Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Of the Writing of Biographies There is No End

Biography is one of the growth industries of this modern age – great door stop tomes of some 800 to 1,000 pages, lavishly illustrated and often sparkling with scandal. They range from the lives of twenty-something media stars to the old staples of royalty. And we all read them. How many of you can say you have never read a biography?penicillin cover

Biographies have always been popular. In the nineteenth-century worthy but dull lives of politicians were all the range, often most valuable now for the extensive quotations from the correspondence of these great men – usually men but sometimes women In 1914, copies of Sir Edward Cook’s two volume life of Florence Nightingale were presented to many of the London teaching hospitals for the edification of the nursing staff. And that was one of the purposes of biography – enlightenment through moral examples. Lessons were to be learnt from the inspiration coming from reading of a great person’s life. The attitude still persists with biographies written for children. Take this example prefacing a short account of Alexander Fleming’s life:

“It is sometimes difficult today to believe that stories of this kind are still happening – that boys and girls from quite ordinary homes, who may not have been brilliant at school, can still become as famous as any of the great figures of history. There is for example the story of the man who discovered penicillin”

(R.J. Unstead, People in History)

Fleming was actually a brilliant student but the lesson to be learnt from his life was the exemplar of a modest man who could achieve much despite humble origins. Again the rags to riches story of Fleming is not as simple as it seems, but that is another story.

Moral instruction was one aspect of biographical purpose, but another was to write history through the lives of great men and the occasional great woman. The now rightly discredited approach of studying history through the reigns of Kings and Queens was essentially using biography for that purpose. Similarly ancient history was often studied through Plutarch’s lives.

However, biography is not history, or not altogether. It could be said that history is actually the collective biography of mankind and that archives represent the collective memory. Aristotle’s views on the difference between poetry and history might, with modification be applied to that between history and biography. Poetry is concerned with universal human truths and history with particular, unique events. However, since Aristotle’s time, historiography has progressed considerably and any good history is concerned with general trends and the overall picture. By contrast biography focuses itself more minutely on one individual.

P1020524Individuals, as we all know, are full of idiosyncracies. A biography focuses on interest in the personality of the subject as much as in his or her wider significance. If Aristotle believed that the poet should be interested in something that might not happen in real life but which reflected a truth about the human condition, then perhaps the biographer is concerned with improbable actualities, what actually happened however unlikely it might have seemed. After all it is a truism that truth is stranger than fiction. Fleming’s second wife led a much more colourful life than anyone would expect of the widow of a modest bacteriologist, herself a doctor and scientist. She was involved in resistance activities against the German occupation of Athens and later against the junta. Both the Germans and the Colonels imprisoned her. For that matter, Fleming’s hobby of germ painting, using pigmented bacteria to paint pictures seems outlandish and unusual. That noted art critic Queen Mary didn’t see the point of them and loudly told Fleming so. The point is that it was this love of ingenuity and liking to play with microbes that informed his approaches to his work and made it possible for him to make his great discoveries. Lysozyme, for example, he discovered when he had a cold and a drop of nasal mucus fell on to a plate of bacteria and began to dissolve the bacteria. What is most improbable about it all is that he had also discovered a rare new bacterium Microccoccus lysodeitikus, one which is more susceptible to lysozyme than most. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of penicillin are also very similar and an amazing sequence of coincidences.

What role does the individual play in all of this? The danger is that the subject of the biography might come to assume a greater importance than it actually enjoys. Cleopatra’s shapely nose is said to have changed the course of history as if it were just that bit squatter Mark Antony might not have started the passionate affair that broke up his pact with Octavian paving the way for the foundation of the Roman Empire.

