In a chapter titled “Primary suspects: reflections on autobiography and life stories in the history of molecular biology”, Rena Selya, lecturer in the Dept of History, UCLA, describes some of the challenges of writing biographies of contemporary scientists who have “a strong received history, complete with heroes, occasional villains and victims”. The chapter appears in The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography which the author of this humble blog post has edited for Ashgate (UK) and which hopefully will be in print next week.

Rena Selya’s reflections on autobiograhy are based on her experience writing a biography of Salvador Luria, one of the figures in early history of molecular biology. He collaborated with Max Delbrück in the 1940s, and was Jim Watson’s Ph.D. advisor at Indiana University 1947-1950. He shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Delbrück and Alfred Hershey in 1969, and was a committed political activist throughout his life in the United States.

One of the problem’s Rena Selya had to deal with was how to separate her voice from that of the subject:

In addition to avoiding the subject’s private myths, the biographer must not allow herself to rewrite the scientist’s own story in his own words. … It is a struggle to construct an engaging narrative that is true to the subject but at the same time is distinct in tone and argument from the subject’s version of his own life. While one goal for the scientific biographer could be to write a biography that the subject would recognize and even agree with, that does not mean that the biographer should write the history that the scientist himself would have written. The biographer must find a balance between sympathy for her subject and seeing the world through his eyes. This is a crucial part of writing a biography that makes a historical statement, rather than one that simply reports on a life.

Quoted from Rena Selya, “Primary suspects: reflections on autobiography and life stories in the history of molecular biology”, in: Thomas Söderqvist, ed., The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Order it here.

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