Ron Doel (Dept of History, Oregon State University) and myself are about to publish a collection called Writing Recent Science on Routledge, later this summer. We have our own (cool, of course) website for advertising (
it’s not active yet, unfortunately active now!). Here’s the cover photo (which is about astronomy rather than biomedicine):
And here’s our manuscript for the intro chapter (which at least refers to the history of recent biomedicine now and then). The footnotes are missing, though, because I cannot find an easy way of transferring them into html- format:
1. Introduction: What we know, what we do not—and why it matters
Ronald E. Doel and Thomas Söderqvist
Every generation thinks it discovered sex, according to an old witticism. Likewise, a historically minded reader of today’s news media might conclude that every generation thinks it invented scientific scandals, biomedical hucksterism, and scientific-technological disasters. Postmodern “pop” culture, in particular, seems oblivious to historical context. Perhaps this is because the postmoderns are too dazzled by the glittery spectacles of the present and the promissory notes of the future to heed the lessons of the past. Consider the almost total lack of historical references in most recent media reports on the Korean biotech scandal of 2006; on the utopian-worlds-to-be advertised by stem-cell and nanotech researchers; and on the space shuttle Columbia’s disaster in 2003 and the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
With few exceptions (especially in the United States, where history is one of the least popular subjects among high school students and the label “outdated” is culturally akin to a death sentence), media commentary treated these developments as if they had fallen from the sky, as if they had no past or prehistory to better illuminate their meanings. One need not invoke Santayana’s by-now clichéd dictum about those who forget the past fail to recognize the dangers that await civilizations which voyage at light speed into the cosmos with no memory of where they’ve been — and, thus, of who they are and of what they value.
At the very least, awareness of the history of recent science, medicine and technology can benefit the wise cynic or jaded undergraduate, who greet news developments like these with a shrug and a smirk: “What did you expect? So what else is new?” Better, an awareness of the history of science can enlighten both taxpayers and policymakers, who, in pondering (and perhaps bankrolling) the sales pitches of today’s scientists, must ask themselves the same question that so many Americans asked themselves during the “Moon race” of the 1960s: “Is this trip necessary?” Better still: we need history to decide the fortunes of scientific research and biomedical pursuits—to help present and future generations to understand the larger temporal and social contexts of these contemporary transformations.
Moreover, historians of recent science, medicine and technology now need to tell new stories, and face new challenges in doing so. The Cold War ended almost two decades ago. Even before the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, physics had ceased to be the queen of the natural sciences in most scientifically advanced nations. In 1993, the U.S. Congress had voted against continued funding of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), the largest particle accelerator then in planning, while providing funding for the Human Genome project. Already by then the biosciences had become the new favorites not only of governments and industrial interests but also of universities, overturning dominant patterns in place for nearly a century. In 1996 the life sciences (biology, medicine, and agriculture) dominated university research and development in the United States, with 55% of the total spending of $21 billion. This trend intensified after the September 11th attack. After anthrax-filled letters contaminated offices of the U.S. Congress, biological warfare research joined stem cell research and human-induced global warming as key issues in international science policy.
This volume is about what we know—and don’t yet know—about science, technology and medicine in the recent past. This volume also addresses new methods that historians can use to explore these developments. It is the second volume in this series to address these critical themes.
What questions should we ask? Certainly many challenges that historians of science, technology, and medicine face in studying this period are reassuringly familiar. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (involving seismologists) was preceded by the international Migratory Bird Treaty of 1919, where biologists helped guide negotiations. Big science undertakings at CERN and the U.S. national laboratories had antecedents in the major factory observatories in Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Technology transfer was already a concern for Britain and the United States soon after the American Revolution, even if U.S. officials now are more concerned about advanced technology flowing to less developed nations than with circumventing British restrictions on exporting power loom technologies. Certain methodological issues are familiar as well: the same social history approaches that have broadened our understanding of the roles of women, minorities, skilled artisans and technicians in recent history of medicine and science also have challenged traditional accounts of the Scientific Revolution.
