Robin Wolfe Scheffler’s article, “Brightening Biochemistry: Humor, Identity, and Scientific Work at the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, 1923-1931” appears in the September issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.
Our manuscript assistant, Alexander Cagle, interviewed Dr. Scheffler about his research on humor in science, which in this article focuses on Brighter Biochemistry, a humor journal produced locally by a Cambridge biochemistry institute.
CAGLE: How did you find Brighter Biochemistry, and were there any challenges in historicizing scientific humor?
SCHEFFLER: As so many research projects have started, I came across Brighter Biochemistry while looking for something else — in my case information about Joseph Needham, a member of the Sir William Dunn Institute probably best known to readers of Isis as the author of Science and Civilization in China. It was only later, after reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the cultural history of humor before the French Revolution, “The Great Cat Massacre,” that I recognized that Brighter Biochemistry was a rare find. Fortunately, at that point I was in Cambridge, so I was able to track down a full run.
Locating all the issues was the least of my problems. I spent many hours with British magazines and dictionaries from the 1920s to try to “get” the jokes in Brighter Biochemistry to little avail. The old adage is true: if you find yourself explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny! However, I came to realize that my sense of frustration as an outsider was both one of the points of the publication and also a historical opportunity to reconstruct a particular form of experimental life by the humor it had left behind. That’s when I started working on what became my article.
CAGLE: In your essay you say the members of the Dunn Institute felt Brighter Biochemistry was an important tool in fostering camaraderie. Are there any lessons to draw about our own profession concerning the importance of relationships, particularly during a global pandemic?
SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry shows how much intellectual community exists outside of the formal channels of papers, conference papers, and the like. Following Jenna Tonn’s idea of the importance of “extra-laboratory life” for scientists I think it’s fair to say that we historians depend on our extra-library, extra-seminar, and extra-archival lives to make our field work. Finishing this article in the mist of the pandemic’s disruption of our profession’s normal social rituals has made me feel their absence even more.
On the other hand, in recognizing all the informal ways that we build community and camaraderie, it’s also easy to see how a community knit together in this way can be exclusionary — in fact, that was part of what the biochemists intended with Brighter Biochemistry. Even as we return to our “normal” round of professional social activities, we should keep the openness and flexibility in how we do scholarship and build the communities that we have been forced to adopt.
CAGLE: You note that the tone of the publication shifted from a primarily inward to a primarily outward focus in the mid-1920s. Do you think this played a part in the eventual folding of the journal, or did the tension between wanting to contribute to Brighter Biochemistry and not having the time finally tip towards the latter?
SCHEFFLER: Sometimes, success can look like failure and failure can look like success. Although I could never find a definitive cause for why Brighter Biochemistry ceased publication, I do think it reflects that it had accomplished what the members of the Dunn Institute had hoped for: stabilizing a distinct biochemistry community at Cambridge. I do not, however, think that humor disappeared from the laboratory — it’s just one of the limitations of relying on textual evidence.
CAGLE: Given that journals like Brighter Biochemistry are somewhat rare, what are some other avenues or methods that historians of science might use to study humor in science?
SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry may be unique in how well it was preserved, but I think that it represents a very common activity across scientific communities. Ever since I started studying humor in science however, I’ve found it everywhere. In my current project on the history of biotechnology around Boston, for example, different laboratories produced several humorous newsletters.
I think the issue is not the absence of evidence, but the fact that as historians of science we are not primed to look for it — which was my first experience. I would urge others to spend time in the ephemera folders of their scientists, read texts such as award speeches or retirement tributes, scrutinize announcements in professional journals, and pay attention when the scientists and others we interview try to tell jokes. Very often this can reveal something about the serious side of science.
Welcome to the October 2020 issue of the HSS Newsletter, just in time to coincide with our first ever Virtual Forum. It is not everyday, or even every year, that history or historians of science are recognized beyond our community, so it was especially gratifying to lead this issue with an article about just that, a commemorative coin in honor of Rosalind Franklin and her crucial x-ray photograph of DNA. We hear from graduate students and early career historians of science about the importance of unionization and from folks in our community who have taken the paths less travelled in their careers. Despite the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, HSS continues to go about its activities as can be seen in our regular columns. We have a letter from a reader and last, but not least, a list of books to read and films to watch in these times of continued lockdowns.
