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Söderqvist Gives NIH History Day Lecture
By Sarah Leavitt
The second annual NIH History Day took place on campus Sept. 21. The main events included a seminar and lecture by Dr. Thomas Söderqvist, an historian of medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The Office of NIH History sponsors the event to build awareness of its activities and collecting practices. To learn more about the office and its Stetten Museum, visit www.history.nih.gov. If you have items of historical importance you would like to donate, call (301) 496-6610.
Söderqvist spoke about scientific biography in general and about his most recent subject, immunologist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Jerne, in particular. Jerne, an immunologist who sat on NIH study sections in the 1960s, won the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his work on theories of antibody formation and the regulation of the immune system. Söderqvist posed some provocative questions in his lecture: Why should we remember a scientist like Jerne or any other life scientist? And generally speaking: What's the use of biographies of scientists? What can we learn from them?
He outlined several reasons that historians and writers often think of when writing biographies: to serve as a personal commemoration; to serve as a public commemoration; to be educational; to be a good read; to understand the creation of theories, concepts and facts; to understand history at large; and finally, to understand life as an achievement. The last reason biography as a contribution to the ethics of science was the focus of Söderqvist's book.
Söderqvist explained that he was most interested to investigate this last reason because Jerne had kept more than just his scientific papers. His personal archive also contained thousands of private letters, diaries, scrap notes with passing thoughts in addition to all manner of paraphernalia such as book-loan receipts, movie ticket stubs, chess records, domestic bills, medical prescriptions and so forth. These papers enabled Söderqvist to answer questions that are unknowable to many biographers, such as: What choices did Jerne make during his life? And what consequences did they have, for himself, for his work and for others around him? Which kind of life situations attracted him and which did he try to suppress or even flee from? What brought him to pursue science instead of making a career in business, or a life as a physician, or a writer or even a life of caring for family and children? And how did he bring together (or separate) his life inside versus outside science?
In the end, it was the life itself rather than the scientific work and its results that took the central place in Söderqvist's narrative. As he pointed out in his presentation, a 21st century scientific role model does not at all have to be uniformly good and positive, or provide single-minded answers ; or even provide a model in the positive sense. Today, an edifying life story will probably tend toward complex human characters and fates life stories that have a lot of dark zones and present the reader with genuine moral dilemmas. To be a "model" is to have a life story that others can relate to a story that makes others begin to think about their own lives.
Söderqvist presented his thoughts to an audience of NIH scientists and staff, suggesting that biographies of scientists can also inspire scientists themselves to think about how to handle their own lives both inside and outside science.
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