Yale History of Science Professor Inducted into the American Philosophical Society

Along with Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Frederic Lawrence Holmes, the Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine and chair of Yale’s History of Medicine section, was among the 47 recent inductees into the American Philosophical Society.

Holmes, who began teaching at Yale in 1964, is a history of science scholar with six books and countless contributions to professional publications to his credit. These include a two-volume biography of Hans Krebs, the 1953 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, and a book about Claude Bernard, a 19th-century pioneer in the field of physiology. He also published “Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life,” a study of the man known familiarly as the “father of modern chemistry.”

He is the recipient of many honors and awards in his field, ranging from the Schumann and Pfizer Prizes from the History of Science Society to the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society. In 1994 he was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Holmes characterizes much of his work as an attempt to answer “fundamental questions explaining how major discoveries are made.”

Holmes contends that while a book like Darwin’s “Origin of Species” might lay out major scientific discoveries, it does not tell how the discoveries were arrived at. Aided by laboratory notebooks and other records left by the scientists he has studied, Holmes, reminiscent of his sleuth namesake, says he can “follow the footprints” to “reconstruct” the process that led to the metaphorical flash of insight.

Contrary to popular opinion, Holmes argues, scientific milestones are not reached through single episodes of inspired genius. Rather, he says, “Day by day work is the backbone” of all science. Holmes says he also has been struck by the fact that investigators have been working much the same way throughout the centuries. “Knowledge is cumulative,” he remarks, indicating that every groundbreaking discovery is determined to a large extent by the discoveries that came before it.

Within that context, Holmes considers the present bio-tech “revolution” overestimated. Rather, he sees the great flowering of scientific research as occurring sometime in the middle of the 20th century, with the Watson-Crick model of DNA as a crowning event of that era.

Holmes’s most recent book, “Meselson, Stahl and the Replication of DNA: A History of ‘The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology’ ” is forthcoming.

The oldest society in the United States devoted to scholarly and scientific research, the American Philosophical Society was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin. In its earliest history, the Society counted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Marshall among its members. John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, George Marshall and Robert Frost, who have been members since then, are representative of the five divisions within the Society: mathematical and physical sciences; biological sciences; social sciences; humanities; and the arts, learned professions and public affairs.

Holmes’ research is within the humanities division.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345