Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century

by Garland E. Allen
History of Science Society Newsletter, Volume 17 No. 5 (Supplement 1988)
© 1988 by the History of Science Society, All rights reserved


This is the third guide in the series Teaching the History of Science: Resources and Strategies, published under the auspices of the Committee on Education by the History of Science Society. These guides, written by specialists, are intended for the use of historians of science as well as general historians and any other teachers who wish to begin to revise a history of science course or to incorporate new topics into an existing course. The guides will be published in the Newsletter first, then as a pamphlet.

The first guide, The Scientific Revolution, appeared in the July 1986 issue of the Newsletter; the second, Science, Technology, and Public Policy, in the April 1987 issue. The editorial board for each guide is drawn from the Society’s Committee on Education. The committee welcomes comments on the value of these guides, as well as on suggested topics for future guides.


In recent years, scholarly work in the history of twentieth-century life science has increased dramatically. This development represents a break in two traditions within the field of history of science: first, from the dominating influence of the history of the physical sciences and mathematics; and second, from the focus on the period before the twentieth century.

Over many years of teaching I have found that the history of twentieth-century biology has a special interest for both graduate and undergraduate students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Students whose primary interest lies in the sciences (especially the biomedical sciences) find that they come to view current biological problems in a new perspective when they are familiar with their historical and philosophical background. Students whose primary focus is history and the social sciences have often found themselves more interested in science, especially the more generally accessible life sciences, when viewed in a historical, philosophical, or sociopolitical context. This guide provides an introductory bibliography for teachers at the college and university level who wish to include topics in the history of twentieth-century life science in courses ranging from biology proper to social and intellectual history, as well as in courses in the history of science itself.

The guide is restricted to the life, or biological, sciences and excludes medicine and health policy. While the main focus will be on the history, as opposed to the philosophy, of the life sciences, some philosophical issues will necessarily be included. The major trends I have chosen–heredity, development, evolution, physiology, ecology, and animal behavior–are those that have commanded the most attention from biologists themselves in this century. The final topic–the relation of biology to social and political issues–is an area that has increasingly become of interest to historians and sociologists of science, as well as to a growing number of biologists themselves.