographical study of my own life and my so far unpublished autobiography, I will make an attempt to characterize my life in colour changes. At the time of writing this abstract the colours have changed from a light green virgin childhood to darker and darker shades of green up through adult life (like a maturing avocado) until the fifties and sixties, when the shades of green become mixed with brown and purple and with touches of grey and white (‘canities’ as Virgil called it, after the ageing, hoary, grey wolf). My death is certainly black! This being an autoethnographical analysis, I will focus on this single unique case, using it as a point of departure for discussing the possible advantages of using colour properties for enhanced memoir writing – even to the point that the presentation of a life (the published autobiography or the photo memoir) can be cast in the assigned colours, either in print or online, reflecting the presentation of a coloured self in everyday life.


Thomas Söderqvist (PhD Gothenburg 1986) is professor emeritus in history of medicine and University of Copenhagen. Drawing on his research in the history of ecology, the history of immunology, and the knowledge society, he has focused on studies of scientific biography as a genre and on the problems of the historiography of contemporary science. As director of Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which has received several prizes for its innovative experimental approach to collecting and exhibition making, he has worked on the problems of collecting and making sense of contemporary medical objects. As an emeritus professor at the Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen, he is currently working autoethnographically to elucidate the range of aims of the genre of academic autobiography.