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Reviewed by:
  • The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography
  • Theodore M. Porter (bio)
Thomas Söderqvist , ed. The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. 300 pp. ISBN 0-7546-5181-9, $99.95.

The essays in this collection, which address the standing of biography within the history of science and medicine, divide more-or-less neatly into two categories. One group takes up historically the writing of scientific biographies, mainly in Europe and North America, since the Renaissance (with one essay about the ancients). These essays make the point that biographies from the past are legitimate and potentially valuable sources for investigating the culture of science. The other set of papers poses a more normative question: what role should biography have in the humanistic study of science, and what dangers and opportunities does the biographer of science face? The essays' tone is a bit beleaguered, implying that biography as a genre is not adequately appreciated in history of science. In the case of history of medicine, as two of the best essays—by Jacalyn Duffin and Beth Linker—show, biographical study really does seem to have been seriously discouraged in recent decades. It was associated with celebrations of the "great [white] doctor" and an uncritical attitude toward modern medicine, as well as the neglect of medicine as patients experienced it—its social history. Although it is easy enough to find prominent skeptics of biography among modern historians of science, the genre was never in danger of being suppressed, and in recent decades has flourished.

Or so it may seem. The contributors to this volume have somewhat different ideas of what a scientific biography is. Perhaps it requires no more than the name of a scientist in the title. Mario Biagioli's Galileo Courtier is cited twice as an instance of biography, though it addresses rather specific aspects of Galileo's career, along with episodes from the work that made him famous, in the context of a quest for patronage and status. Lawrence Holmes, who also comes up more than once in the volume, made his reputation on the basis of close study of laboratory notebooks, and these cannot contain a life. Many, possibly most, works in history of science are organized around some individual, but only a few take up the problem of a life in science. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970–1976), which, with its supplements, [End Page 484] remains unmistakably the premier reference work in history of science, certainly is made up of biographies. Still, the editors encouraged attention to scientific careers and accomplishments over "personal biography," and Thomas Söderqvist wonders openly whether this attitude might not really be anti-biographical. His definition of what constitutes biography, then, is quite a demanding one.

But why should anyone write biographies of scientists to this standard? What, asks the devil's advocate, can a more fully biographical approach contribute to the understanding of science? The relevance of the whole scientific career, including schooling and parental support, is obvious enough, but what about nonscientific friendships, family conflicts, religious and philosophical views, interests in art and music, novel reading, love relationships, historical sensibilities, or political ideologies? Science in modern times is usually understood as technical and professional, and hence largely impervious to "influences" like these. Scientific biography, when it includes such material at all, often does so in the name of providing a rounded portrait, and not of explaining the development or historical significance of the science.

Historians of science have given two sorts of answers to the objection that biography is irrelevant. The first, not really an argument of principle, holds that the individual scientist is often a convenient unit of analysis, and not necessarily a narrowing one. Historians, including several authors in this volume, distinguish their biographies from popular ones by invoking context. As Thomas Hankins argued in a well-known defense of biography some three decades ago, the comprehensive study of a scientific life opens up many layers of context. The biographical subject, if a mathematician, is not always writing equations, but also associates with institutions, cultivates friendships, seduces benefactors, fights battles, collaborates with people in other fields, trains and protects students, and...


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pp. 484-486
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