Science as Autobiography


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The Troubled Life of Niels Jern

Thomas Söderqvist; Translated by David Mel Paul

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This biography probes the unusual mind, the dramatic life, and the outstanding scientific work of Danish-born immunologist Niels Jerne (1911–1994). Jerne’s Nobel Prize-winning achievements in the field of immunology place him in the pantheon of great twentieth-century biomedical theorists, yet his life is perhaps even more interesting than his science. Science as Autobiography tells Jerne’s story, weaving together a narrative of his life experiences, emotional life, and extraordinarily creative scientific work.

A legendary figure who preferred an afternoon of conversation in a Paris wine bar to work in the laboratory, Jerne was renowned for his unparalleled powers of concentration and analytical keenness as well as his dissonant personal life. The book explores Jerne the man and scientist, making the fascinating argument that his life experience and view of himself became a metaphorical resource for the construction of his theories. The book also probes the moral issues that surrounded Jerne’s choice to sacrifice his family in favor of scientific goals and the pursuit of excellence.

Thomas Söderqvist is professor of history of medicine and chair of the Department of History of Medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

“Söderqvist is astonishingly shrewd in understanding his subject and has drawn a profoundly interesting psychological portrait of Jerne that links his personality to his science.”—Alfred Tauber, Boston University

“This is indeed a highly original book, not only as the first biography of so important a modern scientist as Jerne but also for the approach it takes in presenting his psychological and philosophical makeup.”—Arthur Silverstein, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

“This fine study shows that the outstanding theoretical contributions of Niels Jerne to immunology were inseparable from his romantic persona and troubled life. Söderqvist’s deeply thoughtful approach breathes new vitality into the genre of scientific biography.”—Frederic L. Homes, author of Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA

"Söderqvist’s surprisingly frank biography creates a veritable network between Jerne’s private and professional lives. It is both a psychological thriller and a marvelous piece of popular science."—Gustav Nossal, University of Melbourne

“It is a highly unusual biography, and not only for the world of science: Its intimacy is startling. . . . This is an outstanding book: It is insightful, methodologically new and really quite riveting. When it appeared in Danish in 1998, the reviewer for the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet called it the best nonfiction book of the year. What more can I say?”—Pauline M.H. Mazumdar, American Scientist

‘This is the first and, probably for some time, the only English biography of Niels Jerne, one of the most important immunologists of our era. . . . This is a profound reading of a highly complex, intriguing personality. . . . For those who relish bending their minds around a provocation, Science as Autobiography will be highly satisfying.”—Alfred I. Tauber, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"’Remarkable’ is the term that must be used as part of each description of an aspect of this work that deserves mention. . . . An appropriate and nonjudgmental perspective by Söderqvist, whose writing ability is not to be excluded from the remarkable category. A pleasure to read. Highly recommended."—Choice

“A nuanced, seductive, and desperate psychological portrait. . . . Thomas Söderqvist’s biography is surprising, glowing, multidimensional.”—Jyllandsposten 

“Teeming with ideas and learning. . . . A bold project. . . . A fascinating read.”—Gunnar Broberg, Lychnos 

“The first biography of a scientist in recent years which, on the background of a wealth of sources, investigates the relation between life and work. . . . This book will not only be of interest for the history of science but for human life in general.”—Dr. Gunnar Kristiansen, Morgenbladet 

"If the reader is expecting a typical scientific biography, in which the famous person is catalogued and explained, a rude shock awaits. After more than ten years of meticulous examination of Jerne’s extensive papers, and 160 hours of interviews with him, Söderqvist presents a thought-provoking, surprisingly frank account of Jerne’s personal life and philosophy. . . . Where Söderqvist has undoubtedly succeeded is in revealing the startling personal journey of one of the twentieth century’s great biological thinkers, and in sketching the milieu within which cellular immunology came of age. This serious work of scholarship will be devoured both by immunologists and by a wide general readership."—Gustav J. V. Nossal, Nature

“The best non-fiction book of the year.”—Anders Bjornsson, Svenska Dagbladet 

ISBN: 9780300094411
Publication Date: March 11, 2003
400 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
55 b/w illus.