Yet other themes and circumstances have a new feel to them, and occupy unfamiliar ground. They require historians of recent science, technology and medicine to journey beyond familiar conceptual coastlines into largely uncharted historiographic waters. Physics no longer stands as the exemplar for all fields of recent science. Moreover, because science, medicine and technology increasingly operate on global scales, comprehensive accounts of these activities now need to cover a much larger-than-traditional geographic canvas, including the People’s Republic of China, India, South America, and South-East Asia. Relationships between the largely industrialized northern hemisphere nations and less-developed southern hemisphere nations ought be as carefully examined as the better-studied tensions and exchanges between the East Bloc and West Bloc scientific communities. Scientific intelligence-gathering became a high-priority concern for Washington, Moscow, and Beijing after World War II, another novel departure. When in the early 1960s a conservative American diplomat sniffed that the U.S. embassy in Brazil needed a science attaché “like a cigar store Indian needs a brassiere,” he called attention to another fundamental shift: the growth of science, technology and medicine as aspects of diplomacy and foreign policy. Historical judgments on many major issues remain elusive: did the Cold War hinder international scientific interactions, or did increased avenues of communication “denationalize science,” as Elisabeth Crawford, Terry Shinn, and Sverker Sörlin have argued?
Even apparently familiar landscapes in the history of recent science, medicine and technology now require perceptive re-examination. If at the start of the twenty-first century biological warfare has largely replaced thermonuclear war as a dominant Western anxiety, so have the security restrictions and intimate ties to the state once characteristic of nuclear physics come to characterize several domains of modern biology. In the US, restrictions on access to academic biological laboratories—already restricted by controversial privacy agreements with pharmaceutical firms and other major donors—have grown tighter since the anthrax attacks in October 2001. Federal contracts with universities increasingly require pre-publication reviews of scientific papers. Expanded restrictions on sharing data (including a new “Sensitive but Unclassified Information” clause) have limited the numbers of participants in research. How these issues will shape biological research remains unclear. A senior official for research and development in the newly formed US Office of Homeland Security voiced a poignant lament in 2002. “We’ve never owned the biology community,” he declared, “in the way we own the physicists.” It is too early to know if growing state interest in biology in the early twenty-first century will come to be seen as a historical milestone on a par with the influence of World War II and the Cold War. But it does suggest large new questions that historians of recent science, medicine and technology need to consider.
Historians of recent science are also increasingly concerned with the ethics and morality of science. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many individuals worldwide finally felt free to address issues of moral conduct during the four decades of the Cold War. Popular interest in ethical transgressions by the state soared. This interest meshed with the Vergangenheitspolitik movement that sought to explore silences in historical accounts through the twentieth century, resulting from the state’s heightened power to shape historical narratives and to repress memory (from South African apartheid to the appalling Tuskegee syphilis experiments involving black Americans). The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, established by U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary in 1994, sought to discover the extent to which American citizens had been subject to covert efforts by the U.S. government to assess individual responses to radiation as the Cold War intensified.
This pioneering undertaking was not the first to probe morals in scientific research. Historian Jan Sapp’s 1990 analysis of research ethics (centered on the mid-twentieth century biologist Franz Moewus) helped to pave the way for Daniel J. Kevles’s study of David Baltimore—the Nobel Laureate and immunology researcher accused of fabricating data in a published paper—who became the poster-boy of academic fraud within the U.S. Congress in the mid-1990s. Baltimore was later exonerated. But a darker judgment has fallen on the Stanford physicist Victor Ninov, whose boastful 1998 claim that he had discovered two new trans-uranium elements now seems “a result of fabricated research data and scientific misconduct.” Contemporary fascination with morality in science runs deeper still. Michael Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen (about the conflict between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former student Werner Heisenberg, leader of the German atomic bomb project, during their Fall 1941 meeting in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen) played to sold-out audiences in London, Berlin, Paris, Toronto, New York and elsewhere—including Copenhagen. When in 2002 Bohr’s previously unknown letters to Heisenberg surfaced (denouncing Heisenberg’s subsequent benign recollections about his famous 1941 visit, asserting instead that Heisenberg was then looking forward to a German-dominated Western Europe), the story made the front page of the New York Times.
