restricted access Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II (review)
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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.4 (2005) 646-647

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Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II. By Soraya de Chadarevian (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2002) 444pp. $55.00

In this carefully researched study, de Chadarevian presents the local story of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England (formerly the Medical Research Council Unit for the Study of Molecular Structure of Biological Systems). Although this lab is most well known as the home of James Watson and Francis Crick when they first described the double helical structure of DNA in 1953, it is also the emblematic institution for the development of molecular biology in Britain from World War II to the present. De Chadarevian argues that the double helix should be neither the beginning nor the end of a narrative about the history of molecular biology, but one episode of many in the gradual emergence of molecular biology as an independent discipline.

De Chadarevian's finely textured local story has strong general ramifications for an understanding of how molecular biology came to occupy such a prominent place in contemporary culture. This is not a traditional institutional history. Rather, de Chadarevian uses techniques from science studies, cultural studies, and oral history to explain how the university culture at Cambridge affected how the original MRC Unit was structured, and, by extension, how molecular biology became a politically and socially important discipline. Individual and departmental needs dictated where the laboratory was to be located both physically and ideologically, what kinds of projects would be funded, and who would be affiliated with it. Because the LMB was the premier setting for British molecular biology, these local circumstances illuminate the larger political and scientific context in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century.

Especially in its early years, molecular biology was famously difficult to define. To her credit, de Chadarevian does not attempt to reduce molecular biology to a simple definition. Through her analysis of the experimental and theoretical work that was done at the LMB, she demonstrates how interdisciplinary applications of ideas and techniques from electronic computing, physical chemistry, x-ray crystallography, and genetics combined to create the strong molecular biology of today. Indeed, the successful transfer of experiment and practice can be seen as the source of the initial successes of the members of the LMB.

Focus on the laboratory allows de Chadarevian to combine an analysis of experimental practice and a discussion of the cultural and political expectations of science with institutional and personal history. The links between these aspects of the early history of molecular biology are creatively presented, and help to give the narrative continuity across a relatively long time span. For example, she makes a compelling argument about the importance of visual forms of communication in postwar science, in the laboratory, in published accounts, and in public presentations about science. This theme unites her discussions of model building [End Page 646] during the early years of molecular biology (especially for DNA and hemoglobin), the use of crystalline forms in the d├ęcor at the 1951 Festival of Britain, and the popularity of early BBC television shows about science. The juxtaposition of cultural analysis and institutional history is a refreshing change of perspective for the history of molecular biology.

Harvard University