Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 23, 2000Volume 28, Number 34

Frederic Lawrence Holmes

Holmes is inducted into
American Philosophical Society

Frederic Lawrence Holmes, the Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine and chair of Yale's History of Medicine section, is among the 47 scholars and leaders recently inducted into the American Philosophical Society.

Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney are among the other new members of the organization, which is the oldest society in the United States devoted to scholarly and scientific research. Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, the society counted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Marshall among its earliest members. The society, whose members have since included John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, George Marshall and Robert Frost, has five divisions: mathematical and physical sciences; biological sciences; social sciences; humanities; and the arts, learned professions and public affairs. Holmes, whose research focuses on the process of scientific discovery, is within the humanities division.

"If you live long enough, these things happen," Holmes said of his newest honor.

In fact, Holmes, who began teaching at Yale in 1964, has an impressive record as a history of science scholar, with six books and countless contributions to professional publications to his credit. He is the author of a two-volume biography of Hans Krebs, the 1953 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, and a book about Claude Bernard, a 19th-century pioneer in the field of physiology. He also published "Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life," a study of the man known familiarly as the "father of modern chemistry."

Holmes is the recipient of many honors and awards in his field, including the Schumann and Pfizer Prizes from the History of Science Society and the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society. In 1994 he was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Holmes characterizes much of his work as an attempt to answer "fundamental questions explaining how major discoveries are made."

Seminal publications, such as Darwin's "Origin of Species," might lay out major scientific discoveries, but what they don't do, according to Holmes, is tell you how the discoveries were arrived at. Aided by laboratory notebooks and other records left by the scientists he has studied, Holmes, reminiscent of his sleuth namesake, says he can "follow the footprints" to "reconstruct" the process that led to the metaphorical flash of insight.

Contrary to popular opinion, Holmes argues, scientific milestones are not reached through single episodes of inspired genius. Rather, he says, "Day by day work is the backbone" of all science.

After many years of researching landmark scientific discoveries, Holmes says he also has been struck by the fact that investigators have been working much the same way throughout the centuries. As there is a commonality to the way of investigation, so too, Holmes claims, is there an interconnection of knowledge. "Knowledge is cumulative," he says, and every groundbreaking discovery is determined to a large extent by the discoveries that came before it.

Within that context, Holmes considers the present bio-tech "revolution" overestimated. Rather, he sees the great flowering of scientific research as occurring sometime in the middle of the 20th century, with the Watson-Crick model of DNA as the crowning event of that era.

Holmes' most recent book, "Meselson, Stahl and the Replication of DNA: A History of 'The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology'" is in press. He hopes to do two or three more similar studies before retiring.

-- By Dorie Baker


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