Featured article: Robin Wolfe Scheffler on “Brighter Biochemistry”

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.