On writing a (nearly) impossible history

Guest Post by Nicolas Rasmussen

Historians widely share the attitude that it is not possible to write a proper historical account of fairly recent events. Fifty years is about the respectable time horizon before events become sufficiently past that they constitute legitimate subject matter for history. There are at least two good reasons for this attitude. First, the kind of accounts that are written by people actually involved in events, or even aware of them at the time they occurred, tend to be strongly colored by the roles these events played in their own lives. Participant accounts are notorious for their lack of impartiality; often they seem mainly like efforts to magnify and justify the participant’s own role, or that of his/her close associates, for posterity. Their basis in evidence is dubious too; often they appear to be based only on the writer’s own recollections from decades past, after at best a perusal of their own notes and memorabilia from the day. More subtly, there are reasons to be suspect of recent histories written by people who were adults at the time of the events, even if the writers were uninvolved. Very often they seem to be steeped in opinions formed at the time of the events, and (worse) motivated by efforts to promote some present initiatives that can trace their roots to the events and actors in question. The second major reason for skepticism is pragmatic: the evidence sources traditionally regarded by historians as the best, most objective basis for reconstructing the past are private documents—letters and memos and draft reports and notebooks and financial accounts—that only find their way into accessible archives when their authors retire (and sometimes are sealed for decades thereafter).


Keiichi Itakura, Art Riggs, David Goeddel, and Roberto Crea in front of a blackboard synopsis of synthesizing human insulin.

For me to write a book on the “biotechnology revolution” of the 1970s and 1980s pushes the boundaries on both scores. Not only is the period in question less than 40 years past, I actually remember a lot of the events. As a teenager growing up in Boston during the 1970s very near MIT, I clearly remember the Cambridge controversies about recombinant DNA safety, and the academic furor that resulted in Wally Gilbert quitting Harvard to run Biogen (an unthinkable choice for Bostonians conditioned to consider such a professorship the pinnacle of existence). I was already a budding biologist then, and remember being electrified by the Cohen-Boyer cloning experiment where bacteria were made to express a frog gene. As a molecular biologist in training in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I watched many of the grad students I revered in the same and neighboring lab groups choose jobs in biotechs. This still caused surprise, but I also began hearing whispers and rumors about the commercial cloning projects various famous biologists were now doing, on the side and on the sly. I then completed three years of graduate school as a historian of science. By the time I was a biology grad student myself in the late 1980s, I saw many of my Stanford fellows take jobs in the now commonplace biotech firms, whose unassuming quarters beside the Bay Area’s freeways were generally overshadowed by more famous computer firms. So I was present and watching many of the events I describe, albeit from a short distance. Perhaps my close bystander status will be found by later historians to have slanted my book, but it brings advantages too, especially my familiarity with molecular biologists’ thinking and technique of the day—knowledge unclouded by keeping up with the rapidly moving field over the past two decades. And unlike historians paid by the corporations to write their histories, at least I have enjoyed full freedom to be impartial, even if I have lacked access to some inside documents.

That brings me to the problems of evidence and sources. When I first discussed the idea of writing a serious history of biotech with fellow historians, the question would inevitably emerge: how in the world can you get any solid evidence? The source problem is indeed acute, so much so that future historians who want to write about the events in Gene Jockeys may not be in any better position than me. News media accounts of corporate science from the day exude spin, as they are typically based on company press releases designed to impress investors and politicians. And of course we are talking about private sector science, carefully segregated from government funding and the rich paper trail that can leave in public archives. Also, the younger biologists who are the center of attention in my story have spent nearly all their career in the age of email; I doubt that any actually have large cartons of past correspondence to give university archives when they retire, like their PhD supervisors, even if they ended up as professors. So in approaching the writing of Gene Jockeys, I knew that these types of source would be unavailable.

I eventually decided to rely instead on two other sources that in my previous historical work had served as supplements to the traditional evidence of personal papers and government documents: oral histories, and corporate documents obtained from patent litigation. The first source needs little comment, as oral histories are commonplace in some areas of history, especially when dealing with the sorts of events that are not preserved in contemporary documents (e.g., the social history of non-literate common people). As for documents from patent litigation, these are sometimes used by historians of technology to reconstruct the trajectory of past technical work. They are more often accessed by lawyers pursuing subsequent patent litigation, with quite different motives than historians. One might think that documents submitted by lawyers as evidence in court are fatally partial, because they are used to build one party’s case about what happened in the past. But here we must remember the other lawyer: she has opposing interests in using evidence to make her client’s case about what happened in the past. Together, through their adversarial—and well-financed—efforts to dredge vast seas of documents through subpoena and discovery, an extremely rich archive of evidence is preserved that, while still partial, is arguably better than what would normally find its way into an old professor’s archival collection. I like to joke that I have the world’s top corporate law firms working for me as research assistants. This joke is a lot funnier to lawyers and the few historians who know what it’s like to use late twentieth-century U.S. Federal court papers, though. You have to travel to far-flung repositories less genial than the excellent National Archive research rooms in Washington; one seriously resembles the government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then you get to look at daunting mountains of paper organized, if at all, by motion and counter-motion or day of court hearing: that is, lacking anything like what an historian would call an organization relevant to the evidence.

But I complain too much. There is still enough of the scientist in me to rejoice in pure empirical discovery, and in piecing together new evidence so as to find out what really happened. The evidence of course is only the first step in telling the story. The interpretation part, which can be no better than the evidence base, is even more fun. I look forward to learning what readers think of this story.


rasmussenNicolas Rasmussen will be signing copies of Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise at the American Association for the History of Medicine annual meeting in Chicago on May 10, 2014. Come get your copy signed between 3:00 and 3:30 pm at the JHU Press space in the Renaissance Chicago Grand Ballroom 5-6.