These are only some of the issues historians have recently addressed. Consider the problem of sources. The once-stable world of typewritten and handwritten letters preserved in university archives, together with bound periodicals lining library shelves, is yielding to the realm of email, e-journals, weblogs, and other web-based reports. How stable are these new sources of historical information? Studies in 2003 found that up to half of web-based citations (URLs, or uniform resource locators) became inaccessible within four years. Archivists and historians worry about the long-term implications of these trends. They are also concerned about the fate of classified documents—an issue that extends beyond the formal end of the Cold War—since entire archives of classified documents, many stored without traditional archival safeguards, have gone missing in the United States and several Western European nations. This complicates the task of writing traditional historical accounts.
A further challenge in writing this history is that scientists increasingly work in large multi-disciplinary teams. Experimental papers in biomedical journals like Cell frequently involve ten or more authors with different disciplinary backgrounds, each contributing a particular methodological skill to the common outcome. The epochal papers in Nature on February 16, 2001 that reported on the draft human genome sequence were crafted by more than 2500 authors from 20 laboratories around the world (the Craig Venter et al. paper in Science the day before “only” had about 250 authors). If the relevant archives for writing the history of recent science, technology, and medicine are no longer the papers of individual scientists but of collaborative groups, how confident can we be that the records of these collaborations will survive? Since contemporary scientists have deployed new writing and authorship strategies, do historians of recent science, medicine and technology need to adopt new methodologies as well? One approach—extending the collaborative, multidisciplinary, social history-oriented research projects favored by the Annales School—involves employing teams of historians to explore the largest undertakings of modern science, each researcher tackling a manageable part: Big History for Big Science. Several notable historical accounts, including those of nuclear physics laboratories, have utilized this approach. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Sloan Foundation pursued pioneering efforts to develop historical information on significant yet largely unexplored fields of recent science. They did so by inviting grass-roots participation, allowing scientist-participants in activities such as GATE (the Atlantic Tropical Experiment of the larger Global Atmospheric Research Program, or GARP, conducted during the summer of 1976) to write on-line narratives about their experiences. But these projects foundered. Collaborations of more than two historians remain difficult, and few scientists responded to the Sloan Foundation’s invitation to contribute online. The challenge of writing histories of rapidly burgeoning science and medical fields remains immense, although the last contributor to this volume (Hessenbruch) offers bold new suggestions.
Finally, historians of recent science, medicine and technology also confront the challenge of relevancy: who reads their works? Who profits by them, beyond colleagues and undergraduates? Should new historical accounts of these fields be more accessible to broader public realms? Heated controversies involving recent museum exhibits – such as the ill-fated Smithsonian Institution plan in 1995 to develop a comprehensive exhibit around the Enola Gay, the plane that had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima a half century before – remind us that our work can stimulate (or infuriate) large audiences. Should historical research also be relevant to policy studies, since (to make an obvious point) bad history inspires misguided policy? A quarter century ago the eminent historian A. Hunter Dupree lamented that no credible means existed to bring historical insights into science policy discussions. More recently historian Jane Maienschein—who has served as science advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives—has argued that such links need to be forged. If ethical issues (such as past medical experiments involving unwitting subjects) and political-scientific controversies (such as global warming) continue to dominate front page headlines, then historians of recent science, technology, and medicine can further contribute to large debates at the core of contemporary life.
The universe of possible topics for a book such as this is vast. Some are addressed in the current volume. Many more still need to find their voice. We divide these essays into six parts. They address large themes: “Where Are We Now? The Challenges of Writing Recent Science,” “Whose History? Ethics, Lawsuits, Natural Security, and the Writing of Contemporary History,” “Witnesses to History: Grasping the Big Picture,” “Secrecy and Science: Probing the Meaning of the Cold War,” “History Detectives: New Ways of Approaching Modern Science, Medicine and Technology,” and “New Voices: Omitted and Novel Perspectives.”
