Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Well-intentioned PhD supervisors are the death of good History writing : particularly in writing about wartime penicillin

Many a well-intentioned PhD supervisor, hoping to help their student across the mine-field of a PhD thesis which casts its net too widely, steers the student to a subject that has an existing treasure trove of unexamined (or under-examined) archival material.

But taken too far, this attitude kills good history stone dead.

Extensive archive materials for an individual often suggest a subject who was inordinately vain (or whose spouse is determined to burnish their light after death).

The ability to retain (and store) a lifetime of records for an individual suggests someone who was wealthy enough to afford a big home, someone who didn't move much and had the work space and the secretarial assistance needed to maintain work files.

Everything about such a person suggests "elite" : far more likely to find such materials for a long time department head than a brilliant but controversial scholar who drifted from one to another non-tenured jobs from continent to continent.

But that footloose scholar might have tossed off a totally new paradigm while the other department head just produced reams  and reams of humdrum "normal" science .

What sort of institution has hundreds of shelving feet of records - and what sort does not ?

Again  on that is wealthy and secure in its funding and elite support, versus a group of young firebrands operating on pennies out of shoebox offices in ghetto storefronts.

But again, their long term historical importance may not match the influence both had when in existence.

How then to write about the sub-surface paradigm breakers and makers, when your kindly supervisor steers you to the 'usual suspects' with well funded, well maintained archives all neatly gathered up for you in one spot ?

And does the supervisor consider whether potential archival material have been so thoroughly pre-vetted by an earlier elite of that institution to remove all material that casts a darker light on their activities as to render it particularly suspect as a source to write good history ?

I like the prefaces to two contemporary historians' best known books, because they have been particularly frank in stating important subjects aren't always neatly enveloped in a few "official archives".

Aaron Bobrow-Strain has complied his social history of the store-bought white bread loaf from the oddest nocks and crannies of life.

 While he doesn't make this explicit , he could only do so because he had the time, money and authority of being an established author,expert and tenured professor  in the general area of food to spend years going all over the world and receiving warm helpful assistance from librarians and archivists everywhere.

Any 25 year old PhD candidate will tell you it rarely works that way with them.

Christina Cogdell ("Eugenic Design") tied her can to an even wilder alley cat : she tried to find hints of deep eugenic thinking in the behaviour of ordinary citizens who could truthfully say they had barely read anything on formal eugenics.

She speculated widely in tying hints in all sots of material to a wide claim indeed : that far from declining in the years between 1925 and 1945, eugenics became part of the general thinking of white middle class people throughout America.

I had always felt this to be the case, in a vague sort of 'back of the mind' feeling, so I was an easy sell.

But I can't imagine the resistance of others, who felt more comfortable with work like that of Daniel Kelves, who did pioneering work in the history of American Eugenics by the conventional route - burying himself for years in the record rooms of the elite eugenic bodies.

By their own standards - their own harshest critic ! - these eugenic organizations felt they had badly failed.

Cogdell, by contrast, felt they had succeeded far more than they knew.

I can argue that she came to this conclusion being being forced to consult wider sources - as opposed to becoming simply another "embedded historian".

I think of an "embedded historian" as being one who spends years mining one powerful institution's massive but unexploited archives, not quite believing their luck that no one more senior hasn't been there first, but who in the process, starts absorbing that institution's
archival 'rhetoric'.

No collection of important archival material from important people and institutions is ever just a neutral collection : "the facts and nothing but the facts".

It has always been culled carefully before being 'archived', in a manner to flatter the current powers-to-be , be they the original individual, their surviving family, or the institutional powerful at the time the archives were created.

Lots of things slip by - no one has a perfect record at predicting what future audiences will view as evidence of unflattering behaviour on the part of the people whose work is in the archives.

But , to point to an example in the field of penicillin , Vanevar Bush, Alfred Richards and Chester Keefer , all from the OSRD ,left plenty of evidence that they carefully stage managed the release of information - during and after the war - on the role (if any !) the OSRD had in its final, unexpected, wartime success.

They turned the biggest failure of the OSRD (the five year American failure to make synthetic penicillin) into the OSRD's biggest success : mass produced un-synthetic penicillin, by carefully massaging the truth.

They could have had little expectation that their distortions would survive them years after their own deaths.

But thanks to the embedded nature of most academic and popular writing on penicillin, it has done so.

Mostly this is because these embedded historians haven't seen themselves in that light at all : they feel they are busy correcting historical distortions.

To put it in over simple terms, they feel that either Fleming or Florey (or one of their co-worlers or supporting institutions) has been ill-served by the writing done to date and wish to correct the situation.

They have all succeeded in their stated aims, but they are really just nibbling at the edges.

For none - has refuted or even thought of refuting - the central claim of the wartime penicillin myth , that it was the OSRD intervention that led to the final success of wartime penicillin.

Peter Neushul thus stands unique because he has (in "Science, Government and Penicillin") undercut the myth of the OSRD being vital, but without actually putting the knife in decisively.

But we all owe him a great credit for the detective work he did do when he ventured off the well trodden path to the usual suspect archives on wartime penicillin ...

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