Research Interests

I'm an historian of science interested both in the development of science as a body of ideas, techniques, and institutions and in the historical interactions of science with other elements of our culture, most especially its engineering and medical technologies.

My early work focused primarily on the social organization of new fields of scientific research. We're all conscious of the intensely specialized nature of modern science and its ever-proliferating disciplines and sub-disciplines. We take less notice of how new fields secure the standing, recruits, and resources necessary for development, or of how highly specialized expertise finds a place in institutions that serve such purposes as general education or industrial research. During the 1980s I studied particular instances of these questions, writing a book about how physical chemistry grew from an esoteric specialty to become one of the principal branches of chemistry in the decades around 1900 and articles about the origins of such fields as chemical engineering and geochemistry.

These studies led me into a second topic, the history of corporate sponsorship of research on university campuses. Journalists often portray the corporation as a newcomer to the support of university research-typically tracing the relationship to the biotechnology revolution of the past few decades. But archival research reveals that business firms were deeply involved in supporting academic programs in engineering and chemistry in the early twentieth century, and shows, also, that academics and businessmen wrestled with issues of intellectual property, secrecy, and conflicts of interest long before the era of recombinant DNA. This work, published in a series of articles, drew me into a rewarding association with colleagues in the history of technology and their journal, Technology and Culture, of which I've been an associate and contributing editor over the past decade.

In the past few years I've taken up a third area of research, the history of antibiotics and other 'wonder drugs' of the mid-twentieth century. These drugs had revolutionary effects on therapeutics and the pharmaceutical industry. Their history is one of the paradigmatic examples of how laboratory science can change the world. But it's also a story of how scientific change generates unanticipated problems and consequences, in this case relating to drug regulation, resistance, pricing, and access. I'm currently working on a book about this rich story.