Müller’s Lab

Müller’s Lab: A Multi-Perspective Approach to the History of Science

Laura Otis

The anatomist and physiologist Johannes Müller (1801–58) trained a generation of scientists who left contradictory descriptions of their teacher. By analyzing their contrasting narratives of his life as a literary scholar would analyze a multi-perspective novel, we can gain a much fuller picture of Müller’s science than can be obtained by reading any one individual’s account. When one compares the personal letters, lecture notes, and scientific publications of Müller’s students, a complex picture of their conflicts and motives emerges. Müller’s most successful students, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Hermann von Helmholtz, Rudolf Virchow, and Ernst Haeckel, have told stories about Müller which many historians of science have accepted unchallenged, but when one aligns their narratives, one realizes how much more the accounts reveal about the students than about their teacher.

Building on the work of historians Gabriel Finkelstein and Nicholas Jardine, who have shown how du Bois-Reymond and Virchow presented Müller in ways that worked to their advantage, Müller’s Lab offers a case study of how scientists’ own work and self-understandings affect the way that they represent the previous generation. The ultimate goal of Müller’s Lab is to reveal how personal relationships in a scientific group can affect decision-making, but the project also demonstrates quite dramatically how differently individual scientists can experience the same collaborations. This project sought to explore these issues as part of a multi-perspective approach to the history of science.



“The Lab as a Literary Creation,” Infectio Research Group, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Oslo, September 2005.

“Ernst Haeckel’s Deferred Action,” History of Science Society, Austin, TX, November 2004.

“Ernst Haeckel’s Evolving Narratives,” Society for Literature and Science, Durham, NC, October 2004.

"Must You Kill Your Supervisor to Do Good Science? The Students of Physiologist Johannes Müller," History of Modern Medicine and Biology Series, History and Philosophy of Science Department, Cambridge University, December 2003.

“Taking It Personally: Johannes Müller’s Lab,” Biology Department Seminar, Texas Tech University, April 2003.

“Müller’s Lab: Reading Scientific Stories,” Society for the Study of Narrative Literature, Berkeley, CA, March 2003.

“In a Nutshell: Johannes Müller’s Lab,” History of Science Colloquium, Harvard University, February 2003.

“Scientific Style: Writing Anatomy, Composing History,” Society for Social Studies of Science, Milwaukee, WI, November 2002.

“All Is True: Writing Anatomy, Comédie, and History in the Nineteenth Century,” Society for Literature and Science, Pasadena, CA, October 2002.

"Müller's Lab: Locating Truth in Scientific Narrative," MLA, New Orleans, LA, December 2001.

"Das 'Labor' Johannes Müllers: Soziale Beziehungen, wissenschaftliche Inspiration," Symposium zum 200 Geburtstag Johannes Müller, Medizinhistorisches Institut, Bonn, November 2001.

"Müller's Lab: The Struggle for Personal Space," History of Science Society, Denver, CO, November 2001.

"Müller's Lab: Conflicting Visions of Physiological Progress," Society for Social Studies of Science, Boston, MA, November 2001.

"Stories from the Lab: Personality and Politics in Scientific Narrative," Society for Literature and Science, Buffalo, NY, October 2001.

Funding Institutions

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Emory University