When Your Sources Talk Back: Toward a Multimodal Approach to Scientific Biography

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4 Scopus citations


Interviewing offers the biographer unique opportunities for gathering data. I offer three examples. The emphatic bacterial geneticist Norton Zinder confronted me with an interpretation of Barbara McClintock's science that was as surprising as it proved to be robust. The relaxed setting of the human geneticist Walter Nance's rural summer home contributed to an unusually improvisational oral history that produced insights into his experimental and thinking style. And "embedding" myself with the biochemical geneticist Charles Scriver in his home, workplace, and city enabled me to experience the social networks that drive the practical events of his career, which in turn helped me explain the theoretical basis of his science. Face-to-face interaction and multisensory experience will shape each biographer's experience uniquely. Recent developments in sensory physiology suggest that the experience of integrating sense data encourages different patterns of observation and reflection. It is reasonable, then, to think that biography based on face-to-face interviews will, for a given author, have a different character than one based entirely on documents. I reflect on how interviewing shapes my own writing and I encourage the reader to do the same.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)651-669
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2011


  • Barbara McClintock
  • Charles Scriver
  • Norton Zinder
  • Walter Nance
  • biography
  • interviewing
  • oral history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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