Dear Friends of the HSS,
Back in May, we made an unusual request. The current pandemic was upending many of our members’ lives, and we asked for your support. Your enthusiastic response enabled us to aid many students and independent scholars, helping them take care of basic needs, such as rent, to more advanced challenges, such as replacing lost research funds. We believe that this support aligned with our mission – “To foster interest in the history of science” – and since the pandemic is still with us, we are renewing our call for help.
The system that we used last time to distribute funds – a five-member committee, with representatives from Council, from the Development Committee and from the Finance Committee – worked well and we will continue with that model. Because the Society’s finances have been shaken by these events, we will only award amounts based on donations we receive in response to this appeal. Through this unique program, we especially hope to help those who are early in their careers, as well as those whose future in the history of science has been dimmed. If you are able to give any amount, please go to this link: http://weblink.donorperfect.com/pandemic-emergency-fund. (If this link does not work, you may give through the University of Chicago Press site: https://subfill.uchicago.edu/JournalPubs/Donation.aspx?webpub=isi. Simply write “Pandemic Fund” in the note field).
And if you are one of those members in need, you may go to this link to request help: https://hssonline.formstack.com/forms/pandemic. We will accept applications through 18 September 2020. If you are not an HSS member, we will deduct the membership dues from any award. Scholars who reside in non-OECD countries, will be eligible for our Sponsor-a-Scholar program (see https://hssonline.org/membership/sponsor-a-scholar-program/ for details).Please remember that our funds are limited, but we will help as best as we can. All applications reviewed by the committee will be anonymized.
Thank you for your membership.
Jan Golinski, HSS President
Jay Malone, HSS Executive Director
The Isis Current Bibliography has a new bibliographic essay on its site by Vivek Neelakantan. It’s the first in IsisCB’s Pandemics series, and it deals with work on Southeast Asia in the colonial and post-colonial periods.
The essay is still under review, as an experiment in an “upside-down” review process where finished drafts are published immediately and the peer review happens in the open—which you can follow here.
A report to the membership from the Co-Editors of the History of Science Society.
Within weeks of the pandemic-enforced closures of universities, reports began circulating that women’s scholarly productivity was being directly and disproportionately affected. At first anecdotal, these accounts quickly acquired data that affirmed a general trend across the spectrum of academic disciplines: that female researchers were abruptly submitting fewer journal articles than they had been relative to previous years, and relative to their male counterparts.
Many of the root causes of this apparent decline were obvious. Women in and out of academia are disproportionately burdened with the care of children, the sick, and the elderly—responsibilities which only increase during a public health crisis. In both history and other fields, women are more likely to work as contingent faculty, or in academic jobs where research work is a low priority in a crisis.
Was Isis similarly affected? The short answer is yes. The better answer involves an acknowledgement of what we do and don’t know about our contributors and the factors that have affected them during the pandemic…
HSS Council has endorsed a statement issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on the importance of shared governance during the pandemic:
Changes to curriculum and instruction, radical shifts in labor and employment conditions (including declarations of financial exigency, furloughs, and terminations), and concerns relating to health protocols for in-person instruction during the pandemic are all issues that involve shared governance. These issues are directly impacting many of our members in their professional capacities as instructors and scholars employed in a wide range of universities and colleges.
The HSS leadership recognizes the challenges many of our members are facing as a result of the pandemic and wishes to support all of those who must contend with uncertainty, irrespective of their institutional setting.
We hope that all our members continue to keep safe and sane as our trying times continue. Certainly this longer-than-usual issue provides good evidence that our community has been busy and active. We have a few treats in store, with two meaty interviews of distinguished, prizewinning scholars from our ranks, and we have more than one contribution attesting to the creativity of educators in times of crisis. Our regular sections are brimming over, as well, with more news than ever of individual members, the community, and the Society as a whole. Keep safe everyone.