Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.3 (2003) 485-486
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The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930-1965. By Angela N.H. Creager (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002) 352pp. $75.00
Not many readers of this journal will be familiar with either the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (hereinafter tmv) or the American biochemist Wendell Stanley, the 1946 Nobel prizewinner who announced that he had crystallized the virus in 1935. They may be equally unfamiliar with the term model system or laboratory exemplar. But one of the virtues of Creager's admirable book is that the attentive, even if scientifically uninformed, reader will learn a great deal, not only about these subjects but more generally about the character of biological research during the last two-thirds of the twentieth-century. By tracking the history of tmv from the applied realm of plant pathology through its acceptance as experimental model—a widely and conventionally accepted laboratory tool—Creager traces more general trends in the development of virology, genetics, and molecular biology. The narrative begins with a plant disease (an applied context in which the virus first became "visible" through its effects) to its conclusion in a late twentieth-century world of biological research in which the by now much-better-understood virus still played a prominent, if intellectually transformed, role—domesticated into the world of everyday laboratory practice. The title refers to a life tracked and understood through complex interactions with humans and institutions—from tobacco farmers to molecular biologists, from foundation executives to congressmen.
A generation ago, this book might have been a biography of Stanley, but Creager has chosen to foreground the organism itself, as at once protagonist, sampling device, and expository spine. (As a result, Stanley remains somewhat opaque as a human being, though his decisions and energy remain a connecting theme throughout much of the book). The virus' biological idiosyncracy created and constrained research opportunities. tmv was not simply a random virus, but one that could be linked [End Page 485] to the eminently fundable goal of fighting disease. Through this analytical and expository strategy, Creager has integrated materials from a variety of levels—sources of social and political support for laboratory research (often based on the seductive hopes of fighting polio and cancer), the relationships among sub-disciplines (protein chemists, virologists, physical chemists, and x-ray crystallographers, and geneticists, for example), and the intellectual and institutional integration of new technical capacities. (The ultracentrifuge provides a particularly helpful example of this process).
The power of Creager's method lies in how it underlines the dynamic set of relationships between ideas and experimental practice, between the laboratory and its sources of support. There is no opposition between the cognitive and social worlds in The Life of a Virus but a complex, ever-changing, and mutually constitutive array of factors. Creager's subject is not just that of the adoption and diffusion of tmv as experimental system but also the analytical opportunity implicit in that narrative, which allows her to illuminate the changing circumstances that fostered innovation and the multidimensional contingencies that marked what might be seen in retrospect as an inevitable trajectory of discovery.
From the historian's point of view this is a powerful research strategy. It emphasizes the links between cognitive and institutional factors, underlining, for example, the ways in which changing technologies (for example, the role of the ultracentrifuge and electron microscope in Creager's story) can change research agendas. It also illuminates shifting sub-disciplinary formations and alliances in response to a changing research environment. We can anticipate parallel studies of neurospora, e.coli, and other mdoel organisms; scholars in the field have already been influenced by Kohler's widely cited study of drosophila and Haraway's intriguing reflections on Oncomice.1 This is a first-rate book by a scholar trained originally in the laboratory, but a scientist who has fluently assimilated the historian's tools, while utilizing her original training in recreating at every turn the technical choices as understood...