Would antibiotics have been discovered without Fleming? The answer is that they probably would have been eventually but not in the same way and probably penicillin would not have been the first. The discovery of penicillin fits into a wider context and is paprt of a spectrum of research and work involving many people. In the broad sweep of history, the individual can sometimes be forgotten, but individuals can still make a difference. Carlyle thought that history was the history of great men, a view that at times can lead to the fascist view of the superman if taken to excess. It is an approach to history often found in nursing biography and in histories of nursing. We are all familiar with the prominence given to Florence Nightingale in the history of nursing and the image of the lady with the lamp often blots out other trend sin the history of nursing. At times hagiography takes centre stage. In 1954 Zachary Cope, a surgeon, wrote a hisPenmanpbkcovertory of nursing at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, which reads like a modern version of medieval saint’s lives. Instead of dealing with periods determined by royal dynasties or reigns of monarchs, he bases his material around the terms of office of the Matrons. Each matron is depicted as saintly and as improving on her predecessor’s work. The whig idea of progress lives on in his work. By now we should be approaching a golden age. No wonder George Eliot dismissed biography as “the disease of English literature.” Too often in her time and since has the approach been sloppy and uncritical.

As a reaction to the hagiographical approach came the inevitable reaction. The idol has been set up to be knocked off her pedestal. Florence Nightingale was one of the victims of Lytton Strachey in his attack on Eminent Victorians. This, however, is a trend with most biographies. After Fleming’s death, the French author Andre Maurois was commissioned by Amalia Fleming to write the life of her husband. It is a wonderful read but far from accurate. The first half of the book deals with the romance of a rags to riches boyhood and the discovery of penicillin. The second half is the love story of Fleming and his second wife. It is very much the official portrait. Inevitably the reaction set in and by 1984 there was the knocking biography by Gwyn Macfarlane, belittling Fleming in favour of the claims of the Oxford team led by Florey and Chain to credit for penicillin. In doing so he ignored evidence that Fleming had done work on penicillin after 1929 because it didn’t fit in with his argument, even though he was well aware of the relevant notebook entries. Partisanship then must give way to the more balanced account. However, sex, scandal and a good toppling from the pedestal do sell books. Unfortunately for me the story of Fleming is much more sedate.

Fleming 017

Does unveiling a restored monument at the birthplace of one’s subject constitute bias, albeit that the book had already been published?

So, what makes for a good approach to biography.? Just how sympathetic should the biographer be to the subject? No one would want to read a biography that was totally unsympathetic – it is essential to have an interest in the person being written about if you expect the reader to be interested, It isn’t necessary to have a liking, otherwise balanced biographical studies of Hitler and Stalin might be thinner on the ground than they are. However, generally the biographer does develop some empathy for the person whose life he is recreating. Fleming has been quite a congenial companion but his silences have at times been frustrating, though the reward has come with the rare revealing phrase that allows one to get inside the man. Yet some detachment is necessary and the ability to stand back and give a dispassionate assessment. The ability to assess the evidence and cut away the accretion of myths and half truths to reveal what actually happened and understand something of motivation is essential. In many ways these qualities are very similar to that of the historian. However, the narrative structure is provided for the biographer, who has a natural beginning with the birth of his subject and a natural termination with death. Nevertheless a good biography will also be concerned with the wider picture and fit the subject in to true proportion and perspective. What was Florence Nightingale’s contribution to the development of nursing, hospital design or any of the other areas to which she turned her attention? To what extent was this activity part of a larger pattern and how does it fit into the wider picture? We are a long way from the simple narrative of a great woman.

Biography by its nature is intrusive. If it is to be truthful, it must be a warts and all picture. Yet, in the case of recent figures, there may be pressure from family and friends to leave out anything that may seem in anyway derogatory. Institutions too like to control their images and access to their records. Hospital archives, at least, are public records and access is possible subject to certain conditions, but there are a lot of private archives which are less accomodating, though often helpful once the door is opened. They may have granted access to papers or shared their memories in such a way as to impose the obligation to leave out mention of certain things. Against that there is the duty of the biographer to be honest and truthful. If Muriel Powell, reforming matron at St George’suffered from Alzheimers in her declining years, it does her no service to leave that out of her story and indeed her biographer Elizabeth Scott included it. Charlotte Bentley, an influential figure in nurse education, had Parkinson’s Disease in her later years. Should that have been omitted from her DNB entry? All of us have things in our lives we would rather forget, but in a biography they are memorialised for all time.

