Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science

When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country?

Figure 1  Central campus of Iowa State College, ca. 1905. Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Reproduced with permission.

Indeed, my aim was to study the papers not of a Jim Watson or the like, but of somebody none of my colleagues had heard of. Robert Earle Buchanan (1883–1973) was an expert in microbial taxonomy, the science of classifying and especially naming bacteria and other small organisms that are often hard to notice, let alone distinguish, but that can have big consequences, such as in medical diagnostics.

Figure 2  Robert Earle Buchanan, handbook scientist, 1951. Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Reproduced with permission.

Buchanan was never recognized in Stockholm or in the National Academy of Sciences, and rather than being associated with any race to discovery, he could be remembered for sitting on a large number of commissions, committees, and boards. Working in Iowa for more than six decades, he became a pivotal figure in the making of Bergey’s Manual of Bacteriology, an essential Who’s Who of microbes. The manual has been re-edited seven times since the 1920s and is often considered the bible of the field.

Figure 3  Cover of Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. The 1974 edition, edited by R. E. Buchanan, was published one year after Bergey’s death, in 1974.

One obituary makes Buchanan sound more like a humanist than a scientist: “In his love for Latin and Greek, and of the etymology of names, Buchanan was a microbiologist extraordinary.” It is this combination that made me curious—continuous work on a book project over a long period of time, somewhat against the grain of time, or more specifically, against the accelerating pace of scientific research in the last century. Was Buchanan and his work on Bergey’s a case in point for what Ludwik Fleck called “Handbuchwissenschaft” or handbook science? Fleck understood this kind of work as a specific and characteristic form of knowledge production by what he famously called the “modern scientific thought collective.”1

Handbook scientists, those individuals who compiled the big books that fill entire shelves of university libraries or cram office walls, may be a special and somewhat elusive, if not in retrospect invisible genus. This has also been observed by the historian of science Michael Gordin, who has studied the life and work of the Russian-German chemist Friedrich Konrad Beilstein (1838–1906), author of one of the most important reference works on organic chemical substances. Gordin introduced the eponym of “Beilstein’s handbook” as the most famous scientist his readers had never heard of, unless they were chemists, in which case he would be the most famous chemist they knew nothing about.2

Since I began studying handbook science, I have come across quite a number of Beilsteins and Buchanans from the chemical and the biological sciences. Although their careers and personalities in different places and times differed, of course, they also seemed to share important characteristics, such as, first and foremost, a special relationship to a specific book, often the project of a life time. Their main place of work seems to have been not so much the laboratory as the library. Buchanan, for example, published a 600-page monograph in 1925, a voluminous compendium on naming and classification that was based not so much on experimentating as on compiling, systematizing, and criticizing existing literature on the topic. In short, Buchanan’s preferred tools were index cards and filing cabinets instead of pipettes and Petri dishes. He employed foreign language assistants to research literature in French, German, Russian, Latin, and Greek rather than lab technicians. Well past retirement age, Buchanan continued his editorial work on Bergey’s, engaging in extended and somewhat opinionated correspondence about the etymologically correct spelling of bacterial names.

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Are figures such as Buchanan simply quirky, elderly professors far from where the real action of science takes place? Certainly these individuals and their activities do not comport with our image of rapidly evolving scientific pursuit in the twentieth century. But might what appears odd or outmoded have been an important, if overlooked part of the modern scientific endeavour, just as Fleck suspected? What function did the big books produced by these individuals have in times of ever-accelerating scientific productivity, as floods of new knowledge appeared every week or month in the latest issues of scientific journals? It is these questions that made me travel to Ames and led me to investigate related places.

In the archives of the University of Iowa, I learned that Buchanan’s editorial office was a center in an international web of experts exchanging information on microbial taxonomy. Even if Buchanan certainly became a quintessential old professor after several decades’ researching and correcting the spelling of bugs’ names in a small Midwestern university, he in fact also represents an historiographically “unappreciated scientist,” as another memorial had it. After World War II, for example, he was repeatedly sent to West Germany and the Middle East as an agricultural-scientific emissary of the U.S. government or of the UN Food and Agriculture Program Specific skills related to languages and communication would certainly have been helpful in such undertakings.3 In my presentation, I will speak about these and other aspects related not only to Buchanan, but to the writing, editing, and usage of the book he engaged in, Bergey’s Manual. I will compare these findings to those around a related German-language project on chemistry, the inorganic equivalent to the Beilstein: Gmelins Handbuch der Anorganischen Chemie, which listed chemical compounds and detailed their properties.

In the end, my visit to Ames turned out to be anything but boring: I promptly ran into a colleague from the history of the life sciences, who also had good reason to travel to this out-of-the-way location.She was researching plant breeding. Beyond the archives, my welcoming hosts arranged a meeting with Klaus Ruedenberg, a ninety-five-year-old chemist who had emigrated from Germany in 1938 and worked for a long time in Ames’ chemistry department. Ruedenberg told me how parts of the Manhattan project had been located at Ames. So, as there seems to be more to discover about out-of-the-way places, and as they sometimes are bigger in science than one thinks, there will be more to say about handbooks, and the kind of science that produces them.

Mathias Grote is an assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) in the History of Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

  1. Samuel T. Cowan, “Robert E. Buchanan: Obituary,” Journal of General Microbiology 77 (1973): 1–4; Ludwik Fleck, Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkkollektiv (1935; Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1980).  ↩
  2. Michael D. Gordin, “Beilstein Unbound: The Pedagogical Unraveling of a Man and his Handbuch,” in Pedagogy and the Practice of Science, ed. David Kaiser (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 11–39  ↩
  3. Rivers Singleton Jr., “Robert Earle Buchanan: An Unappreciated Scientist,” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 72, no. 5 (1999): 329.  ↩