The Social Origins of Life Science Disciplines in Nineteenth-Century Germany

The Social Origins of Life Science Disciplines in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Jacob K. Habinek

It has long been asserted that changing political and social conditions during the early nineteenth century played an important role in first encouraging the sciences to take the form of specialized academic disciplines, particularly in the case of the German universities. However, the processes by which university disciplines came to replace alternative means for organizing the production of scientific knowledge remain unclear. Disciplinary specialization demands not only the development of new methods and long periods of training, but also the construction of new communities of scientists: groups consisting not of peers meeting face-to-face, but rather of scattered networks of collaborators and competitors united by their interest in shared questions.

This research project attempted to determine how changes produced by state reforms, economic development, and the actions of scientists themselves in nineteenth-century Germany encouraged or discouraged the adoption of shared disciplinary identities and new methods for producing knowledge. Specifically, it examined the efforts to secure a career of a wide cross-section of life science researchers identified using the records of university faculties and cultural ministries in Prussia and Bavaria, as well as the annual meetings of the German Association of Scientists and Doctors (GDNÄ). The lives of these individuals reveal the conditions under which researchers adopted shared disciplinary identities in the life sciences—as physiologists, histologists, zoologists, and others—and how the creation of the university research institutes during this period influenced the organization of the broader scientific community.