Why are science historians not more widely read? What lessons can science journalists learn from the history of science; what can historians do to bring their knowledge into mainstream reporting and policy discussions? KEAY DAVIDSON, a veteran science journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, argues that far too few science journalists understand the history of science, leading them to become science propagandists rather than insightful critics of its emerging concepts and social impacts. Author of a well-received biography of Carl Sagan and a forthcoming biography of Thomas Kuhn, Davidson decries that too many science correspondents would agree that the history of science should be rated “X,” drawing on Stephen G. Brush’s classic 1974 essay. Rather than be seduced by Sagan’s optimistic vision of science, Davidson wants science journalists to wrestle with the pessimistic realism of Kuhn, arguing that public understanding of science (and informed policy decisions) depend on well-informed citizens who understand the process of science.
In his own provocative essay, BRUCE V. LEWENSTEIN raises a different theme: how do existing archival collections shape what historians of recent science, technology and medicine write about? What important stories and issues are not being addressed? Lewenstein, an Associate Professor of Communications Studies in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, has written extensively on media coverage of science. He explores the challenge of (and controversy over) creating archives for pivotal developments in contemporary science and technology, including the 1989 Cold Fusion controversy and the Y2K computer scare of the late 1990s, where real-time information and opinions can be preserved before memories are edited and refined in later years.
How has the modern state—not just through national security restrictions but also the courts and the news media—shaped, restricted, or and warped what we know about recent science, medicine, and technology? Are historical accounts blunted by the power of the modern state to shape what we know of pivotal developments, including the history of medical institutions and the history of recent nuclear weapons developments? Have historians failed to find an appropriate moral and ethical language to depict twentieth century experimentation with eugenics and larger efforts to shape the human race?
In Part 2, “Whose History? Ethics, Lawsuits, National Security, and the Writing of Contemporary History,” three historians—each working in very different environments—explore aspects of how the state shapes historical narratives. British historian DAVID CANTOR offers a gripping, eye-opening account of his late 1980s attempt to review a book on the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, a contracted history he considered compromised by its sponsorship. “Is the history of medicine in Britain for sale?” began Cantor’s hard-hitting review. Because British defamation law is broader than that in the United States and in many European nations, he and his intended publisher—the journal Social History of Medicine—were threatened with lawsuits if they actually published his review. For more than a year the “Cantor affair” echoed from Oxford to the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister in London. Though his review ultimately appeared in print (it is reproduced here), the issue has hardly gone away.
Addressing this large theme from a different perspective, ANNE FITZPATRICK writes about doing history from “behind the fence”: that is, preparing a history of nuclear weapons development as an employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Emphasizing the insights gained by having a Q clearance—which allows access to highly classified nuclear information—Fitzpatrick explores post-Cold War efforts to comprehend the global development of nuclear devices. She also narrates her research in the archives in the once-secret city of Sarov, the Soviet Union’s mirror equivalent of Los Alamos. A 1998 Ph.D. from Virginia Tech (some 2000 words from her dissertation on the Los Alamos Thermonuclear Weapons Project ultimately were classified by government censors), Fitzpatrick followed standard security procedures in writing for this volume. Her chapter, reviewed before publication, is officially publication LA-UR 038579 of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
In the last chapter of this section, LENE KOCH addresses the profound challenges of writing about state-sanctioned eugenics policies in Scandinavia. These efforts persisted through the 1960s, so close to the present that many scientists and physicians involved with the effort remain alive. A Professor in the Department of Health Services Research at the University of Copenhagen who has published extensively on twentieth century sterilization practices in Denmark, Koch explores the moral dilemma of imposing our own contemporary morality inappropriately on the past, and the ways that such histories have been used by the state to justify new remedies for past policies.
