28 June – 5 July 2005

Gathering Things, Collecting Data, Producing Knowledge: The Use of Collections in Biological and Medical Knowledge Production from Early Modern Natural History to Genome Databases

Introduction to the theme

Knowledge on life and disease has always been connected to the mastery of variety and variability. Living beings and diseases come in a bewildering multiplicity of forms. Accordingly, the collection of material objects and of data has played and still plays a major role in the processes of knowledge acquisition that characterize the biomedical sciences. Arguably, the production of biological and medical knowledge is not only accompanied, but instantiated by and depending on different forms of collections. Collections create spaces in which dispersed things are brought into vicinity, thus allowing comparison.

The Ischia Summer School "Gathering Things, Collecting Data, Producing Knowledge" addressed this fundamental issue for the sciences of life on four different levels. The first level concerned an epistemology of "worlds in boxes" (to use an expression of art historian Anke te Heesen). The activity of collecting is always accompanied by the creation of forms of miniaturization and compression. In turn, this allows patterns to emerge that would not emerge if things would remain in their natural dispersion. The School had a close look at such forms. The second level concerned the social, institutional, and cultural forms of collecting and collections. These forms have experienced very diverse historical expressions — from natural cabinets to museums to contemporary resource centers — that were analyzed in an exemplary fashion. Third, there is the issue of creating networks and forms of collaboration, such as the creation of networks of specimen and sample exchange or the organization of expeditions. They are associated with and provoked by the more or less systematic efforts of collecting things and data. Finally, gathering things and collecting data can be compared with and also result in forms of mapping that are at the same time forms of domination: mapping territories, mapping and delineating fields of science.

Preliminary program

These systematic questions — concerning matters of epistemology, culture, practice, and policy — were pursued by chosing a limited number of historically confined forms of gathering things and collecting data. The cases were chosen such that the whole historical range from the Renaissance to the age of genomics was covered, and that they exhibited interesting and complementary aspects for a discussion of the above-mentioned systematic questions. Seven cases were considered in detail, and one day of lecturing, work, and discussion was devoted to each of them:

  1. Cabinets de curiosité: Renaissance and early modern natural history collections.
  2. Botanical gardens and herbals university gardens: Pharmaceutical gardens; private botanical gardens; early orangeries; early herbaria.
  3. Specialized collections: Anatomical collections; embryological collections; taxonomic collections; teratological collections (18th and 19th centuries); wax models; glass models.
  4. Scientific travel collections: Natural history museums as deposits for travel collections; from colonial to scientific expeditions.
  5. Epidemiological and populational data collections: National registers of parasites; blood banks; medical reference centers.
  6. Repositories of classical genetics: Mutant collections; wild form collections; seed and grain collections.
  7. Data banks and resource centers in modern biomedicine: Protein and DNA data banks of various sorts; genomic data; plasmid, cosmid, and artificial chromosome resource centers.

Organization and faculty

There was a workshop session to each of the above topics and in addition, there was a series of plenary lectures covering complementary and comparative perspectives.

The school directors at this edition were: Janet Brown, Bernardino Fantini and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. The faculty gave the following presentations grouped in the following themes:

  • Natural history collections
    • Raffaela Simili: The Theatre of Nature in Ulisse Aldrovandi
    • Marco Beretta: From the Field to the Laboratory: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Natural Collections (Science Museum London, multimedia)
    • Marc Ratcliff : Classifying the Invisible: The How and Why of Otto-Friedrich Müller’s Systematics of Infusoria
  • Scientific travel collections and museums
    • Pietro Corsi: The Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and its scientific legacy
    • Gordon McOuat: “Movable Types” and the British Museum as a Center of Calculation
    • Anke te Heesen: Creating Space in Unknown Siberia: Daniel Gottlob Messerschmidt and his Collecting Techniques
  • Populational and genetic data collections
    • Staffan Müller-Wille: The Arrangement of Data and Experiments in Early Mendelism
    • Garland Allen: The Eugenics Record Office
    • Andrew Mendelsohn: Epidemiology/Populations
  • Databases and resource centers in modern biomedicine I
    • Soraya de Chadarevian: Collecting and Modern Biology
    • Bruno Strasser: A History of Sequence Databases
    • Nick Hopwood: Specimens/Models/Books
  • Databases and resource centers in modern biomedicine II
    • Lisa Gannett: Tissue Tags and DNA Databases: Epistemological Challenges Facing Population-Based Human Genome Research
    • Manfred Laubichler Biomedical Information Networks

Furthermore, one day was spent on visiting the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, including its acquarium and its biomolecular facilities.

The Tenth Ischia Summer School was funded by grants from the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, the Geneva Institute for the History of Medicine and Health, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, and each student's financial contribution.