Editors' Corner

Robert P. Crease, Editor

I thought I'd devote this particular plot of newsletter real estate to a topic of potential interest to FHP members, the Laboratory History conferences that have been held biannually or annually for over a dozen years.

The Laboratory History conferences started in 1999, with a meeting I organized at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Since then, the conferences (whose driving force generally has been Catherine Westfall) have been held among other places at Jefferson Lab in Virginia; at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; at the University of British Columbia; and at Johns Hopkins University. They now have an international membership, and cover a broader spectrum of laboratories and issues. The 7th Conference took place in June 2011 in Leuven, Belgium, and the 8th is to be held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on March 30 and 31, 2012, in conjunction with the April APS meeting.


The Seventh Laboratory History conference poster

The Seventh Laboratory History conference was organized by Geert Vanpaemel, a professor of history of science at the University of Leuven. Vanpaemel directs the Laboratory Project, a 4-year research program supported by the Flemish Research Council (FWO) that examines the interface between laboratory cultures and their social and institutional environment to examine how labs have changed the practice of science.

Many of the laboratories examined were Belgian. Lyvia Diser, one of the Laboratory Project's graduate students, spoke about the founding of the Belgian Pasteur Institute. Truus van Bosstraeten, another of the grad students, showed the contents of a recently discovered photo album of Leuven laboratories from the early 20th century. Since much of the town was destroyed in WWII, this album provided a valuable record of the labs, sometimes providing the only existing pictures of them. The album illustrated typical features of university labs at the time, including the persistence of the "physics cabinet," the precursor of a true natural science lab, where the classic instruments were collected. It included pictures of the laboratory in the brewery school, which served as an important link between the university and industry.

Sofie Onghena, another of the Laboratory Project's grad students, gave a talk on the differences between physics and chemistry laboratories in Belgian high schools at the end of the 19th century. Belgium was then torn by an ideological debate between clerics (Catholics) and anti-clerics (or advocates of secularism in government). This debate, Onghena showed, was reflected not only struggles over the proper character of education, but even in the different kinds of laboratories found in Catholic and Belgian Royal State schools. While labs in Catholic schools tended to consist of cabinets and natural history museums, and were designed to portray the harmony of God's creation and inculcate knowledge of its eternal laws, those in the state schools stressed inquiry and experimentation, and sought to prepare the students for practical industrial careers.

Peter Schollers, a professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, discussed the events leading to establishment, in 1856, of the Chemical Laboratory of the City of Brussels, one of the first official laboratories in the world and still in operation. These events had much to do with the social and cultural factors. In 1830, Brussels became the capital of the new nation: Belgium. Municipal officials were keenly aware that the city's huge health problems, including abysmal sanitary conditions, food adulteration, and frequent epidemics, reflected poorly on a city that was, after all, a European capital. Therefore, Scholliers argued, although the political climate ran strongly against state intervention in commerce, and although pharmacists traditionally had the role of analyzing food samples, city officials found it necessary to establish a municipal laboratory to supersede these traditional practices.

Several talks concerned physics labs. Dirk van Delft, of Leiden University, spoke on the cryogenic laboratory of superconductivity discoverer Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. In 1882, Onnes was appointed professor of experimental physics at Leiden, and began to transform its physics department building into a modern research laboratory. This required more than a talent for physics, Delft showed, but also the ability to coordinate a wide variety of appliances and instrumentation – pumps, compressors, engines, liquefiers, gas supplies, glass-blowing equipment, and so forth – overseen by diverse research organization with managers, engineers, glass-blowers, instrument-makers, students, and supervisors in what Delft calls "Big Science avant la lettre." This work culminated in the discovery of mercury's superconductivity on 6 April 1911.

Sonja Petersen, a historian of technology from Offenbach Academy of Art and Design, Germany, spoke about a short-lived "piano laboratory" that existed in Germany between 1927 and 1931, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to span laboratory science and handicraft. Joseph Martin, a graduate student in history of science at the University of Minnesota, spoke about the "National Magnet Laboratory and the Maturation of Solid State Physics," and discussed what the trajectory of this laboratory can tell us about the emergence of solid state research and the role of large laboratories in the U.S.