Part 3, “Witnesses to History: Issues in Biography and Ethics,” addresses two quite different yet interwoven themes. What can we learn from a historian’s thoughtful self-examination of his own work? What can we say about the ethical dimension in the historiography of recent science, technology, and medicine? The two essays in this section have much in common. Both authors review their own heterodox writing on the history of immunology over the past 15 years. They both intersected with the life of Niels Jerne (1911-1994), the British-Danish-Dutch theoretical immunologist who set a bold agenda for the emerging discipline of immunology in the 1960s and 1970s (and shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1984). Both believe that historians (and even scientists) inscribe their own lives in their work, intellectually and existentially. And while both sought to use the history of immunology to address problems in epistemology, in the course of their work they discovered ethical questions that could not be ignored. Drawing on his writing about Jerne, THOMAS SÖDERQVIST analyzes seven reasons for writing biographies of recent scientists. Classical uses of the genre—providing the public with means for understanding science—remain valued. More recently, historians have regarded biography as a way to constitute fine-grained epistemological case studies or to write contextual history of science. Söderqvist argues, however, that biographers of scientists must ask a broader range of questions so that the whole life, rather than just the science, takes central place in the narrative. This, in turn, raises an ethical question: are biographies of recent scientists fundamentally an ethical genre? “Care of self”—an ancient notion cast in modern form by Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault—is becoming a central category for both biographers and historians of recent science. (Readers interested in these issues should also read John Krige’s essay in the following section, where he boldly takes up Söderqvist’s challenge to explore the human dimensions of science and science policy.)
In the second essay of this section, ALFRED TAUBER, a physician-turned-historian and philosopher of science, traces his own intellectual journey in the 1980s as he wrestled with the fundamental question: What defines an organism? Eventually recognizing that his own ecologically-oriented perspective reflected an orientation towards immunological research in vogue in the late nineteenth century (but largely discarded in favor of more reductionist approaches in his own time), Tauber reminds historians that a postmodernist perspective is required. Failing to consider larger issues at stake, such as moral agency and the moral dimensions of “natural” categories, will likely lead us to historical accounts that fail to ask the poignant and significant questions. In retrospect he discovered that philosophical historiography was driven by twin concerns: a self-evident epistemological exercise, and in a more latent form, an exploration in moral philosophy. Tauber thus identifies a close connection between epistemology and moral agency that has served as a dominant theme of his writings on science in culture.
What ought we remember about the Cold War? For individuals born after 1980—today a significant fraction of the world’s population—the Cold War at best is a dim and hazy memory, ending with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Yet virtually all of the scientific agencies created after 1947, including the Science and Technology division of the CIA, remain in place. Space exploration, spurred by the space race following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, continues unabated. Thus the Cold War casts a significant shadow on science and society today, and much contemporary scholarship continues to examine its influence. In Part 4, “Secrecy and Science: Probing the Meaning of the Cold War,” two distinguished historians of recent science and technology focus on distinct aspects of the Cold War. In an innovative essay that blends diplomatic history, history of science, and historical fiction, JOHN KRIGE explores how the politics of the Marshall Plan played out in the case of a dying worker in occupied Trieste in the late 1940s. Krige, the Kranzberg Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, argues that historians—by focusing too much on issues trumpeted in Washington and in Moscow—have missed how official policies influenced the attitudes of residents of Western Europe in the early Cold War. Yet this was precisely what Cold War foreign policies sought to do, and hence Krige’s essay points to important studies that remain unwritten.
In the second essay in this section, MICHAEL A. DENNIS tackles the fundamental question of what can be known about secret science: To what extent can anyone confidently know how knowledge production worked during the Cold War? Was secrecy antithetical to science or fundamental to the practice of research, essential to the maintenance of democratic traditions within the Soviet Union? Dennis says: No, contrary to common perceptions, secrecy may be essential to science, and the entire matter needs to be rethought. A thoughtful scholar of scientific practice, Dennis argues that we need to reevaluate the reflexive categories of openness and secrecy: only then will we be able to better assess the impact and significance of the Cold War.
How might we better understand what took place in recent science, medicine, and technology? Historians of science have had a much better time of things than social historians: scientists leave behind bulging boxes and file cabinets, brimming with letters, reports, memoirs, and photographs. These seemed reliable and enduring sources of history until the start of the electronic age. Since the 1980s, email has largely replaced typed or handwritten letters, but it is far more ephemeral and easily lost. Photographs—whose manipulation once took skill, time, and persistence—also seem less certain witnesses in the new digital age than in the past. The one great advantage that historians of recent science continue to enjoy is the chance to talk with their subjects. Part 5, “History Detectives,” addresses new options available to historians. In her essay, LILLIAN HODDESON tackles a central issue: the conflict between memory and documents, better understood as the battle between memory and history. A physicist-turned-historian and one of the best-known historians of twentieth-century physics, Hoddeson revisits her extensive oral interviews with Edward Teller, Richard Feynman and other key figures in twentieth century physics, and maps out the construction of memory.
