Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.1 (2003) 221-223
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Angela N. H. Creager. The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xiv + 398 pp. Ill. $75.00, £47.50 (cloth, 0-226-12025-2); $27.50, £16.00 (paperbound, 0-226-12026-0).
In this latest contribution to the growing literature on the material culture of experimental life science, Angela Creager traces the history of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) as a subject of research through the 1960s. Partaking of both the institutional history and the intellectual biography genres, the book is focused on the work of Wendell Stanley, who achieved the first crystallization of a virus with TMV in 1935 while working at the Rockefeller Institute, and who subsequently parlayed his 1946 Nobel Prize in chemistry into a grand new institution for virus biochemistry and biophysics at Berkeley. Based on scientific literature and on Stanley's correspondence and administrative papers, together with those of his sponsors, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), Creager paints a detailed picture of the evolving ways in which Stanley's group used TMV as a "model system." By this term, she means that TMV served both as an exemplary virus whose properties could stand for those of viruses in general, and also as an example of fruitful procedures for investigating other simple organisms, for virology and the budding field now known as "molecular biology."
Development of the "model system" concept represents the central interpretive [End Page 221] thrust of the book. Creager's concept strongly resembles the notion, advanced recently by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, that "experimental systems" autonomously drive research trajectories according to their inherent material-symbolic potentials. However, in contrast to Rheinberger, Creager denies absolute autonomy to the nonhuman material, leaving some room for agency and creativity on the part of the experimenter, and also sees her "model systems" as less locally and temporally specific (perhaps embodying families of related experimental systems). For Creager, drawing perceptively on Kuhn, "model experimental systems"—viewed as exemplars of fruitful practice—help constitute the paradigm within which all participants in any progressive science must implicitly agree to work. Thus Stanley's laboratory approach to TMV, such as his group's ultracentrifugation techniques, played a major role in the coalescence of molecular biology as a discipline in the early 1960s by serving as a model for the investigation of other viruses and bacteria. The other sense in which TMV became a "model system" for understanding viruses is simply that when researchers turned to study other viruses at the molecular level, as Stanley himself did in his World War II work on influenza, what was known about TMV (e.g., that the entity was a "nucleoprotein" with a uniform molecular weight) was assumed to be largely true of other viruses. Naturally, a single example can be misleading as a basis for generalization; thus bacteriophage researchers were surprised when they first saw the complex structure of their viruses in an electron micrograph, since they were expecting a simple geometric solid like TMV.
There are some problems with Creager's generalizations on the "life" of the TMV system from Stanley's work. For instance, the way in which electron microscopy became the anchor—with ultracentrifugation—of molecular approaches to TMV and other viruses in the 1940s and 1950s owed little to Stanley, until biophysicist Robley Williams brought the latest techniques to his group at Berkeley in 1950. Still, Creager's close narrative of the TMV-Stanley partnership offers a valuable perpective on the broader world of life science from the late 1930s through the early 1960s. The contribution of Stanley's colleagues to the invention of ultacentrifuge techniques that became standard for virus work everywhere is skillfully illuminated. To take another example of particular interest to readers of this journal, Creager argues that NFIP's funding of Stanley illustrates how large, disease-focused American charities reinterpreted their missions at the end of...