Introduction to the Special Issue – “Scientific Biography: A Many Faced Art Form”
Bar Ilan University Tel Aviv Israel
Biographers have many things in common. They see connections between psychology and ideas. Between personal life histories and grander historical patterns. They are respectful of origins. They value agency. They seek out personal papers and spend hours in archives. They carefully track down connections, redrawing and recreating networks of relationships to people, institutions, schemes, traditions. Most of all, they believe in the illuminating power of a life. Whether it is unusual or quotidian, unique or emblematic, a life is always illustrative of its times and therefore reflective of them, or at least - in the right hands - it can be.
But biographers, too, can be as different from each other in their
motivations as the characters they seek to alight are in their lives. For
some biography is an exercise in laying down precisely the facts of
someones life, carving out its historical territory and thereby explaining
its significance. For others it is a pursuit of a reputation, an attempt to
grapple with the memory of a life more than with the life itself. Still
others embark upon biography as a means by which to track the history
of a particular idea, like race or democracy or altruism or the gene, the
genre affording either an aesthetically pleasing or organizationally
efficient, or simply an easier, way to speak about issues that are greater
than just one life. Some biographers are interested in how a biography
reflects on the future, others on how it illuminates the past. Some view it
primarily as story telling, others as accounting, still others as a moral
tool for historical retribution. Some are most interested in psychology
and the inner world, others in actions, still others in the connections
between the two. Some train their attention on failures, some on
successes. Some direct their craft at other scholars and still others at
wide audiences. Biography may be afforded a corralling and artificially
unifying space in bookstores and in catalogues, but upon closer
examination it proves to be a myriad of very different things.
In this Special Section of Journal of the History of Biology, and in
light of the recent resurgence of discussion on the general topic of
biography, the pluralities of a particular kind of biography, the scientific
biography, will be taxonomied and juxtaposed. Five scholars who have
produced very different kinds of biographies of life scientists have been
asked to consider a set of fundamental questions pertaining to their
motivations and craft:
Is your scientist a central and well-known player, or is he peripheral
and unknown? Why did you make that choice?
Is your scientist an end or a means? In what way, and why?
Who is your imagined audience? Are you more interested in
speaking to fellow historians, to scientists, or to intelligent lay readers?
How does the answer to the above question relate to your view of
the nature and import of biography writing?
Is there anything unique about scientific biography as opposed to
Are you more concerned with history or historiography in
approaching a biographical project?
What are the salient differences between fiction and non-fiction
when it comes to writing a gripping biography? What are the limits
and boundaries between the two?
How can biography be compared to other units of historical
analysis, such as ideas, institutions, organisms, research programs,
Is biography writing a moral exercise? If so, in what way?
Is biography writing more an art or a science? How and why?
The contributors all use illustrations from the lives they have studied
in addressing these questions, and have each been asked to share their
thought processes in the first person. While some things may unite them,
it is my hope that the readers will see that each biographer has
undertaken quite a different project. Interestingly, in reply to the basic
Why are particular lives important?