Jas-Bio: The First Fifty Years

by Henry M. Cowles, Yale University

The Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, commonly known as “Jas-Bio,” is an annual conference for historians of the life sciences that has been hosted by various universities along the Northeast Corridor since 1965. In March of 2015, Jas-Bio returned to Yale University—the site of the first meeting—to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

This year’s event, organized by Henry Cowles, Joanna Radin, and William Summers, played out in two dimensions. The first was familiar. A Friday reception paired historians with curators from the Peabody Museum of Natural History to discuss biology’s material legacies. Saturday saw ten student presentations touching on the intersections of biology—broadly construed—with other scientific disciplines, with ideologies and cultural forces, and with society at large.

The second dimension in which this year’s Jas-Bio played out was that of memory. With student presentations outlining the state of the field and where it is heading, a plenary session at the end of the two-day workshop highlighted where the field has been: how topics and methods have changed as the history of biology has evolved over the last fifty years.

Attendees ranged from first-timers to three scholars who attended the very first meeting back in 1965. The final session was organized around reminiscences from “cohorts” of Jas-Bio attendees, beginning with the founding cohort and proceeding by decade through to the present day. Members of each group shared memories of the workshop, from first presentations and experiences in the audience to becoming mentors and organizers in their own right. This structured reflection shed light on both what has changed in the history of biology (and the broader history of science) and what has gone unchanged in the last half-century.

One major shift has been demographic. According to the first Jas-Bio program (and participants’ memories), six men and three women presented their work in 1965. In 2015, the gender balance had flipped: of this year’s ten presenters, three were men and seven were women. Of course, the fact that a third of presenters in 1965 were women is somewhat surprising: it was remarked by many that the history of biology was a relatively friendly place for female scholars in the context of the larger field, then dominated by men doing the history of physics. Most presenters in the last decade have been mentored by women, many of whom gave their own first presentations at Jas-Bio a few decades earlier.

Another shift has been topical—but again, the precise nature of the change is not obvious. On the first program, every paper title is linked to a particular (male) individual and the development or impact of their thought. This year, no papers telegraph the importance of individuals—male or female—in their titles. Instead, titles point outward to wider issues: to progress and politics, to popular culture and the family. This is not to say that early papers did not deal with these wider issues, nor that more recent talks have forsaken individuals. Much to the contrary. But as a matter of emphasis, specific practitioners, theories, and fields seem to have given way to a wider range of issues. One can see this in a pair of word clouds, included on the program, drawn from the titles presented during the workshop’s first and most recent decades.

It would be a mistake to set too much store by titles, but the early prominence of “theory,” along with terms such as “physiology” and “philosophy,” as compared to the later landscape, is suggestive of shifts in the history of biology and related fields in the wake of the turn to social history, the rise of cultural history, and attendant emphasis on materials, practices, and political economy. The history of Jas-Bio sheds light on the history of science in its modern form.

One theme shared across the generations during the plenary session was the importance of workshops like Jas-Bio for building collegiality and common purpose. In 1965 and 2015 alike, Jas-Bio provided an encouraging atmosphere for young scholars, often presenting their work for the first time, to receive feedback and support from one another and from senior scholars. Ideas were incubated, connections were formed, and a community came together around the evolving issues at the heart of the history of the life sciences, broadly defined.

Over the weekend, many remarked that Jas-Bio was proof of the power of regionalism. The name “Joint Atlantic” is somewhat opaque—purposefully, it would seem, as participants have come from as far as Germany and Western Canada and the conference itself has been hosted a number of times in non-coastal venues, such as Washington, D.C. and Toronto. And yet, the clustering of core universities along the Northeast Corridor has contributed to the workshop’s sense of community (and has kept it small).

Like the Midwest Junto for the History of Science, the History of the Physical Sciences Workshop (unofficially: “Phunday”), and the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (formerly “PACHS”), Jas-Bio is a reminder of the levels of discourse that exist between the local and the global, between our institutions and the national and international conferences at which we see our colleagues. These smaller, less formal settings are often where the mechanics of the discipline—lecturing and networking, conference planning and project pitching, shop talk and socializing—are worked out, especially for younger scholars.

There is much more to say about Jas-Bio. This report has included next to nothing about biology itself: about changes in the understanding of the field, or the role of biologists in writing its history. It has also been short on details of the workshop’s founding. (For those, one may consult Winsor, Mary P., and Leonard G. Wilson, “The Joint Atlantic Seminar in History of Biology,” Isis 90 (January 1, 1999): S219–25.) The list of items left out is a testament to the many meanings of Jas-Bio, to its role in dozens of careers in the history of science and its continued relevance in a changing field.

Photo by Dan Liu, UW–Madison 1st (top) row (l-r): Garland Allen, John Harley Warner, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Daniel Kevles 2nd row: Janet Browne, Pamela Henson, Nathaniel Comfort, Nancy Hall, Lloyd Ackert 3rd row: Sharon Kingsland, Audra Wolfe, James Strick, Robin Scheffler 4th (bottom) row: Everett Mendelsohn, Susan Lindee, Luis Campos, Jane Maienschein

Photo by Dan Liu, UW–Madison
1st (top) row (l-r): Garland Allen, John Harley Warner, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Daniel Kevles
2nd row: Janet Browne, Pamela Henson, Nathaniel Comfort, Nancy Hall, Lloyd Ackert
3rd row: Sharon Kingsland, Audra Wolfe, James Strick, Robin Scheffler
4th (bottom) row: Everett Mendelsohn, Susan Lindee, Luis Campos, Jane Maienschein