Project (2015)

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

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.