Introducing the Newsletter’s New Editor
The first issue of the HSS Newsletter dates back to February 1972, when Richard Nixon was president of the US. Conceived in December 1971 at the HSS annual meeting (when HSS was still meeting with the American Historical Association), the Newsletter and its principal editorial responsibility fell to then-HSS Secretary, Roger Stuewer, who was assisted by faculty and graduate student volunteers. Few elements of the Newsletter have changed over the past 47 years: it continues to be a quarterly and we continue to title it Newsletter. A long line of Society Secretaries edited each issue—save for a time when Arnold Thackray, as Society Editor, served also as Newsletter Editor (the Society Editor has authority over all HSS publications, including the Newsletter)—but, for the most part, Society Editors were content to let the Secretaries handle the task. That changed when I was hired in 1998 as the HSS’s first Executive Director and the Newsletter fell under my domain. But that time is coming to an end.
The Society would like for me to devote more effort to development. And in looking for ways to free up my time we decided to issue a call for volunteers to serve as Editor of the Newsletter, with a promise that the person would have a say in re-titling the Newsletter. We were most fortunate that Neeraja Sankaran answered the appeal. She made a compelling case as to why she would like to serve and our new Editors (Alix Hui and Matt Lavine) gave their approval.
Neeraja (rhymes a bit with Ninja) has been a faithful HSS member since her graduate student days at Yale, where she earned a PhD in 2006. Anyone who has had a chance to speak with Neeraja has experienced the delight of her enthusiasm and her quick wit (she once saved scores of historian of science from injury during the almost-infamous Manchester escalator incident—“almost” because she helped avert a slow-motion pile up). I asked Neeraja to introduce herself to HSS members.
Of all the organizations where I hold membership, HSS holds a special place in my affections. As Jay mentioned in his very kind introduction, I have been a member since my graduate school days. I delivered my first formal presentation in the discipline at the 2004 meeting in Austin and passed my important rite of passage as a scholar, my PhD defense, at the 2006 annual meeting in Vancouver. Ever since, more than any university or institution where I have worked, it is HSS that has been my intellectual home. So when I saw the announcement for the Newsletter Editor posted on the website, I jumped at the chance.
One of the main advantages that I see coming with this position is the ability to keep in touch with “my” people. As an independent scholar based (mostly) in Bangalore, India for the past four years or so, and before that an itinerant academic with positions in South Korea and Cairo, I have been fairly isolated from this community for more than a decade. Be it in person at the annual meetings or virtually via the website, HSS has been the lifeline that has kept me tethered to history of science and its practitioners. Since 2016 I have served on its Committee on Membership and as this position is coming to an end next year, I thought that taking on the editorship of the Newsletter would give me some continuity.
Ours is still a relatively small society, especially in comparison to many other professional associations, but I’m guessing it’s fair to say that not everyone knows each other. So here are some factoids about me. People who know me will tell you I’m an enthusiastic, often goofy person with a foghorn voice, left-leaning if chaotic politics, and a talent for finding good (and often unusual) restaurants at the different conference venues. (I am also an accomplished and versatile cook but only those HSS members who lived in or visited New Haven between 1998-2003 can attest to that.) As to what makes me tick as a historian of science, I came into the field having first studied and worked as both a microbiologist and science writer. I have also been book reviews editor for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (Studies C for short, and if there ever was a journal that needed a short title, this had to be one) from 2013-2018. This background played a major role in shaping me into an unapologetic “internalist” as a historian, interested in the development of scientific ideas. My dissertation focused on the work of one scientist—the Australian biologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet—on a specific topic, his work, in the earliest years of his research careers on the bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria rather than plants or animals. My nearly completed book, A Tale of Two Viruses to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (by the time this article is printed, it will be in review) is not an expansion of that project. Rather the dissertation is condensed into a single chapter (the fourth) of what is a comparative history of the research trajectories of the aforementioned bacteriophages and chicken tumor viruses. Enough said on that matter for now. When the book is finally published, I’ll be sure, as a good HSS member, to trumpet the news in the member news section of this Newsletter.
If you are wondering how the Newsletter might change now that I am on board, let me assure you that for the most part it will not. I am a firm believer in not unnecessarily fixing things that aren’t broken in the first place. The Newsletter will continue to fulfill the functions it always has, that is, keep the members in touch with happenings in the field and with each others’ doings. That said, there are a couple of changes in the offing. First is the title. While Shakespeare may have been right in asking what there was in a name, the higher-ups at HSS have felt for some time that it would be nice to have a real title rather than a descriptor of what we are. Here are few ideas being tossed around but I’d welcome more suggestions before we approach the Committee on Publications and then the HSS Council for approval. One thought was to maintain our ongoing theme and pick another god from Egyptian mythology, in which case I thought that Thoth, the ibis-headed inventor of script and hieroglyphics might be a good choice. But I for one feel that we may have the Egyptologists protest that we have appropriated too many of their icons. pHSSt was another idea since it both incorporates our acronym and gives the impression that we have something to tell to one another. I confess to a weakness for word-play and also thought of ScHistoria. As I said please chip in with suggestions.
Second, a feature that we hope to establish in the near future was actually set into motion long before my position was created and that is a panel of advisory editors. This idea was first launched back in 2008 but floundered for a variety of reasons. Now that HSS and the Newsletter are firmly established in cyberspace and better connected overall, we thought it would be useful to revive the idea. We believe that such a panel will help us improve the Newsletter in many ways, most of all by helping to widen our coverage. Duties are by no means set in stone but we imagine that members of the panel would suggest ideas for articles, people to interview, and point us toward areas and again, people, that/who may have been neglected. Over the next few months we will be sending out invitations to various folks, with a fuller description of what we hope to have them do. But meanwhile if anyone would like to volunteer to serve in this capacity, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail me at email@example.com and let me know if you are interested.
Finally, I think I should probably explain the photograph although I imagine folks who already know me, will think it appropriately goofy (that word again). That’s a snapshot of me with Oloch, the book-cart dressed up as a wooly mammoth and named for the Othmer Library of Chemical History of the Science History Institute, where he resides. He caught my fancy this past March when I was visiting there as part of my fellowship from the Consortium for History of Science, Technology & Medicine, and I couldn’t resist the photo op.