Curating Proteins and Fibers

Illustration of a amino acid chain. "Protein molecules are made up of amino acids hooked together like beads on a string. To become active, proteins must twist and fold into their final, or 'native,' configuration." Cropped. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 2020.

No 10
Navigating the Concept of Proteins
What can we learn by historicizing the scientific concept of proteins?

In this meeting, we recognized the value for historians of science in tracing the scientific trajectory of protein, both as a word and as a dynamic concept.

We commenced our discussion with Hubert Bradford Vickery’s exploration of “The Origin of the Word Protein,” published in 1950. In his book, Vickery suggested a linguistic journey, tracing the etymology of the term “protein” to its Greek root, prōteîos, meaning “the first rank” or “position.” He revelead the role played by Gerardus Johannes Mulder, a chemist who, in the 1830s, delved into the composition and properties of proteins. Mulder not only emphasized the significance of a certain substance in animal nutrition but also coined the term “protein” to encapsulate the fundamental concept he aimed to convey. This linguistic origin highlights how the development of scientific knowledge is intricately entwined with the evolution of language.

Turning to more recent texts, we delved into the introductory chapter of Nerissa Russell’s textbook Social Zooarchaeology, entitled “Beyond Protein and Calories.” Russell’s work on human-animal relationships in prehistory goes beyond the traditional focus on utilitarian aspects, like protein and caloric intake, and challenges the anthropocentric separation of humans from animals. By underscoring the blurred boundaries between humans and animals—such as presenting how animals served as currency, companions, spiritual helpers, sacrificial victims, and totems—Russell’s exploration proved valuable to our group as we sought to understand human-animal relationships.

Linda M. Hurcombe’s The Holistic Approach to Material Culture, on the other hand, challenges the conventional practice of isolating individual artifacts and encourages us to consider the interconnectedness of materials within their cultural context. The text was particularly well-received by our group as it proposes various methodological tools, such as considering aspects of material affordance, tactile dimensions, and agency, as ways to overcome the lack of tangible source material to document the ephemeral past, materials that did indeed exist and were part of people’s daily lives at the time.

We concluded the session by reading the introduction and table of contents in Vegetal Entwinements in Philosophy and Art: A Reader, edited by Aloi and Marder. The book provides a comprehensive exploration of the philosophical and artistic dimensions of plant life. Examining the table of contents allowed us to reflect upon different ways of reading and ordering a publication focusing on materials. The authors offer two approaches: a traditional approach, starting from concepts, ranging from biology to art, and their applications; and an alternative method, based on overarching themes like ecologies and diverse political frameworks. This strategy of two reading modes inspired our group to consider how the matter of proteins and fibers can also offer distinct structual insights that can help us organize scholarship in different ways according to thematic interests.

In summary, our discussion of these texts reinforced our appreciation of the dynamic nature of concepts and materials, and the interconnectedness of knowledge across different fields of study. While recognizing the polyphony of the concept of proteins, our group has observed that these texts underscore “proteins” as structured, small-scale entities that compose the bodies of animals. On a practical level, this awareness encouraged us, as historians of science, to aptly employ words that emphasize the material dimension of proteins, such as “structure,” “ scaffold,” and “composition,” in contrast to fields of study that operate with the concept of “entanglement,” which is linked to a more philosophical and abstract notion of complexity.

As we reflect on our exploration of the historical concept of the protein and holistic approaches to material culture, a few questions arise:

1. How does our understanding of proteins as the most fundamental building blocks composing the bodies of animals impact our historical approach to the physical materiality of proteins?

2. How might a shift away from anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, and towards a multispecies analysis influence and inspire our undisciplined analyses of human-animal relationships?

3. What are some innovative methodological approaches that historians of science can benefit from when studying ephemeral or perishable materials from the past?


Isabela Dornelas



Aloi, Giovanni, Marder, Michael. Introduction to Vegetal Entwinements in Philosophy and Art: A Reader, vi–xix. Edited by Giovanni Aloi and Michael Marder. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2023.

Hurcombe, Linda M. “The Holistic Approach to Material Culture.” In Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory, 1–15. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Russel, Nerissa. “Beyond Protein and Calories.” In Social Zooarcheology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory, 1–10. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Vickery, Hubert Bradford. “The Origin of the Word Protein.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 22, no. 5 (1950): 387–93.


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