HSS Newsletter – April 2021

Incredible as it may seem, it has been a whole year since the HSS Newsletter has been created and distributed under  COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. It’s been a strange and disturbing, even harrowing, year for many of us, but somehow HSS members have been hard-working and productive as ever, as borne out by the various parts of this issue of the Newsletter.

We have a cover story about another story that was not a cover, a film review disguised as a lecture, an interview with the author of an award winning book, an account of the many guises of a single innovative course, and sadly, a farewell from Jay. That plus our usual offerings from individual members, our Society, our bibliographer, and the profession at large rounds out the April 2021 issue, with something we hope, for everyone.

Read the Newsletter.

Download a pdf.

HSS Accepting Applications for Executive Director

The History of Science Society is now accepting applications for the position of Executive Director. The full position description can be found here. Review of applications will begin on 2 May 2021 and continue until the position is filled. Full details are in the position description.

Featured article: Yvan Prkachin on the origins of neuroscience

Yvan Prkachin’s article, “‘The Sleeping Beauty of the Brain’: Memory, MIT, Montreal, and the Origins of Neuroscience,” appears in the March 2021 issue of Isis.

Our manuscript assistant, Samuel Green, asked Dr. Prkachin to talk about his research into the tangled mid-century roots of the “unified” sciences of the brain. Read the full text of their interview here.

Call for Papers: 2021 HSS Annual Meeting

The Call for Papers for the 2021 HSS Meeting program can be accessed here

Please note that the deadline for submissions is 18 April 2021, 11:59 EDT.

If you were part of the 2020 Meeting Program but did not present as part of the Virtual Forum, you have several options to re-submit for the 2021 Meeting. Please go here to see the re-submission guidelines.

For more details about the meeting, please visit the meeting website.

Update on Isis submissions and gender during the pandemic

The co-editors of Isis have updated their report from August of last year on the effect that COVID-19 has had on submissions, and its disproportionate impact on women. Six months later, the striking gender gap that arose in the middle months of 2020 has narrowed considerably, but new challenges have arisen.

2021 HSS Annual Meeting

The 2021 Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society will be held 18-21 November in New Orleans, Louisiana. The meeting will be held jointly with the Society for the History of Technology. Details on the meeting will be posted to the meeting website here. The HSS thanks you for your patience as we finalize details for the meeting.

The state of the journal, January 2021

A note from the Co-Editors of Isis, Alexandra Hui and Matthew Lavine.

Like many scholarly journals, Isis has seen its normal rhythms disrupted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic and political turmoil. After an initial decline in article submissions in the spring of 2020, we received an unusually large number in the second half of the year. 

At the same time, however, there has been a remarkable constriction in the number of available reviewers. In late 2019, nearly 70% of our initial reviewer invitations were accepted. A year later, that rate has fallen to just above 25%. Reviewers who have accepted our invitations to review manuscripts have often needed extra time to complete their reports. The reasons for this decline are as obvious as they are understandable, and the Isis office is moving as quickly as it can to find suitable reviewers for the manuscripts in our pipeline.

We mention this in the interests of transparency: even as we have made an efficient editorial timeline a high priority, we are seeing the time that manuscripts spend under consideration rise as a result.

But we also want to record here, for our collective disciplinary memory, another data point about the profound effects this crisis has had on our institutions, and on our colleagues’ lives.

We are enormously grateful to the authors, reviewers, and readers of Isis, who inspire us with their continued engagement in the life of our discipline under these trying circumstances. 

Isis Current Bibliography published

With the December issue of Isis comes the annual edition of the Isis Current Bibliography, a phenomenal resource for scholars in the history of science and allied disciplines. Readers tell us they use the print edition as a ready reference for recent scholarship in their field, or a shopping list for books they may have missed.

For a comprehensive online bibliographic resource, available without subscription, editor Stephen Weldon and his staff have assembled IsisCB Explore. This enormous searchable database includes listings for decades of scholarship and can be filtered by subject, time period, geographical region, and author.

The Isis Books Received List

A note to the readership from the Isis Book Review Editor, Projit Mukharji.

Dear Isis readers,

Some of you have noticed by now that we have not been publishing the list of books received over the past few months. I thought it might be helpful to fill you in on why this has happened.

While we try to review a large and inclusive (though not exhaustive) cross section of books published in our field, it is impossible to review every single book that is sent to us. The process for those that are reviewed, naturally, takes a certain amount of time from our first receipt of the book to the review appearing in print. The “Books Received” announcements are therefore a quick way of acknowledging to publishers that we have received and considered the books they sent, while also alerting the larger field that the book is now out in the world.

Last year’s life-changing disruptions completely upended our operational procedures. Initially, we were locked out of our Book Review Office in Philadelphia due to the pandemic. The continued difficulties of access eventually forced the Book Review Office to temporarily relocate to Starkville, so that it could function out of the main Isis office at Mississippi State University. During the same period, several publishers closed down their physical offices. Above all, the postal departments of various countries struggled to maintain the usual delivery schedules. In many regions of the United States, events leading up to and following the general elections that directly targeted the postal department also stretched its ability to maintain optimum service times.

