Thomas Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography

Thomas Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). xv + 270 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-5181-9.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

If the modern impulse to write biography—split between seriousness and celebrity, the cerebral and the gossipy—can be traced from James Boswell’s systematic courting and recording of the rudely living Samuel Johnson, then Thomas Söderqvist’s valuable volume on scientific biography has its own Boswell-Johnson pairing. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of evolutionary science, reflects on her relationship, as biographer, with the (then) living and publicly prominent scientific subject, G. Ledyard Stebbins (1906-2000), the American botanist, geneticist and evolutionist who, through plant biology, did much to advance the modern synthesis. Famously, Boswell conveyed a sense of Johnson’s grotesqueness through an image of his table manners: sweat pours out of the hulking giant while he stuffs food into himself. There must be something about the eating habits of biographees that sets a barrier of repulsion for biographers to overcome: Smocovitis recalls that, on first meeting the elderly Stebbins at a dinner, she was ‘horrified to see his manners … he was spooning the soup of the day into his eyeglasses that he kept suspended on his chest with cords’ (213). However, her essay testifies to the way in which she finds herself being drawn into a relationship with a man with whom she had little in common, and yet for whom she came to feel great fondness, along with the respect in which she already held his scientific work. To be sure, the process of identification in life writing is a complex, even messy one. Perhaps the messiness of spilt soup stands as an allegory for the sheer difficulty of keeping science in the clinically circumscribed box to which our culture wishes to assign it.

The point of Thomas Söderqvist’s collection, and its welcome and sophisticated critical engagement with life writing, is to help science out of that box. Söderqvist’s introduction outlines the parlous position of biography in science: it has an important popular presence, but it is often not taken seriously as scholarship. This is the very dilemma that the esteemed biographer Jacalyn Duffin writes sympathetically about (‘I like biographies…’) in her essay on ‘Unwanted Biographies Both Great and Small’.  Duffin’s account of the research that she undertook on the lives of two unknown nineteenth-century doctors also records the revisions away from biography that she was required to undertake as her work received more funded scholarly support. The dilemma also structures Thomas Söderqvist’s concluding account of the ‘Delicate Relations between Scientific Biography and the Historiography of Science’. For it remains the case that much history of science and medicine has been conducted in the biographical mode: science and medicine like their heroes, and indeed taught the subjects through ‘exemplar’ human subjects. As Beth Linker argues in her essay, even attempts to celebrate the ‘new social’ history of medicine can end in a paradoxical hagiography of methodology, exemplified in the ‘life’ of the method’s founding father, Henry E. Sigerist. Linker’s point is that Sigerist was, in fact, more of a methodological pluralist. The collection contains many valuable reflections on biographical, and cognate, methods of research and writing.

Clearly the field of science writing has a history informed by biographical methods, but is the history of science grounded in a poetics informed by life writing? Christopher A.J. Chilvers answers yes, and argues that the lives of scientists working through periods of intense social conflict, and historical ambiguity, can be ‘emplotted’ as tragedy, as Hayden White might have put it—though Chilvers looks to Raymond Williams as a critic who saw the genre as a particular comment on the pressures of modernity. Chilvers uses this framework to read the life of Boris Hessen, physicist and also historian of science. Working in the Soviet system in the 1920s and 30s, he was a convinced Marxist, and in a sense inaugurated ‘externalism’ in the history of science in his paper on ‘The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia’ (1931). Chilvers uses the Aristotelian concepts of perepeteia and katharsis to narrate the way in which Hessen fell foul of the Stalinist regime as his relatively sophisticated history of science could be mobilised against him, along with a whole range of other charges about his involvement in Trotskyite plots. The Stalinist Soviet system was both a good, and terribly dangerous, place to be an ‘externalist’ philosopher and historian of science. Ambiguity and sophistication could lead directly to tragedy.

There are other perspectives on poetics which usefully overlap with the question of generic history, and the representation of the individual. Liba Taub’s essay on classical biographies of Pythagoras is both effective, and representative of the collection, in taking forward questions that have been important in life writing research in recent years; in Taub’s case, generic classification. Her essay also interrogates the presence of traditions that are often complex and overlapping: for instance, the comparability of lives of Pythagoras with those other central life narrations of the ancient world, the Gospel narratives. The collection as a whole contains, indeed, valuable critical reflections on the concept of tradition. Stephen Gaukroger’s essay on the early modern construction of the ‘persona’ of the philosopher marshals evidence which, as he points out, can often fall outside of the sphere of investigation into the later construction of the figure of the scientist. Such an approach informs Rebekah Higgitt’s essay on Newton, traditionally presented as a man of both genius and unimpeachable virtue. Higgitt looks closely at nineteenth-century English biography as a craft that depended on canons of critical interpretation that were changing significantly over time, along with the available documentation which—in the light of what it disclosed about Newton’s participation in disputes, and his character—led to the rejection of hagiography. Higgitt shows that what emerged in biographical writing by Augustus de Morgan, professor of mathematics at University College London, were nascent lessons for an emergent, empirically informed, secular history of science. In fact, there are a number of essays that explore the different biographies of different European scientists as evidence of ‘programmatic functions’; the latter is a phrase of Signe Lindskov Hansen’s account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century biographies of the Danish seventeenth-century geologist and anatomist Niels Stensen, which inevitably explore him in the context of early modern religious conflict (‘Steno’ converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism). Helge Kragh’s essay on written portraits of Tycho Brahe is another essay in this mould.

