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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Soraya de Chadarevian

This guide focuses on genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology. It is not complete: cross-check with the bibliographies on 19th-century biology by McOuat & van Wyhe and on 20th-century sciences with special reference to physics and chemistry by Hughes.

Surveys and bibliographies

For general introduction into historical and historiographical issues of 20th-century life sciences, including useful bibliographies see:

  • G. Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century, New York and London 1975 [V.349]
  • R.C. Olby et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science, London 1990 (especially chapters on biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, cybernetics and information technology) [Whipple SCI.31]
  • J. Krige and D. Pestre (ed.), Science in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam 1997 (chapters by Abir Am, Kamminga and Gaudilliere are specifically on the life sciences) [Whipple C.503]
  • T. Séderqvist (ed.), The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, London 1997
  • J.A. Overmier, The History of Biology: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography, New York 1989 (some useful references)
  • J.S. Fruton, A Bio-Bibliography for the History of the Biochemical Sciences since 1800, Philadelphia 1982 [Whipple Lis 5]


If the scientists are dead and/or well-known you will find entries in the usual places:

  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography [Whipple Ref]
  • Dictionary of National Biography (for those who died before 1985) [Whipple Ref]
  • Chambers Biographical Encyclopaedia of Scientists (1981; a new Chambers – Dictionary of Scientists is in preparation) [UL Reference Section R340.39]
  • The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, ed. D. Abbott (1983) (special volume on biologists) [CSL]
  • Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (1987) [SPL; UL R450.33]
  • American Men and Women of Science (18th edition, 1992-93) (very brief entries) [CSL]
  • Poggendorff Biographisch-Literarisches Handwurterbuch der Exakten Wissenschaften (last volume covers period till 1953; life scientists are excluded, but those with a training in physics or chemistry may be listed) [UL R340.35]
  • Who Was Who (various editions; often the only source) [CSL; UL R454.2]
  • Obituary Notices (later the Biographical Memoirs) of the Fellows of the Royal Society (since 1933; appears annually, in the Whipple under the journals, earlier issues with the librarian; very useful, even if single essays are often very long and always very celebratory)
  • Monk's Roll. Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of London (the last volume is updated till 1988; in the Whipple Ref. Per 32-37)
  • Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science (Washington) [CSL]
  • British Biographical Archive Series 2 (lists biographical entries of many sources, covers 100 years till 1939) [microfiche in UL Reading Room, to the left of the entrance door]
  • British Biographical Archive and Index (covers period till 1929) [UL Reading Room]
  • The American Biographical Archive (till early 20th century) [UL Reading Room]
  • Deutsches Biographisches Archiv and Index [UL Reading Room]

Recently the University Library acquired a complete collection of worldwide biographical archives (mostly on microfiche) which will soon be available in the main reading room (ask the librarian).

For living scientists, even if well-known, it is often difficult to find more than an entry in the national Who Is Who (if at all!). Other places to look (again for the most successful ones) are:

  • Nobel Lectures including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies (many volumes) [UL P911:36.c.31]
  • Nobel Prize Winners (1987) [UL R450.32]

Many Nobel Laureates, especially molecular biologists, have also written their autobiographies!

  • The Annual Review of Biochemistry and the Annual Review of Genetics have autobiographical prefatory chapters, relating mainly to the scientific life of the authors (sometimes very useful) [CSL]

Access to primary scientific literature

Most biographical sources list scientific works (some like the Obituaries of the Royal Society are quite complete). Other ways to get into the primary literature are:

  • Science Citation Index (since 1945; from 1981 onwards also on Web of Science; lists all papers and where they are cited; has author, subject and corporation index; the printed version is somewhat tiresome to use but very useful) [CSL; ask for help, also for other on-line services]

Many scientific journals are on open shelf in the UL. Other places to find them are the CSL (older issues must be ordered; photocopying service is much better and cheaper than in the UL) and the various Departmental Libraries.

  • Biological Abstracts (since 1926; give abstracts of scientific papers; author & subject index; from 1985 on-line BIOSIS via EDiNA (ask CSL librarian)

Guides to archival holdings

Cambridge itself has many archival holdings of 20th-century scientists. For those held in the UL see the card catalogue in the Manuscript Room. General catalogues of archives (which should list also the papers held in the Cambridge Colleges) are:

See also:

  • The Manuscript Papers of British Scientists 1600-1940, HMSO 1982 [Whipple Sci 23 and UL, Manuscript Room]
  • J. Foster, J. Sheppard, British Archives. A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom (1992) (arranged by towns; author and key subject indexes) [Whipple Dir 12]

A major Survey of Sources for the History of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology was initiated at the American Philosophical Society Library (APSL) in the mid-1970s. The Newsletter (10 issues between 1976 and 1981) provide very useful descriptions of archival holdings (but no index exists) [Whipple Lis 12]; unluckily The Guide to Archival Sources for the History of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, eds. D. Bearman, J.T. Edsall (1980) which was the end product of the project and also contains microfiches with bio-bliographies of many hundred scientists is not available in Cambridge (it is apparently out of print; the APSL also holds questionnaires which were completed by around 500 then living scientists and which contain very useful information; lists are updated in the Newsletters, copies may be obtained from APSL).

The APSL published two most useful guides on their own important holdings which are both available in the Whipple:

  • L. E. Kay, Molecules, Cells, and Life. An Annoted Bibliography of Manuscript Sources on Physiology, Biochemistry, and Biophysics, 1900-1960, Philadelphia 1989 (contains also suggestions for research topics) [Whipple Lis 9]
  • B. Glass, A Guide to the Genetics Collections of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia 1988 [Whipple Lis 6]
  • The APSL also issues The Mendel Newsletter on Archival Resources for the History of Genetics & Allied Sciences (appears irregularly, can be ordered for free)

All major funding agencies have important holdings in addition to their institutional records. Of special interest is:

For the MRC Archives the best (but by no way complete) description is in the Survey of Sources Newsletter 8 (1978) 10-13 [Whipple Lis 12]. Most released MRC records are now at the Public Record Office (see their listing).

Oral history collections

For general advice and literature cf. the Oral History Bibliography. As introduction and guide to further literature see also:

  • S. de Chadarevian, 'Using interviews for writing the history of science', in The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, ed. T. Séderqvist (London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997), pp. 51-70.

Video collections of interest to the history of 20th-century life sciences produced in Britain are:

  • The Medical Sciences Video Archive of the Royal College of Physicians and Oxford Brookes University (around 70 interviews, not only medics!)
  • The UK Biochemical Society's Video Archive (available for viewing in the headquarters of the Biochemical Society in London, tel. 020 7580 5530)

Iconographic resources

Access to secondary literature and major journals

The best finding aids for historical literature is the ISIS Bibliography [the Cumulative Bibliography (1913-1995) is in the Whipple reference section, sci 38-47. The bibliography from 1975 onwards can be accessed on the web].

Journals dedicated exclusively to the history of the life sciences are the Journal of the History of Biology and History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, but most of the major history or social studies of science journals also publish history of biology articles; see especially Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences; History of Science; ISIS; Social Studies of Science; Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science; Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Science and Culture.