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Can historians trust scientists as sources for auto/biographical stories?

Posted Oct 08 2008 1:04am

A recent announcement for a lecture by Tim Hunt, joint winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, at the Royal Institution of Great Britain  tomorrow, Thursday 9 October, reminded me of the problems with using scientists as sources for biographical stories.

Tim Hunt will be talking about the inspirations behind his life in science. Says the announcement:

It was in his weekly science lesson at the Dragon School near Oxford that Tim grew to find biology an easy subject, and from then on he felt he never really had to make any more career decisions. When he was 14, Tim moved to another school where science played a much larger role in the curriculum. He loved Chemistry in particular, and the class were allowed considerable freedom, on more than one occasion started fires from distilling volatile flammable solvents.

Well, this may be true. Or it may not. It’s difficult to say, because autobiographical stories are notoriously problematic as sources of what ‘really’ happened, for example what was ’really’ the inspirations behind someone’s life in science. Having written the biography of another (then still living) medical Nobel laureate ( Niels K. Jerne ) I know all to well how shaky autobiographical reports turn out to be when you are able to compare them with the written record. By and large, autobiography is better understood as a fictional genre.

That said, autobiographical stories can be great fun and good entertainment. And like great novels, they can be used as ‘mirrors’ for us to compare ourselves in. For that purpose it doesn’t really matter if they are true or not.

So from that point of view the lecture at the Royal Institution could be interesting. In London tomorrow at 7pm — find it here.

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