Also in this section, one of us (RONALD E. DOEL), together with PAMELA M. HENSON of the Smithsonian Institution, jointly explore what can be learned from considering photographs themselves as evidence for writing the history of science. Scenes of laboratories, science exhibits in county fairs, and science classrooms, as well as photographs of scientists on field expeditions and negotiating bilateral treaties, sometimes contradict accounts based entirely on written records. Doel and Henson argue that, despite the value of photographs as sources of evidence, few historians of science have paused to consider what images might teach them.
Where are the most promising new frontiers? What new challenges do historians face in writing about recent science, when the Internet and email have largely replaced typed letters stored in desk-drawer folders? What questions have we not yet asked? Part 6, “New Voices: Omitted and Novel Perspectives,” provides three perspectives on current and future challenges. In their thought-provoking essay, ALEXIS DE GREIFF AND MAURICIO NIETO argue that historians of recent science, medicine and technology, by reflexively focusing on east-west relations, have neglected north-south technoscientific exchanges. De Greiff and Nieto, university-based historians in Bogotá, Colombia, provide a wide-ranging roadmap to future studies, including a comprehensive examination of current insights about the Green Revolution.
TILLI TANSEY’s chapter assesses the Witness Seminar series of the Wellcome Trust Centre. Established more than a dozen years ago, it has brought together Nobel laureates, senior scientists, technicians and medical practitioners in lively, sometimes heated sessions. In her account, Tansey, a biologist-turned-historian, addresses a different issue: what can we learn about key episodes in the history of recent medicine by doing group interviews with individuals intimately connected with the development of oral contraceptives, genetic testing, and post-penicillin antibodies, to name a few topics?
Finally, in one of the more provocative pieces within this volume, ARNE HESSENBRUCH recounts efforts by the Sloan Foundation and the Dibner Institute beginning in the late 1980s to encourage the history of recent science, medicine and technology online, using techniques pioneered in social history. While this project revealed limits to the approach, Hessenbruch argues that it nevertheless represents the future of historical work. As the infrastructure of electronic media strengthens, making online materials as secure as printed books, Hessenbruch envisions a time when scientists and historians will both collaborate in determining what historical data ought be gathered and how it is interpreted. Indeed, he argues, historians of recent science will necessarily become mongrels, or “mutts.” Not all readers will agree. But all the chapters in the volume seek to raise significant questions about the past, present and future of this field.
All of these essays appear in print for the first time. Several were first conceived for a conference entitled “Problems in the Historiography of Recent Science, Technology and Medicine,” organized by Thomas Söderqvist and Jeff Hughes, with an international Advisory Program Committee (Finn Aaserud, Horace F. Judson, Lene Koch, Helge Kragh, Timothy Lenoir, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger). This mid-August 1998 gathering took place at the Magleas Conference Center, a former estate in the countryside outside Copenhagen. In this congenial and informal setting, ideas about writing recent science were raised, critiqued, and further refined. Essays in this book were selected to address topics distinct from those raised in the related volume in this series edited by Thomas Söderqvist, The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology (1997), based on an earlier conference in Gothenburg in 1994. We are grateful to all participants in the meeting for their comments and ideas, and to Jeff Hughes for his contribution to the early stage of the editorial process. We are also grateful for editorial assistance provided by Roger Turner, currently a doctoral student in history of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and especially by Kristine C. Harper (MIT / New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology).
We acknowledge support from the Danish Humanities Research Council for organizing the Magleas conference in 1998; Doel acknowledges NSF grants DIR-9112304 and NSF SBR-9511867. Söderqvist is grateful for support from a special program for science studies financed by the combined Danish Research Councils in 1997-2002. We also appreciate additional editorial comments and criticisms from Lawrence J. Friedman, Kris Harper, and Pamela M. Henson.