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In their own words

A yeast geneticist at the University of Chicago recently initiated a project under the auspices of the Genetics Society of America that now allows us to hear a generation of geneticists talk about their discoveries. Conversation in Genetics (http://www.genestory.org/) is a series of video interviews with prominent geneticists, among them Francois Jacob, Edward Lewis, Ira Herskowitz and Janet Rowley. The interviewers themselves are distinguished scientists — Lucy Shapiro, Carol Gross, Elliot Meyerowitz and Jasper Rine, to name a few — with diverse backgrounds in genetics. Through 'conversations' that are a protagonist's narrative of how key discoveries were made and concepts evolved, the project aims to create a historical record of the field's evolution. Nathaniel Comfort from the Institute for the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University reviews this double-volume set on page 557.

Recording individual recollections in interview format is by no means unique to this project. Interviews have been used extensively to document the experiences of diverse groups including war veterans, former slaves, Holocaust survivors, artists, and indeed scientists. Although oral history as a formal methodology came into existence with the establishment of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University in 1948 (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/oral/index.html), it pre-dates the establishment of this programme, going back as far as the 1930s in the US. The resulting accounts are historical records that can be used by journalists, writers, scholars and teachers as raw material. Several oral history projects have a policy that the veracity of the account must be approved by the interviewee. Equally important is their potential to engage public imagination, as they offer a powerful and immediate means of experiencing history.

Despite the apparent abundance of autobiographical essays, memoirs and biographies, not everyone leaves behind a written record; but oral history offers more than a substitute for the written record. According to Marcia Meldrum, a historian of medicine at UCLA who is currently involved in an ongoing oral history project on human geneticists, interviews may extract information omitted from the written record, set work in a broader historical context, or define details obvious to the scientist but not to others. Meldrum notes that letters are rare today and although there are ongoing projects to create e-mail archives, correspondence can no longer be relied upon as a foundation for the historical record. She stresses that “By and large, the history of late 20th- and early 21st-century science is dissolving into the ether.” Victoria Harden, director of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, believes that oral histories provide human anecdote that written documents lack, and will be a vital tool in communicating the importance of science in shaping lives. Oral histories can also make the scientific endeavour more transparent, provide accountability for how public funding is spent and, importantly, provide a unique glimpse into the elusive personalities behind key discoveries.

The oldest and most systematic oral history project in the natural sciences is at the American Institute of Physics' Center for the History of Physics (http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/). This ongoing project was initiated in 1963 by three historians of physics who recognized that prominent 20th-century physicists were dying without anyone recording their recollections. This growing collection includes over 3,000 hours of interview with over 1,500 physicists and others, including Adolf Butenandt, Werner Heisenberg, Linus Pauling and Niels Bohr, who died shortly after his only interview. The interviewees are selected by a panel of physicists and historians, and the interviews are conducted by historians. The AIP is also a repository for related interviews conducted by others, and its website provides technical guidelines on how to conduct these interviews.

In the biological sciences, the Office of NIH History has conducted several oral history interviews that are integral to larger projects. One such project, 'In their own words', documents the early years of AIDS research at the NIH (http://history.nih.gov/NIHInOwnWords/). Interviews with a broad cross-section of NIH employees, including scientists, physicians, administrators and nurses, highlight multiple facets of the institution's role in AIDS research. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory began an oral history project in 2000 about figures who shaped the history of the laboratory and, more generally, molecular biology (http://library.cshl.edu/OH/mainMovie.html). This collection includes about 110 interviews with individuals such as Kim Nasymth, Bruce Stillman and Gerry Fink, who were central to the development of the cell cycle, DNA replication and yeast genetics.

These projects are not only highly diverse in their intent to capture institutional versus individual contributions, but also in the interviewing approach and the interview length, which can sometimes consist of multiple sessions spanning several hours (the interview with Ruth Kirschstein, the first female director at the NIH, lasts an impressive 18 hours). The interviewer/interviewee relationship can strongly influence accessibility, as it defines the level of assumed background knowledge and jargon-based exchanges. Of course, to reach the general public, interviews should be freely accessible; indeed, many of these recordings and their transcripts are, available either online or from institutional archives.

There are other oral history projects in the natural sciences. Remarkably, however, there seems to be no systematic effort to conduct and archive interviews with those who have been instrumental to founding cell biology. Beyond its importance for preserving the history of the field, in an age where public concerns over the methods and direction of biological research run high, creating such archives could also spur informed debate.

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In their own words. Nat Cell Biol 7, 533 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncb0605-533

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