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.

Featured article: Andrew Evans on photography, beauty contests, and race science

Andrew Evans’ article, “‘Most Unusual’ Beauty Contests: Nordic Photographic Competitions and the Construction of a Public for German Race Science, 1926-1935,” appears in the June issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

Alex Cagle, the Isis manuscript assistant, interviewed Dr. Evans about his research.

CAGLE: Your essay highlights how both German scientists and the German public helped create and shape the new field of race science or Rassenkunde in part through these beauty contests. How do you think your article might contribute to the global conversation happening right now in the wake of protests speaking out about racialized violence?

Dr. Andrew Evans
Dr. Andrew Evans

EVANS: The current protests denounce systemic racism, the maintenance of social and institutional structures that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. The protests have drawn much-needed attention to how the structures of racism were built. We need to bring science into that conversation, because it played a key role in creating and maintaining systemic racism.

The essay gives us a chance to consider how scientific institutions and everyday people interacted to create racial categories and racist iconography. I analyze a series of mail-in photographic contests in the 1920s and 1930s designed to select the most representative examples of the so-called Nordic race. Prominent German anthropologists and race scientists, including Eugen Fischer, Hans F.K. Günther, and Otto Reche, served as the judges for these competitions. In the interwar period, these men were central figures in the creation of Rassenkunde or “race science,” a new scientific field dedicated to the racist proposition that race and culture, biology and ability, were linked. Entrants mailed in photographs of themselves, and these experts picked and analyzed the winners, which were then published as archetypal faces of the Nordic race. The audience and the judges, in other words, collaborated in the production of racial imagery and in drawing the boundaries of “us” vs. “them.” It should perhaps come as no surprise that they created racial knowledge that benefitted themselves. The contests produced an image of Nordic racial belonging that was overwhelmingly male and upper and middle class, the very groups to which the judges and entrants belonged. The contests also presented the superior Nordic race as the most important racial element in the German people, thus infusing the nation itself with racial meaning.

One thing that strikes me about the current moment is the role of photography. The essay analyzes the ways in which entrants and judges alike used photography to create Nordic racial imagery. In the contests, the camera functioned as a tool of racial definition and exclusion. In the current protests, however, photography has become a tool for social justice that documents and reveals racial violence. Cell phones have democratized photography and video; today you don’t need a fancy camera or access to a traditional media outlet to disseminate an image. The camera was used to create racial categories, but it can also be used to combat racial injustice.

The German public competing to be the most Nordic certainly was a most unusual contest. How did you come across these episodes in your research, and when did you realize you had something unique on your hands?

I was researching a book on German anthropology during World War I when I came across the first contest. I was doing something basic: tracking down published pieces by prominent anthropologists in the 1920s for a chapter on the postwar period. The first article I found was the announcement of the winners of the 1926 contest for the “best male and female heads of the Nordic race” in the popular race science journal, Volk und Rasse. The material was just so bizarre: a mail-in photographic racial beauty contest with cash prizes? It seemed like an anomaly. But the article was written by Eugen Fischer, perhaps the most prominent anthropologist of the interwar period in Germany, and the other judge in the contest was Hans F. K. Günther, the author of the best-selling book, Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (Racial Science of the German People). These were big names in interwar German race science. But still, it was one contest. I realized I had something unique on my hands when I discovered two other such contests in the same journal: the competition for the “Best Nordic Family Tree” in 1927 and one for the “Best Racial Heads of the Most Important Races Represented in Germany” in 1934. These also involved professional anthropologists. This gave me three racial beauty contests in which participants collaborated with scientists by creating racial portraits, selecting what they considered the most representative photographs, suppling and even analyzing data, and serving as consumer for the results. Taken together, the contests offered the opportunity to analyze a process of knowledge co-production in science that involved both scientists and their audience.

You mention that the judges’ ideal of searching for a masculine Nordic essence made it difficult for them to capture the ideal Nordic woman. Did the women who submitted portraits of themselves also find it difficult to envision the perfect Nordic woman? How aware were they that they were in part contributing to a backlash of the “New Woman”?

It’s exceptionally difficult to get at the motivations of the women who participated in the contests. We have the images that they submitted and little else. The venue for the contests, however, can perhaps tell us something. The journal in which the contests appeared, Volk und Rasse, was a mouthpiece of the völkisch movement, a diffuse group of right-wing theorists and critics who reacted to modernity with horror. They believed that industrialization and modern forms of life were destroying German culture; the only antidote was a radical German nationalism based on notions of racial superiority. Chief among the ills of modernity, in their view, was the “New Woman,” the media image of young, independent working women who wore their hair short, smoked cigarettes, and dressed in androgynous clothing. Volk and Rasse favored a traditional view of women associated with the home, family, long hair, conventional dress, and buttoned-down sexuality. The entrants in the contests were either readers or subscribers to the journal, which suggests that they shared this ideological orientation. Moreover, none of the women who submitted photographs of themselves matched the image of the “New Women.” Because of the journal’s ideological emphasis, we can speculate that the women who entered the contests were well aware that they were contributing to a backlash against the “New Woman.” Did they find it difficult to imagine the perfect Nordic woman? If they submitted photographs of themselves, they likely believed that they somehow fit the bill. The male judges, however, disagreed. In the 1926 contests, Fischer and Günther refused to award a first prize to the women and handed out three second-place awards in the female category instead.

How did the judges of the contests, Lehmann, Günther, Reche, Schultz, and others, handle the defeat of the Nazi Regime led by the supposedly superior Nordic Race?

Lehmann died in 1935. The other figures in the article went through the denazification process after World War II, but none suffered severe consequences for their work in racial science or their associations with the Nazi regime. Their defense was that they had been engaged in science, not politics. Fischer retired from his position as the head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics before the war ended, in 1942. He escaped denazification with a fine of 300 marks and continued to publish as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg until his death in 1967. Günther was arrested at the end of the war and interned in the French occupation zone until 1948. At the end of a denazification process, he was declared a “lesser offender” and banned from holding a university position. He refused to renounce his earlier writings, however, and continued to publish on marriage and eugenics until his death in 1968. Denazification barred Otto Reche from teaching in the postwar period, but he was allowed to retire with emeritus status. In 1965, the year before his death, he was awarded Austria’s highest honor for scientific achievement, the Österreichisches Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst. Bruno Schultz found a position at the University of Münster in the Institute for Human Genetics after the war. In general, these scientists expressed no regrets about their work in racial science, and the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945 did not drastically change their views.