Proceeding on with Processing (or We Processed On?)

by Charles Greifenstein, American Philosophical Society

The full name of the American Philosophical Society is “American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge.” One can debate what “useful knowledge” actually is (Benjamin Franklin would see it as practical and scientific knowledge), but there is no doubt that the APS promotes scholarship and knowledge-sharing through its several departments: publishing, giving out grants, creating museum exhibits, holding semi-annual meetings for its members, and the use of its library collections.

The history of science is but one of three main collecting areas of the Library, but it is the largest and fastest growing (The other two are Native American ethnography and linguistics and American history before 1860 (though there is much material after that date).  It bears mentioning that there is also an archivist on staff who works with Native American collections (cataloging some 3,000 hours of recordings) and another, attached to the technology department, who works on digital projects). Of the approximately 13,000 linear feet of archives and manuscripts held by the APS, about 7,800 linear feet are history of science collections. Of those 7,800 feet, about 7,260 feet are the papers of 20th-century scientists, and of THOSE, a great majority are in the biological sciences, especially genetics.

When I attend an HSS meeting, I find it invigorating to see the many people who have worked with APS collections and to meet those whom I have helped with reference questions (thereby for the first time placing a name with a face). In the past the Library has been able sometimes to help out scholars even with material from unprocessed collections, a business that has to be carefully handled. Since a collection’s contents are largely unknown, it is more difficult to keep track of what is used. The good news is that in the last two years the APS has committed itself to processing several significant (and largely paper-based) collections (Like all collecting repositories, the APS is concerned with how to handle born-digital material, its access and preservation.  At the moment as much material as possible is transferred to servers to minimize deterioration of files, but access procedures are still being developed.  The big problem is of course how to handle email, a problem beyond the scope of this article.)

It was not until June 2011 that the APS hired its first full-time, permanent employee whose principal work was processing collections. Much processing was of course done before 2011, but staff who did this were either on soft money or had principal duties other than processing collections. There are now two permanent archivists on staff. One of the archivists has finished processing the papers of Herman Heine Goldstine (1913-2004) (The Library also has Dr. Goldstine’s papers from his service as executive director of the APS from 1984-1997). The collection has much material about the development of early computers, especially ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first electronic general purpose computer, and its more powerful successor EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) . Material includes early papers by J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly and John von Neumann; the von Neumann files also have notes and correspondence. There are also schematics for ENIAC and the original manuscript copy of the first computer program, which was written by von Neumann.

Beyond the funding of two permanent positions, in the last couple of years the APS has received three grants specifically to catalog history of science collections. Altogether archivists are processing over 1500 linear feet of material. Attrition from processing will probably reduce this material by half, so eventually about 750 linear—my current estimate—will be completely processed (Removing material such as multiple copies of works, interim grant reports, and photocopies of articles can reduce collections considerably).

With the help of two of the grants—from the Arnold Beckman Foundation and from the Estate of Britton Chance (plus some funds from an unrestricted gift), the library has been able to tackle processing the papers of Britton Chance (1913-2010). At 750 linear feet the collection was among the largest ever received by the APS. The bulk of it had been kept in its original filing cabinets and shipped to a storage facility near the New Jersey shore. Other material came from Chance’s lab office, his house, and a warehouse in Germantown (17 linear feet are in the University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center, including correspondence with Efraim Racker and Max Perutz).

Chance held two doctorates and was at the time of his death Eldridge Reeves Johnson Emeritus Professor of Biophysics, Physical Chemistry, and Radiologic Physics. The papers document his long career, from his time at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT during World War II where he worked on radar, to his later work developing techniques to use florescent molecules to detect breast cancer. Early in life Chance’s gift for invention was apparent. As a young man he developed—and patented—an automatic steering device for ships. As a graduate student he devised a microflow version of the stop-flow device that allowed for tracking of enzyme reactions in milliseconds. With improved versions of the device he was able to study the substrate-enzyme reaction complex—one of the important discoveries of his career.

Britton Chance in the laboratory, Stockholm, Sweden, 1946, where he worked on enzymes with future (1955) Nobel laureate Hugo Theorell.  Chance Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Britton Chance in the laboratory, Stockholm, Sweden, 1946, where he worked on enzymes with future (1955) Nobel laureate Hugo Theorell. Chance Papers, American Philosophical Society.


In a tribute to Chance, Gottfried Schatz noted that Chance was a “full-blooded hunter” who had a “single-minded impatience for discovery” (Schatz, Gottfried, “What Britton Chance Means to Me”. Accessed 6/2/2015) It was the probing into the unknown, indeed, discovering the unknown, that intrigued Chance. Exploring the implications of a discovery did not interest him.

Perhaps his most intriguing discovery was that respiring isolated mitochondria attract calcium ions from the suspending medium and that these ions act as stoichiometric uncouplers. Had he followed up this observation, he might have solved the riddle of oxidative phosphorylation a decade before Peter Mitchell (Ibid.).

