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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.4 (2002) 449-479

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Institutionalizing Biochemistry:
The Enzyme Institute at the University of Wisconsin

Ton Van Helvoort

BIOCHEMISTRY can be defined as the science that deals with the chemistry of living things. As such, it may be regarded as an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary science between chemistry and biology. Notoriously, interdisciplinarity is a hotly debated scientific policy issue: On the one hand it is hailed because many societal problems are at the interface between disciplinary approaches; on the other hand, scientific progress is characterized by increasing specialization, irrespective of whether the scientific research is disciplinary or interdisciplinary. Nevertheless, the resistances hindering the formation of an interdisciplinary science constitute an important topic of study, and a historical approach would seem rewarding. In this essay I discuss the attempt to institutionalize biochemistry as an interdisciplinary science.

One important obstruction to interdisciplinarity is that scientific knowledge grows (progresses) in relation to the paradigm of “black-boxed,” consensual knowledge. This friction has been denoted by Thomas S. Kuhn as the “essential tension.” Or as Peter Weingart has contended in Practising Interdisciplinarity: “Structures of knowledge [End Page 449] production . . . reflect the fundamental distinctions, ordering categories, and social representations that are necessary to maintain the activity, to give it direction for the future by providing the memory of past achievements.” 1 By definition, interdisciplinarity implies multifold essential tension.

In the case of biochemistry, there are several of these conflicting structures through which knowledge is produced. The first of these involves the different approaches used by chemistry and biology; chemistry makes use of methods and techniques requiring the biological object to be processed before the chemical methodology can be applied. The validity of this processing is, however, not predetermined but needs to be construed and may be contested. A second complex of structures is that biology is traditionally divided into descriptive categories such as zoology, botany, and microbiology, a categorization that is institutionalized through the departmental structure of university faculties.

Claude Bernard’s work in the third quarter of the nineteenth century firmly established the application of chemical methods and techniques in biological studies, providing experimental physiology with a legitimate foundation. 2 In the years between the two world wars, the use of chemical techniques to study life became more solidly grounded, especially through the programmatic work of Frederick Gowland Hopkins in Cambridge (UK). Hopkins was a passionate advocate of the view that a true discipline of biochemistry would require all types of life, ranging from microbes to animals and humans, to be studied by means of chemical methods and techniques. In 1926, he formulated this as follows: “No full understanding of the dynamics of life as a whole, no broad and adequate views of metabolism, can be obtained save by studying with equal concentration the green plant and microorganisms as well as the animal.” 3 One consequence [End Page 450] of the latter view was that biochemistry interfaced with a large number of other disciplines, ranging from physical chemistry to cytology, and from botany to human pathology. As a result, biochemically oriented research was being conducted in various departments, such as medicine, natural sciences, agricultural science, and biology. 4

This omni-relevance of biochemistry in statu nascendi had two mutually contradictory effects. On the one hand, it underlined the importance of biochemistry, but on the other hand, it hampered the institutionalization of this new discipline. The structured organization of science in terms of research areas and professionalization means that each nascent discipline has to carve out its own niche in the existing ecology of scientific disciplines. 5 Since biochemistry, in the sense in which it was advocated by people like Hopkins, had no precisely delineated research areas or methods, the advocates of an independent discipline of biochemistry faced opposition from many adjoining disciplines. To give a relatively recent example, Harmke Kamminga has shown that, at the level of an international professional organization of biochemists, physiologists and the chemists represented in the International Union of Pure and Applied...


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