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Biomedicine in museums

Prosopographical representations of contemporary biomedicine via obituaries

As contemporary biomedicine — the use of molecular and digital biological and medical technologies — is coming of age, its pioneer practitioners are passing away. As a consequence ‘life writing’ (biography) becomes increasingly important as a genre for understanding its development and workings.

Biographies come in many varieties. One of the least conspicuous, but also most read, is the obituary — a public notice of a recently deceased person, usually in the form of a short life description, often in a newspaper or a popular magazine. Many more people get obituaries than short biographical articles, not to mention full-scale scholarly biographies; in fact, most people of some public importance get at least a minor notice in the form of an obituary.

Obituaries are a potentially very interesting material for representing the contemporary history of biomedicine. Between the lines about the portrayed person the obituary presents pieces (like single pixels on a screen) for a picture of a more complex history, and by accumulating large numbers of obituaries the pixels coalesce and form historical patterns. This way of combining of singular live-descriptions into a larger pattern is what historians call prosopography.

The number of obituaries about biomedical practitioners is growing rapidly. Many who were active in the heroic period of molecular biology in the 1950s and 1960s have already passed away, and now the great names in biovisualisation technologies are following them in turn. For example, in the last couple of weeks many newspapers and magazines have carried obituaries of the ‘father of magnetic resonance imaging’, Paul Lauterbur (see e.g., this one in The Economist of April 7).

What’s interesting about this kind of ‘obituarial’ contemporary popular history is the variability between the accounts. With few notable exceptions, most scientists and medical people only get one book-size scholarly biography or biographical article (if they ever get one at all). But popular obituaries, like that of Lauterbur, are not only much more frequent — they also come in many versions written by several obituarists for many different newspapers, journals and magazines, and therefore give a much more composite picture of the history of MRI. Together with obituaries of other pioneers in biovisualisation they add up to what might be called an obiturial prosopography of the field.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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