Ravenna A, Third Floor 03 Nov 2018 Contributed Papers Session
Life Sciences 16:00 - 18:00

Fantastic Microbes and Where to Find Them
16:00 - 16:30

In this paper I use specific examples drawn from microbiology to illustrate ways in which scientists have used the genre of fantasy--in its broadest possible sense--as speculative, explanatory and heuristic devices in their work. "A Christmas fairy story for oncologists,” was a short story by the British virologist Christopher H. Andrewes in a private 1935 letter to his friend, the American researcher Peyton Rous. Using some classic fairy-tale tropes, Andrewes sketched this humorous piece to make “fantastic” speculations about the nature of certain viral infections and their place in nature, which were corroborated a few years later. A few years later, in a public lecture titled “Alice in Electronland” the Belgian-American physicist and microscopist Ladislaus Marton adapted Lewis Carroll's beloved classic to describe previously unimaginable applications of the then new electron microscope in biology. Years later Andrewes would write a second piece “Is Sex Infectious?” for publication, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on new findings about bacteria and sex in which he adopted the language and style of Broadway author Damon Runyon. I also present How’s Life in the Colonies? A Bug’ s Tale, in which a contemporary microbiologist has reimagined the world of bacteria and viruses in cartoons. Taken together, these works show that far from providing the odd creative outlet for scientists, such exercises actually play a valuable role in how they learn, think about problems, build knowledge, and disseminate information among themselves and to broader audiences.

Originating the Microbiome: Joshua Lederberg and Microbiology's Self-Narration at the Advent of the Human Microbiome Project
16:30 - 17:00

This talk focuses on the emergence of the term microbiome in the early 21st century, a rhetorical phenomenon that helped to legitimize the nascent field of human-microbial genomics as scientists advocated for the development of the multi-year, multi-site, $115 million Human Microbiome Project. The term had long been in use by microbial ecologists to describe a self-contained microbiological community. Yet when it emerged in 2001, referring instead to a collection of microbial genomes, scientists declared it a neologism, entirely overlooking its earlier usage.


My presentation surveys a range of scientific publications from the late 1990s and early 2000s, showing how scientists began to attribute the microbiome concept – through a series of misquotations and erroneous citations – to Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg. I argue that this narrative served both to represent the novelty of microbiomics as a discipline and to claim a rhetorical stamp of approval from an elder statesman. In borrowing Lederberg’s authority, alongside similar borrowings from Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, and other central figures, scientists re-narrated scientific history to establish microbiomics as both new and as prophesied by revered figureheads.


I conclude with a brief discussion of scientific pushback against this origin story in the wake of the media frenzy that followed the release of the HMP’s first publications in 2012. Taking on the roles of amateur historians and literary scholars, a number of scientists have turned to historical scientific documents to contest Lederberg’s visionary status, critically interrogating science’s discursive practices in an effort to tell a more measured story.



Film, Television, and Medium Specificity in Postwar Biomedical Science Education
17:00 - 17:30


A history of science focusing on how different media are deployed to construct and communicate expert knowledge would need to concede that no single medium—writing, imaging, or other types of notation or recording—dominates this process. But neither can we expect all media to function similarly. Moving images function differently than still photographs or graphs or the written word. The pressing historiographical questions, then, are: how do these media function? What difference does the choice of medium make to the researcher? These are not questions media scholars often ask with regard to scientific imaging, nor questions historians of science often ask with regard to media; most discussions treat all media as equally transparent conveyers of a message without considering how the formal properties of the medium might affect our interpretation of any message—or the researchers’ own understanding of their object of study. To approach these questions, this presentation will compare the use of film to the use of television in medical schools and scientific laboratories after WWII. Through an examination of archival sources, it will demonstrate that researchers were indeed sensitive to formal properties, such as the density, grain, and clarity of the image, as well as to the different capabilities of the technologies. This paper argues that researchers had their own implicit or explicit theories of medium specificity, which help to explain historical patterns of media use and therefore should heighten our sensitivity to the formal specificity of media in the history of science and medicine.


The T Suppressor Cell Program and the Dynamics of Collective Error in Biomedical Science
17:30 - 18:00

Science is regarded by many as unique among human endeavors in its inherent ability to correct its own errors. Many cases, such as those involving N-rays or cold fusion, are offered to exemplify the process. These episodes are uncontroversial and make attractive illustrations, but there are less well known cases in which acknowledgement of error is universal, but there is no agreement on just what exactly was mistaken. These cases are certainly more complex, but likely more informative as well.

I will introduce the Suppressor T-cell program, which spanned the 1970 and ‘80s, and present my analysis of its rise, fall, and lasting influence. Broadly: In the wake of recent stimulating progress, highly anticipated experiments were performed and their striking results compellingly interpreted in terms of the new theories. The nascent field that quickly arose attracted hundreds of investigators and the enthusiastic financial support of the NIH. But over time, new experiments more often introduced complications rather than resolve outstanding questions. Key predictions failed. Eventually, the community lost its bearings and “T suppressor” became a stigma. Soon thereafter, however, a distinct program involving different investigators observed related phenomena and explained them via similar theories. The elements of these latter theories are now universally accepted and are actively studied.

There is no agreement about which observations were erroneous, or what, in modern terms could explain the phenomena. What transpired does not exemplify error correction; we have yet to undertand how so many scientists were misled for such a long time.

UC Davis
Independent scholar
Northwestern University
Boston University School of Medicine
Independent Researcher


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