Taking Human Genetics Digital: ‘Mendelian Inheritance in Man’ and the Genealogy of Electronic Publishing in Biomedicine

As of my writing on April 12, 2018, there are 24,506 known or suspected human genes out of roughly 3 billion base pairs in the reference sequence of the human genome.[1] While the bulk of these were identified during the course of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which ran from 1990–2003, a majority of the 5,000 or so with a well-characterized clinical phenotype—a genetic trait visible in human anatomy and physiology with consequences for human disease manifest above the cellular level—were cataloged beginning in the 1960s, long before genetic sequencing was possible. Medical geneticists worked to identify heritable traits in study populations that manifested unambiguously in family lineages. They set up clinics around the world and established sections in academic hospitals.[2] In a discipline that was still marginal to mainstream medicine and tainted by its incomplete severance from eugenics, breaking apart old categories and multiplying new ones became a legitimation strategy, one that required physicians and counselors across the country to be on the same page. Continue reading “Taking Human Genetics Digital: ‘Mendelian Inheritance in Man’ and the Genealogy of Electronic Publishing in Biomedicine”

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of ‘Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual’

Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise. Continue reading “Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of ‘Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual’”

Mediators of Knowledge: WPA Folklorists and 1930s Migrant Culture

What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?

Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts. Continue reading “Mediators of Knowledge: WPA Folklorists and 1930s Migrant Culture”

Developing Knowledge Societies: Africa Needs a Linguistic Revolution

African societies are on the brink of changing from postcolonial societies into global knowledge societies. Digitalization and globalization could enhance their transformation from knowledge-consuming to knowledge-producing societies, which would also help bring full mental decolonization to Africa. Just as important, it would open the way for African indigenous knowledge systems to enjoy recognition in the “North,” not to mention in other parts of the Global South. If it were not for the language issue.[1] Continue reading “Developing Knowledge Societies: Africa Needs a Linguistic Revolution”

Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century

Europe in the 1830s and 1840s was marked by political ferment, with various kinds of nationalism and political ideology challenging the international system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15. One potential tool at the disposal of revolutionaries was public opinion abroad, insofar as the international order depended on enforcement by the great powers—Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy, Russia, France, and Great Britain. The last of these was particularly interesting for those on the Continent with a national or liberal agenda because it offered a safe haven for political exiles, its press laws were liberal, and it had a sizeable educated and moneyed public that was interested in constitutional and national questions—a public that might sway government policy or offer financial and moral assistance. Lucy Riall has highlighted the role played by the media and public opinion campaigns in Great Britain during Italy’s struggle for national independence.[1] Poles too sought to use such tools. Continue reading “Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century”

Translating Sex: ‘Spartacus’ and the Gay Traveler in the 1970s

Writing in the age of Yelp from Dupont, the historic center of gay life in Washington, DC, I can have trouble fully imagining the difficulty that many gay men had in accessing gay spaces. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, when gay scenes were expanding in major metropolitan areas across North America and Western Europe and gay rights movements were attaining increased visibility, access to specific gay locales remained largely dependent on local knowledge. This presented a particular challenge for the novice gay traveler, who might have possessed a vague sense that Schöneberg was the “gayborhood” of Berlin or the Marais functioned similarly for Paris, but have no idea which were the best bars, saunas, and so-called darkrooms, let alone whom to call if they ran into trouble with the police. Continue reading “Translating Sex: ‘Spartacus’ and the Gay Traveler in the 1970s”