If the prose portrait dominates, the collection also goes valuably beyond this material. Indeed, mobilising the full range of evidence that has been brought to bear on the recent expanded understanding of life writing enriches the understanding of science in culture. Thus Patricia Fara’s account of scientific portraiture contains discussion of the celebrated Newton portrait, but also Phillips’s portrait of Joseph Banks, in which the sitter presides over the Royal Society (1808). Fara also shows ways in which Banks’s portrait was an episode in a ‘rhetorical’ conflict, the other side of which were caricatures which presented the life of the gentleman natural philosopher in a less flattering light. Fara’s approach to visual representation suggests that high and low images of the scientific life were subtly linked.

In other contexts, Marysa Demoor (Biography, 28: 2, spring 2005) and Alison Booth (in Amigoni ed., Life Writing and Victorian Culture, Aldershot: 2006) have used varied visual and material evidence, such as commemorative plaques and tablets, to extend our understanding of the literary afterlife. Here David Auber and Charlotte Bigg contribute an essay that opens up comparable work for the scientific afterlife by focussing on the commemorative medal as a way of publicly recording scientific achievement. Theirs is the story about the medal to celebrate the parallel discovery of the spectroscopic measurement of the sun’s prominences by two scientists, one British, the other French. Struck by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1872, it was awarded to Jules Janssen of France, and Norman J. Lockyer of Britain. Auber and Bigg analyse the medal as a form of self-fashioning that signified the place of science in the modern state (they point out the way in which the facial images of the men were rendered in imperial style). This is a fascinating and important essay about status and recognition which finds parallels with Thomas L Hankins’s contribution. Hankins sees biography as part of the ‘reward system’ in science—that it is in itself part of the honour system conferring status and reputation. Hankins is correct to say that the scientific career produces its own selective archive of what, putatively, might ‘make it’ into any subsequent biography. Hankins produces an original essay on the parallels between scientific and technological patenting and the biographical reward. There are forms of institutional embodiment that are common to both: patent systems were instituted in the early nineteenth century, along with a new form of biographical writing, and both were ‘awarded’ to individuals.

The contributions by Hankins, and Auber and Bigg, are both about rewards and recognition within the increasingly secular, democratic state: the approaches complement one another. The essay by Auber and Bigg is additionally valuable because it is organised around ‘parallel lives’, and so becomes, as its authors note, almost a test case to examine the constraints and opportunities under and through which scientists in different societies worked. In a de-centred view of scientific creativity (which alludes to Foucault’s conception of the author-function in moving to a complex understanding of individuality), Auber and Bigg demonstrate the ways in which self-fashioning also worked through the lecture hall, the public speech and the newspaper column. In this way, Söderqvist’s collection builds alliances with important work in the history of science on popularization and publication history (which has been so powerfully mapped by Jonathan Topham, Sally Shuttleworth, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman among others).

In another extension of innovative approaches to life writing research, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent’s essay examines the role of popular memory and narrative myth in the recollection of scientific lives, as focused through the lives of the early twentieth-century physicist Paul Langevin, a secular ‘saint’ of the French Third Republic, and the French chemist of the revolutionary epoch Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. Popular memory is embodied in the collective recollection of past events in the present through monuments, rituals, commemorative events. Despite detailed empirical work on Lavoisier’s experimental notebooks, Bensaude-Vincent encountered the stubborn persistence of mythical thought, both about the individual and the science (chemistry in the case of Lavoisier) that he was supposed heroically to have re-shaped. Bensaude-Vincent positively embraces the presence of these myths. As she observes, a detailed reconstruction of a scientist’s working methods might compile so much detail as to become unreadable; and if this is pursued in the interests of objectivity, such aspirations cannot reliably move beyond the blurring of the scientific with the everyday, and even the multiple and over-lapping professional identities of subjects. We are back, again, to science’s encounter with ‘soup’, the messiness of life. In the end, Bensaude-Vincent advances a theory of intertextuality which is anchored in close work on the writing conventions extant in particular institutions. This is a dynamic and empirically rigorous manner of dealing with tradition in scientific discourse which presents, potentially, an important model to follow. Renya Selya’s essay on the origins of molecular biology in biographical writing and forms of self-fashioning among the Phage group—in particular as practiced by the larger than life James Watson—is a good example of the way in which myths (or perhaps traditions) remain very active in forms of even quite recent scientific narration.

This is a valuable, theoretically informed and yet empirically dense, set of essays which produce a remarkably coherent critical effect. Those who have been ‘Darwined-out’ by 2009 may be relieved to hear that there is very little mention of Darwin in this collection (but that is not to say that there is not more work to be done on Darwin and the question of biography). Indeed, so much of the volume deals with scientific lives from the wider European continent and the United States that the volume has a genuinely international reach and appeal. While it delivers so much, perhaps what the volume misses is a contribution that thinks carefully about the role of biography in shaping literary responses to modern sciences. Thus it is surprising, perhaps (especially given the volume’s Danish editor), not to find a contribution that deals with Michael Frayn’s dramatisation of the enigmatic 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, and Werner Heisenberg in Cophenhagen. After all, and as Frayn’s elaborately argued ‘Postscript and ‘Post-Postscript’ to his published edition of the play demonstrate, Frayn’s dramatisation of the ‘uncertainties’ around Heisenberg’s intentions and Bohr’s response has been shaped by a judicious reading of multiple, often conflicting, biographies.

David Amigoni, Keele University