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Biomedicine in museums

Scientists living transnational lives

By December 18, 2009No Comments

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?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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