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Holmes’ "Between Biology and Medicine" April 16, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

I just gave my 20th century biology lecture yesterday–not much to report except that I argued that a productive way to approach the subject is to figure out how biology emerges as something independent of medicine, physiology, and chemistry. I look to the emergence of a full-throttled biochemistry (a chemistry specific to life) situated around 1900: enzymes, understanding proteins, biochemical pathways, and all that. This merges with the more physiological/evolutionary genetics with DNA in the new field of molecular biology mid-century.

But, after a bit of scraping, my best guide to all this turned out to be a mightily interesting 1992 book (collecting four 1990 lectures) by Frederic Holmes called (of all titles): “Between Biology and Medicine: The Formation of Intermediary Metabolism”. It sounds very arcane, but turned out to be riveting, because it deals pretty head-on with some of the questions I’ve been thinking about here. Basically, Holmes wrote (an absurdly detailed) two-volume book on Hans Krebs, trying to tease out the origins of intermediary metabolism in the 1930s, and, as so-often happens, he had the trap-door open beneath him as he found that intermediary metabolism has “predecessors” in the first half of the 1800s.

Now, Holmes is rightly suspicious about this “predecessors” question, and ends up tackling some very deep issues about how to write history. I have a lecture coming up tomorrow on R&D (another very bloggable topic), so I’m going to leave this here, but I’m going to come back to this in the next few posts.

Also, Jenny’s long-awaited online debate thing is due to go forward on the 23rd–stay tuned! (seriously)



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