All this meant that for several months we completely stopped receiving physical copies of recently published books. Happily, we have gradually begun to once again receive some copies, but compared to our pre-pandemic numbers this is a very small number. We have kept the Book Reviews section going by directly soliciting books from publishers based on publishers’ catalogs, and by pivoting to the use of electronic copies for review rather than physical books.

Like everyone else, we hope that some semblance of normalcy will return to our work, and soon. Even before that, we hope that we will be able to recommence the Books Received announcements. Until then, we hope you will bear with us and continue to support us in maintaining as much of the basic rhythms of our scholarly lives as we can.

Thanking you,

Projit Bihari Mukharji
Book Review Editor, Isis.

Featured article: Noortje Jacobs on postwar research ethics

Noortje Jacobs’s article, “A Moral Obligation to Proper Experimentation: Research Ethics as Epistemic Filter in the Aftermath of World War II” appears in the December issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

In one of his last acts as our manuscript assistant before returning to his first love of teaching, Alexander Cagle interviewed Dr. Jacobs about her work on Dutch medical research ethics, a florid but curiously understudied moment in the larger history of bioethics.

CAGLE: Your essay focusses on Dutch medical research ethics in the decades immediately following World War Two. Could you briefly describe what drew you to this history and your process for finding relevant archival sources?

JACOBS: In the history of human experimentation in medicine, the decades immediately following World War II are often described as the “Gilded Age or Research”: a period that saw a vast increase in human experimentation, with little attention to the rights and safety of human research subjects. This fascinated me, as World War II is also often described as “the birth of modern medical research ethics”. And when I kept on reading that the Dutch were very early to raise international awareness of this issue, I started researching the documents this literature refers to. It turned out that very detailed minutes have been kept of many meetings that Dutch physicians had on this topic in the early 1950s. They did raise early awareness, because they were afraid that especially American and English researchers were starting to cross fundamental ethical lines in human experimentation. However, it turns out they were just as much—and perhaps even more—concerned with an ethical issue that we would not recognize as such today: i.e., the (poor) quality and quantity of most medical research. For me, as a historian of science, this was were it started to become really interesting, and so I followed my historical actors and sources into all sorts of domains and archives to further uncover this history.

A main throughline of your essay seems to be not only a discussion of medical ethics, but also a discussion of medical expertise and who could be considered an expert. Were you surprised by how much of the focus of the vivisectionists’ early ethical meetings seemed to not be about the patient at all but in fact on maintaining their medical authority and fending off the antivivisectionists? 

Yes, I was surprised by this initially, and was sometimes shocked to read how easily—on paper at least—they seemed to dismiss the interests of individual patients in favor of “the progress of good medical science”. But I became convinced, and I hoped this shows in my essay, that these physicians were not so much motivated out of self-interest (i.e., maintaining their authority or societal standing), but out of a very deep conviction that their definition of “good science” was little understood, under attack, and thus had to be protected and promoted for the benefit of human kind. As I write in my essay, they were often a bunch of frustrated elitists really.

At end of your article, you argue that the “use of ethics to further epistemic convictions” as a methodological tool has been undervalued. What are some other areas of research, whether it be in the history of medicine or beyond, that would benefit from the use of this framework?

For one thing, I see a lot of analogies between my historical actors and their arguments and the contemporary Open Science and Research Integrity Movements. I would argue that scholars like John Ioannidis et al. are at heart also therapeutic reformers, who make overt ethical claims to further their epistemic convictions. For another, I have benefited a lot in my work from historians of science such as Melinda Baldwin, Laura Stark, Alex Csiszar, Imogen Clarke, and Aileen Fyfe, who show how scientific journals and funding bodies in the modern period have become gatekeepers of “good science”. I think there are a lot of interesting connections to be made here with the historical functioning of research ethics committees—which is research that I am currently pursuing as well.

 As the questions for this interview are being written and answered, the first COVID-19 vaccines are being administered. How do you think your research applies to the current world health crisis as well as the current Dutch medical apparatus? 

Oef, that is a big question. I do wonder at times what my historical actors would have made of the big political push that we are currently seeing to get these vaccines out there as soon as possible—even if they have not yet gone through all of the stages that clinical trials usually go through to establish efficacy. As Austin Bradford Hill famously said: “In treating patients with unproven remedies we are, whether we like it or not, experimenting on human beings, and a good experiment well reported may be more ethical and entail less shirking of duty than a poor one.” But then again, these are exceptional times, that ask for a special type of trade-off between efficacy and expediency.

I do know though what my historical actors would have made of COVID-deniers! They would very much have convinced them that “good science” needs to be protected and promoted—and that this constitutes a moral obligation, even if this means that they are a bunch of frustrated elitists most of the time.