Access to material can be a problem even when the family allows the biographer in without preconditions about suppressing information. Sources may be scattered and not always where one thought they should be.Fleming 005 It was always believed that Amalia Fleming had deposited all her late husband’s papers in the British Library in 1965 before returning to Athens. However, when researching in to her abortive plans to set up a medical research centre there in memory of her husband before falling foul of the Junta, I discovered that the Greek government had set up a new research centre on the site at Vari, 12 miles from Athens, she had obtained from the Orthodox Church and that it housed a small collection of Fleming memorabilia with some papers. There were tiles from his lab, items of his clothing, his shaving tackle and even his slippers there, as well as a few papers which proved very useful. However, I also met the head of the Hellenic Foundation for Basic Medical Research Alexander Fleming whilst I was there. This foundation was separate from the research centre except in so far as it was the centre’s landlord. Its head was a friend of Amalia’s and the wife and mother of politicians – and, understandably, very protective of Amalia’s reputation. I was grilled as to my true motives and only then allowed to visit their offices in central Athens where there was some excellent material, not seen by anyone else since 1959. I found correspondence split between The British Library, Athens and Vari. Perhaps we should offer the Elgin Marbles in return for the Fleming papers.

Call it serendipity if you like, but persistence is also demanded of the biographer. Don’t say no. Don’t give in. My attempts to gain access to one institutional archive were at first ignored, despite my having an entrée through colleagues at a related institution. I finally copied my emails to everyone I could think of and shamed the Director into replying. His excuses were too fabulous not to be true involving foreign travel, espionage, car crashes, miracle cures and recalcitrant clerical staff. Access, after signing my life away almost, was to a few pages from the registers. I knew there should be more and tried again, this time with success.

Having got the evidence, it all needs to be assessed using similar criteria to that used by any historian. There is first of all the distinction between primary sources, which in the case of autobiographies or memoirs, for example, may be printed as well as in manuscript, and secondary sources. The secondary sources offer later interpretP1030346ations of data. They must still be looked at as it is essential to know what has already been written. As to primary sources, first of all ask who this was written for and why. A memoir is appealing specifically to posterity as well as to convince a contemporary audience by way of being an apologia. The questions one asks from other sources created for a different purpose , such as financial accounts, minutes , letters, medical records or scientific papers, mean that one looks at them in a different way and infers from them the answers that the original author never intended to answer. Historical detective work to find out what was actually going on. The skill of the historian or biographer lies in piecing together the picture, often from scattered pieces of evidence in different sources, to uncover the picture of what is actually going on. There is then a literary skill in stitching it together I a convincing and interesting tableau. What I would say is avoid unwarranted conjectures, unsupported by the evidence. There is nothing more indicative of sloppy thinking than the phrase “it must have seemed…” or “he must have thought…”

Also be wary of too much reliance on oral history, useful as it is correctly interpreted. People have false memories. .They shape things into their pictures of how things should have been, rather than how they were. Hindsight means that certain things become more important than they might have been. All of Fleming’s colleagues remembered later him having shown them the penicillin petri dish on the day of his chance observation, yet at the time they showed not the slightest bit of notice. Hundreds of people claim to have been the first person to have been given penicillin.

So why the fascination of biography? In it the particular can demonstrate the general currents of history, make more personal and accessible the broad sweep of historical events. From one person, we get an insight into how a particular individual ticks and what his or her motivation is. Biographies are also entertaining and satisfy our curiosity.

Vcan there ever be a definitive biography of anyone? No more than any history can be considered definitive, for as Pieter Geyl reminds us “history is an argument without an end.”


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This entry was posted on July 23, 2013 by in Archives, Biography, Social History, Writing Books and tagged , , .
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