For a few weeks now (or is it months?) I’ve been struggling to get a hold of a coherent dissertation topic. I actually have a pretty good idea of the general subject I’m going to do my research on: the disciplinary splits and diversification in biology since the 1950s, especially the “Molecular Wars” between organismal and molecular biology and the history of molecular evolution, which straddled the divide. I’ve been getting to know the existing secondary material (which is very thin) and the individuals and archives that might be at the center of an extended history of molecular evolution (which are numerous).
As I collect and organize all this information, searching for a sufficiently limited yet compelling research approach, I’m increasingly drawn to the potential of prosopography (the historical study of groups of people and the connections among them). My advisor, Dan Kevles, was one of the pioneers of prosopography in the history of science with his dissertation-project-turned-first-book The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. But wikis offer the potential for a new kind of prosopography, which surprisingly has seen very little development outside Wikipedia itself. (One major online non-wiki prosopography effort is Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which has an amazing amount of information but has an all-but-useless interface.) As an experiment, I took my recent acquisition of the Evolving Genes and Proteins book (the proceedings from a 1964 conference on molecular evolution that produced a number of very influential papers) and created List of participants in the Evolving Genes and Proteins symposium. About 40 of the ca. 250 participants already have Wikipedia entries, including 22 of the 56 who contributed to the proceedings (and probably the majority of the rest will have entries as some point). If similar wiki-databases were created for other important conferences, contributors to important journals, scientists in specific fields who had been associated with specific instititution, etc. (either on Wikipedia, or elsewhere to facilitate original research), it could be the groundwork for the kind of quantitative history that social historians have been pining for but have never really pulled off. It could make prosopography (and maybe even collaborative history) worth doing.