• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 05th February, 2010

Community alert – beware the "great man"

Good science detests and deplores the cult of personality: the notions of the “great man” and scientific “truth” are fundamentally and intractably at odds.Are they? Why? Because – to quote Rony Armon from the time he was a PhD student in Israel and writing in the journal Minerva – “those who take the scientist as their unit of analysis concede that discoveries often originate from his or her interactions within a community.“The intimate records of the scientist … lead us away from the scientist towards his instrumental and intellectual dependencies.”In which case there is a paradox, and perhaps an important one for the young prevention science to acknowledge as it gets ready to walk, supported on one hand by the expertise of relatively few notable proponents, and balanced on the other by an absolute dependency on the engagement, involvement and confidence of families, neighborhoods and communities.The context for Rony Armon’s familiar enough observation is an essay called “Writing Biographies and Autobiographies of Science” in which he reviews a 2003 study by the Copenhagen scholar Thomas Söderqvist of the life of the immunologist and Nobel prizewinner Niels Kaj Jerne.Söderqvist’s writing on Jerne is in part a rumination on the interplay between the scientist’s thought and his personality – a technical analysis of the former leading to an arresting verdict on the mind of an outsider, of one “who saw himself as an alien in the culture in which he lived, and felt distant from his surroundings”.You don’t need to be able to fathom Jerne’s hypothesis to feel the resonance and implications of Söderqvist’s conclusion: “Jerne preferred the hypothesis of preformed, natural antibodies to explain the presence of Antibody A because it corresponded with his understanding of himself.“Jerne’s scientific ideas rest primarily on his personal story, as if he were an artist or writer drawing on his or her own life to create a work.”Söderqvist’s interest in the location of “the work” is mentioned more recently, and also at second hand, in a review by Jonathan Reinarz at the University of Birmingham of The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography.Here, in an edited collection of essays by others, he again highlights the suspicion and periodic opposition between science and biographical studies, particularly among medical historians.Reinarz draws out Söderqvist’s allusions to the rise of social history and the parallel decline of “great man” theory in academic studies: “The disappearance of the medical hero corresponded with the recent resurrection of the patient,” Reinarz observes. “The rejection of the medical biography became a measure of one’s commitment to history-from-below and, ultimately, the new social history.”That experience is exemplified by a contribution from the historian and hematologist Jacalyn Duffin. She remembers writing the biographies of two dead, white, male doctors, René Laennec and James Langstaff – the first a “great” doctor, the other an unknown “everyman”. The great man caused her the greater difficulty finding a publisher, such was the literary climate at the time.This polarization is identified with the 1970s and 1980s, when it is tempting to suggest that the “community arts,” community theater in particular, were doing similar, timely damage to the notion of the artist and the author. Feminism was gaining ground, too; patricide was in the air.And so one wonders more generally how much of the chronic queasiness between expert knowledge and its dependencies is in the ether whenever a “great man” calls by to discuss effective evidence-based interventions in a community, particularly should it happen in the global South where “the great white doctor” lies in an unquiet grave. But, whenever and wherever they occur, in the light of these historical and biographical asides, these encounters continue to be philosophically as well as scientifically charged.See:Thomas Söderqvist (ed.) (2007) The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography, Aldershot: Ashgate reviewed by Reinarz J in Social History of Medicine (2009) 22(1): pp 201-204, OUPandSöderqvist T, Science as Autobiography: The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne (2003) Yale University Press reviewed by Armon R in Minerva (2007) 45: pp 295–304 Springer

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