Institutionalizing molecular biology in post-war europe: A comparative study

The intellectual origins of molecular biology are usually traced back to the 1930s. By contrast, molecular biology acquired a social reality only around 1960. To understand how it came to designate a community of researchers and a professional identity, I examine the creation of the first institutes of molecular biology, which took place around 1960, in four European countries: Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland. This paper shows how the creation of these institutes was linked to the results of post-war economic reconstruction. Then, it compares how the promoters of these different institutional projects delimited the goals of their discipline, reflected on its history, and suggested how research should be organised. I show how they carefully positioned their new discipline within the emerging national science policy discourse of the 1950s, and aligned it with the current vision of scientific modernity. In particular, I discuss how they articulated the meaning of molecular biology with respect to five common themes: the role of physics in the atomic age, the relations between fundamental research and medical applications, the 'Americanisation' of scientific research, the value of science in the reconstruction of national identities, and the drive towards interdisciplinary research. This paper thus demonstrates that beyond the local and national accounts there is a European history of molecular biology.
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