One could go on listing observations and discoveries Chance made, such as “that biological electron transfer – vital to respiration, photosynthesis, and oxidative metabolism – was quantum-mechanical tunneling, an understanding that now underpins engineering of nanoscale electronic devices” (Home page of Accessed 6/2/2015). He did pioneering work in magnetic resonance imaging. But in talking about Chance, one needs to bring up another significant activity: he was an accomplished sailor. Sailing was as much a part of his life as science. Chance competed in the 5.5 meter event in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and won the gold medal. This accomplishment and the rest of his sailing are documented in the papers, making the APS unexpectedly a future stop for historians of sailing.

Ultimately of course it is the science that will be of most interest to researchers. There is still probably two years of work left, but much has been done. The hardest series to process was the correspondence, which has now largely been sorted and alphabetized and totals over 120 linear feet. Other series include works by Chance, meetings and organizations, and research. It’s not yet clear how big the research series will be, but the lab records are extensive. Chance bound many of his records. A volume will typically have a photograph of readings on a monitor and notes about what the experiment demonstrated (much regrettably fastened with cellophane tape). Readings from monitors were often graphed, the graphs photographed, multiple copies made, cross-referenced to the research volume, and stored in folders.

In contrast to the lab-centric papers of Britton Chance, the papers of H. Bentley Glass (1906-2005) are more centered on science in the public sphere. Policy, education, and ethics were his chief areas of activity. The papers have been examined in detail by Audra Wolfe, who produced a folder-level description of the collection. Wolfe has written about the collection in some detail. The Glass Papers, are essential for scholars researching academic freedom, anti-Communism, science education, postwar eugenics, medical genetics, national science policy, nuclear disarmament, organizational politics, scientific publishing, or the radiation and fallout debates (Wolfe, Audra, “The Organization Man and the Archive: A Look at the Bentley Glass Papers,” Journal of the History of Biology, published online 3/8/2011, downloaded 3/24/2011).

One of the most significant aspects of the papers is the record of Glass’ involvement with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. Taken as a whole, the Glass Papers document a scientist who spent his career mainly in the public sphere. With a helpful assist from Wolfe’s work and funding from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, the Glass Papers are being processed.
Prior to the Lounsbery grant being used for the Glass Papers, the grant funded the processing of the papers of James Van Gundia Neel. The papers, 115.5 linear feet, cover much of Neel’s career but is lacking in his early Drosophila work and his work with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (most of the latter is in Houston). Most importantly the collection documents his work in South America and has much on his work with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

Papers of Britton Chance, mainly correspondence, organized and awaiting box and folder labels in the manuscripts processing area of the APS.  Photograph by Charles Greifenstein, 2015.

Papers of Britton Chance, mainly correspondence, organized and awaiting box and folder labels in the manuscripts processing area of the APS. Photograph by Charles Greifenstein, 2015.

However, the Lounsbery grant is being used chiefly to process the papers of Baruch S. Blumberg (1925-2011), winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases” as the award said (Blumberg shared the prize with D. Carleton Gajdusek (1923-2008), who discovered the causative agent of kuru.  The APS has Gajdusek’s (unprocessed) papers as well, though there is a large collection at the National Library of Medicine and records in Australia). Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus and created a vaccine for it (Although the collection is already huge, some material has not yet been received by the Library.  Blumberg’s journals, which he kept religiously all his life, are still in the family’s possession). He freely distributed his patent and, once the vaccine could be massed produced, millions of people around the world benefitted.

Blumberg (it is hard for me not to write “Barry”) wrote hundreds of papers and spent much time in labs, but his papers are less lab-centric than Chance’s and don’t have the public policy focus that Glass’ do. What comes through in the papers is that he was an explorer and disseminator. He traveled widely, meeting and talking and studying. In my contact with him I found him curious, unpretentious, involved. In one of our discussions about the Library’s collections—he was APS President then—he said, “Every time I come to the Library, I learn something.” As this was addressed to me, I took it as a great compliment, but it illustrates something about his fundamental character.

There is of course much about hepatitis B in the papers. One interesting item is a huge (and unfortunately now very fragile) chart that Blumberg drew up to show the dozens and dozens of interconnected steps in the scientific process that made possible his discovery. His work to get the vaccine to countries such as India and China is documented. But Blumberg’s wide-range of activities are also documented: the study of albumin variants in Naskapi and Montagnis Indians; service as the first non-English master of Balliol; investigating mistreatment of scientists in Chile at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences; serving as first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. One of parts of his work I finding intriguing is that with woodchucks. He discovered that woodchucks that carry the hepatitis B virus develop liver cancer and are thus useful for testing anti-virals.

Barry Blumberg was an explorer, and valued exploration as a necessary human endeavor. Indeed, he was a great supporter of the APS’s Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research. It is an APS tradition dating to the time of Lewis and Clark. In Lewis and Clark’s journals—most are held by the APS—there are many entries which begin with “We proceeded on.” The Library of the APS has made a commitment to “process on” and will continue to open new collections for exploration.
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.