Childhood and school years
I was born in December 1946, grew up on Söder in Stockholm with my mother and maternal grandparents, and went six years to primary school, followed by six years in Södra Latin junior (‘realskola’) and senior (‘gymnasium’) high school. My primary national identity was Swedish; I still speak and write standard Swedish (‘rikssvenska’) fluently. I spent all my free time outdoors watching birds together with other teenagers from Nature and Youth (Fältbiologerna). I still have a very strong emotional attachment to the northern forest landscape (the taiga).
After finishing high school in 1965, I read chemistry, zoology and geology at Stockholm University and got my Bachelor of Science degree in 1968. Having always been more interested in questions than in answers — and scared about prospect of taking a ‘real job’ — I began as a research assistant in the geology department with Harry Mutvei to study organic remains in fossils, which landed me an Master’s degree in historical geology and paleontology. But after a year, including nine months of military service at the Swedish National Defence Research Institute, I felt the need to understand protein chemistry better. I was lucky to be offered a research assistant job in medical chemistry with Birger Blombäck at Karolinska Institute, where I began research for a PhD on the evolution of fibrinogen and taught chemistry to medical students.
Politics, the ‘new class’ and the history of ecology
In the meantime, I had become politically radicalized (the birds were left behind now), and in 1970 I suddenly decided to drop out of the graduate programme and started afresh. I decided to move to Umeå in northern Sweden, where I became a member of the small Maoist party, and began taking courses in the history of ideas (with Gunnar Eriksson and Ronny Ambjörnsson) and in philosophy of science (with Göran Hermerén). I married another student activist and soon became the happy father of a girl. We moved to southern Sweden, where my wife could get a job, and I was lucky to get a teaching assistant job at the newly established Roskilde University Center across the Sound, in Denmark. A year later, in 1974, I was promoted to a tenure track position — and divorced.
The Danish university system provided a nicely protected environment for the rest of my working life. I remained at the university in Roskilde for more than 25 years, teaching history of science to generations of science students and doing research on the side. During the first ten years, I worked myself out of my marxist world-view, read widely about bureaucracy, technocracy, the sociology of knowledge, and the possibility of new class societies, and wrote prolifically for Swedish journals and newspapers about the managerial intelligentsia is an emerging ruling class in ‘the knowledge and information society’. But I also applied these theoretical ideas into a thoroughly archive-based PhD-dissertation on the history of 20th century Swedish ecology, with Aant Elzinga as my supervisor. The five years during which I wrote the manuscript to The Ecologists, alone, in a small attic apartment in Copenhagen, after yet another failed romantic relation, were the most frustrating in my life. (And, as I will go further into in the memoirs, my relations to significant others was complicated, to put it mildly.)
After defending the dissertation at the University of Gothenburg in 1986, followed by stints at Linköping University and at FA-rådet, a private management research institute in Stockholm, in attempts to develop a research program on the history of the knowledge society (which never got funding), I changed direction again. Inspired by my readings on methodological individualism, I began to orient myself towards biography as a means for resistance in the managerial ‘information society’. I had stumbled on a extraordinarily rich private archive of a leading mid-20th century scientist, the immunologist and medical Nobel prize winner Niels K. Jerne, which allowed my to study how the personal and intimate life of a scientist is related to his public work. It took me another eight years (1989-1997) to dig myself through his papers, while at the same trying to understand the intricacies of the development of 20th century immunology, and doing some work on the sociology of immunology on the side. The Danish brick-sized version of the book came in 1998 and the shorter English version, Science as Autobiography, in 2003.
A postdoc year at the Program in History of Science at Stanford University in 1991-92 catapulted me into a new professional identity as member of an international community of historians of science. Reading up on the tradition of scientific biography also led me to reflections on the aims of biography: inspired by Jerne’s archive, his own interest in Kierkegaard, and my new wife’s interest in ethics, I pushed the idea of ‘existential biography’ as an alternative to the mainstream notion of scientific biography as a method for writing contextual history of science. This apparently caught the attention among a segment in the discipline, since the papers I wrote on ‘existential biography’ are among the most frequently cited on my publication list.
In 1997 I received a temporary research professorship for further studies of scientific biography as a genre of writing, and over the next couple of years I delved into a broad reading of biographies of scientists, from the mid-18th century to the present, using the huge collections of biographies in the Wellcome Library and the Science Museum Library in London. I also took this opportunity of scholarly freedom to study classical Greek in order to be able to read Plutarch in the original.
History of medicine and museum studies
Planned to become a book, this metabiographical work was unfortunately never brought to completion, however, because to my great surprise, I won the competition for the chair in history of medicine at the University of Copenhagen in 1999. An entirely new career began. Besides the teaching of medical history to medical and engineering students, supervision of PhD-students, and building a research department, the job also included the responsibility for the best and most diverse medical history collection in northern Europe. I soon found myself deeply immersed in all kinds of things museological. Over the next ten years, and thanks to a couple of generous, no-strings-attached grants from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which made it possible to hire a growing number of research and curatorial staff, I was able to transform the old museum into a rather unique research-based cultural venue, which I renamed Medical Museion.
My own research during these the 16 years (1999-2015) at the museum took two directions. The first — building on my former experiences of the methodological problems involved in writing about contemporary and recent science — was to concentrate the museum’s work on the study, collection and display of recent biomedicine. The other direction was a gradually growing interest in the aesthetic dimension of biomedicine, which also inspired me to produce and curate several exhibitions and art installations, including Primary Substances, Healthy Ageing, An Ageing World, and Genomic Enlightenment. These years at Medical Museion were probably the most satisfying in my professional life — a satisfaction bolstered by the fact that I became a father again, and then again, at the age of 60+.
added in February 2019:
In the summer of 2015 I decided to step down from the directorship of Medical Museion. I wanted to have more time over for my kids and more time to think about my life. A few months after left the museum, I began the autobiographical work described on this site. In November 2016, a month before my 70th birthday — and 50 years after I’ve began my first research assistant position — I retired from the professorship at the University of Copenhagen and was granted an emeritus contract.
Since my retirement I have been working on the autobiographical project. I have also written a few things on museums and am currently drafting a book on museums together with my successor at Medical Museion, Ken Arnold.