Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science

How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.

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CfP: Global Knowledge, Global Legitimacy? Transatlantic Biomedicine since 1970

Washington, DC, Sept. 6-7, 2019
Application deadine: Dec. 15, 2018

When the French pharmaceutical company Roussell Uclaff, a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Hoechst AG, was ready to introduce an abortion pill in 1988, American activists flooded the company’s headquarters near Frankfurt with protest letters. In response, the company’s German CEO mandated to stop the project. But the French state, a Hoechst minority shareholder, took the idea across the border, patented it, and embarked on medical trials for the new product in France. Ten years later, scientists in the United States successfully isolated human embryonic stem cells. The country’s regulatory framework had left them free to let the cells proliferate indefinitely. But researchers adopted concepts implemented in Britain to limit the cells’ growth to 13 days after gestation.

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