Other talks concerned the history and fate of various European laboratories. Ida Stamhuis, for instance, from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, discussed the First German Genetics Institute, established in 1914 at the Agricultural College in Berlin. Though its director was male, for a while its scientific staff was entirely female, and it had a strikingly high percentage of female staff members for similar European genetics institutes.

Two papers concerned visits to laboratories. One, by Mineke Bosch from the University of Groningen discussed the travel letters of Utrecht physiologist Dr. Marianne van Herwerden (1874-1934) during her research trip to the US in 1920, in the course of which she visited the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, laboratories of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the Woods Hole Marine Laboratory. These descriptions are interesting in the way they highlighted the then-new way of life for researchers in America as compared to Europe—you had to work faster, be more enterprising, labor for longer hours, and sometimes had to skip dinner. Still, you could not spend all your time in the lab but had to network; in short, you had to be socially active as a scientist, having to travel, organize, seek funding, expand your projects, and network.

Elizabeth Neswald from Brock University in Canada examined someone going the other way: Francis Benedict, the director of the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory, toured European laboratories between 1907 and 1913 to examine the structure, organization and resources of European laboratories to mine for features he could integrate into the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory. His reports provide a valuable analysis of European metabolism laboratories during this period.

Other papers concerned different types of laboratories. Raf de Bont of the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven spoke about the emergence of biological field stations at the end of the 19th century. These have reputations as being lonely retreats in unspoiled nature for the use of loners amusingly stereotyped as "worm slicers" (morphologists), "egg-shakers" (experimental physiologists), and "bug hunters" (collectors). Yet, de Bont showed, these labs were quite strategically positioned scientific habitats inside a bigger habitat. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn from the University of Cambridge discussed the role of laboratories in pregnancy testing in the 1930s, in what amounted to a revolution in obstetric practice, as well as development of a new kind of laboratory—the routine disgnostic laboratory.

Several talks concerned computers. Michiko Tanaka, of Brookhaven National Laboratory, spoke about the history of computing at Brookhaven National Laboratory. She discussed the vast changes wrought in computing at BNL by the surging scale of information from its major instruments, and changing patterns of publication as tracked by various bibliometric measures. These patterns include a sharp drop in single-authored papers, and huge increase in interdisciplinarity. Still, she found a retention of strong and consistent mathematics and physics orientation, and noted the impact of major national and international events. Meanwhile, David Nofre and Gerard Alberts, of the University of Amsterdam, spoke about the development of the programming language ALGOL, from 1958-1964.

Economics seems a subject scarcely amenable to experimentation. Yet Andrej Svorencik of the University of Amsterdam showed that, thanks to computers, this is not the case. In the 1940s and 1950s, experiments were "pen and pencil" exercises where instructors distributed pieces of paper with information about goods to students, and recorded the contracts they made amongst themselves. Computers revolutionized these inquiries. Screens in cubicles now allowed labs to make subjects privy to some information in private, while an overhead projector made other information visible to all on a whiteboard. In the 1960s, Berkeley established the first computerized economic laboratory, and since then they have grown ever more elaborate. Sophisticated computer programs and removable partitions allow limited communication between certain subgroups. Today, about 150 economics labs are in operation around world, though about 3 dozen produce the bulk of published research.

In the course of the conference, the vast differences between laboratories discussed by the papers, and the multiplication of perspectives on these laboratories, served to raise increasingly difficult questions not only about what constitutes a laboratory, but also the impact of laboratories on constituting science itself. What, for instance, is a laboratory "space," especially after the impact of the computer? Is it a container space, people at work, computer networking, or the space of an ideal language such as mathematics? Such issues occupied more and more of the discussion as the conference drew to a close, and will no doubt be raised again at future Laboratory History conferences.


The Eighth Laboratory History conference will be held at Georgia Tech on March 30 and 31, held to piggyback off the APS April meeting March 31 - April 3. John Krige, Kranzberg Professor in the School of History, Technology, and Society at Georgia Tech, is the local host. The program chair is the FHP's own Catherine Westfall. Those who are interested should contact one of them for further details.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.