Picture This: Ron Doel on the Importance of Looking Closely at the History of Science

Erica Zora Wrightson is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses Ron Doel's multidisciplinary approach to studying tensions in the documentation of the history of science. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

Have you ever uncovered an old photograph to find that a detail of an event as you had recalled it all your life was, in fact, misremembered? The tension between written and photographic documentation of scientific processes and events interests historian, author, and associate professor of history at Florida State University Ron Doel.

Ron Doel speaking at Columbia on March 26, 2015

Ron Doel speaking at Columbia on March 26, 2015

“The History of science is inherently multidisciplinary,” he said to an audience at Columbia University on March 26. Doel recalled being a visitor once in a history department that didn’t consider the history of science to be history. “Talk about fun tensions, right?” he said, playing to the room full of oral historians frequently at odds with academic historians who doubt the validity of oral sources. “You’re probably just going to speak equations,” he recalled them saying. “There can’t be social history of this field. It can’t connect with anything that might have to do with intellectual, social, or cultural history.” These doubts are all too similar to the ones that burden oral history work.

Doel’s work involves many methods and encompasses a myriad of disciplines. He has written extensively about the history of science, including books about pre-NASA solar system astronomy and trends in science writing post-World War II, and he’s currently working on a number of projects related to science in 20th-century America. Doel has used oral sources to enrich his work, but he is concerned with graphical methods of documentation too. A book he’s working on with Smithsonian Institution Archives Historian Pamela Henson focuses on the role photographs played in shaping popular impressions of science in America.

Doel and Henson aren’t exactly looking at the use of photography in science, but rather what both scientists and professional and amateur photographers documented of scientific activities.  

“We’re exploring that much larger universe of all the photographs that were taken at one time and the much smaller one of what gets published,” he said. “What becomes the image that publishers are trying to communicate? What seems to be in the realm of the expected?”

Historians deal with a lot of archival material, Doel explained, but many of them don’t question what has been documented, or, on the flipside, what has been excluded from the archive. Most of his colleagues go to the archives because their publisher says an illustration would be a good thing, so they go grab something but “don’t look to see what the image might be telling them.”

Certain images fulfill the public expectation of history and experience and end up shaping the “collective memory,” while others disturb it. Doel found time and time again, by uncovering photo documentation of scientific work and discovery, that the written record had been deliberately changed to mislead the public.

Photographic evidence that OHMA professors Amy Starecheski and Ron Grele were also in attendance

Photographic evidence that OHMA professors Amy Starecheski and Ron Grele were also in attendance

Doel and Henson are interested in what the photos reveal that that traditional archival narratives don’t. They’re also looking at how images of what it meant to be a scientist and do scientific work, or be in the classroom and elsewhere, were created and changed over time.

At the University of Wyoming, home to a major archive and near the site of seminal dinosaur fossil discoveries, Doel looked at a collection of photographs made by the first generation of faculty members. Newspaper stories reported men out in the fields digging for bones, but the photographs told another story. “Care to guess what percentage of women were in those geology classes?” Doel asked. “Fifty percent!”  In the registrar’s record, names were represented by initials, so it wasn’t clear what the gender composition of the lab was at the time, but photographs revealed classrooms full of women with their notebooks and women digging alongside men out in the field, too.

Women working in a lab: Hazen, Elizabeth Lee 1888-Brown, Rachel 1898-1980, New York (State) Dept. of HealthAcc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Women working in a lab: Hazen, Elizabeth Lee 1888-Brown, Rachel 1898-1980, New York (State) Dept. of HealthAcc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

“It’s a very different story if you only use the written record without integrating the photographic record,” he cautioned.  This speaks to the aim of oral history, to provide deeper documentation of time by fleshing out the written record with oral sources, particularly the voices of “social groups whose written history is either missing or distorted.”[1]  Doel admitted that this project has been on his mind, and also the back burner, for a long time. “Pam and I realized that for the rest of our lives we’d complain about it or we’d write the book,” he said. The history of science is fortunate to have them.


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[1] Portelli, Alessandro, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories. State University of New York, 1990.