Historian Robin Scheffler awarded 2018 Levitan Prize

Assistant Professor Robin Wolfe Scheffler of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) has been awarded the 2018 James A. (1945) and Ruth Levitan Prize in the Humanities. The prestigious award comes with a $30,000 grant that will support his research into Boston’s biotechnology industry.

“Robin’s research will not only deepen our understanding of the development of the biotech industry in Greater Boston,” said Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “It will also reveal insights into the ways that human values, community action, and public policy converge to shape technological innovation more generally.”

Scheffler, the Leo Marx Career Development Professor in the History and Culture of Science and Technology, recently completed his first book, “A Contagious Cause: The Search for Cancer Viruses and the Growth of American Biomedicine” (University of Chicago Press), which details the history of cancer virus research and its impact on the modern biological sciences. He was notified of the award by Nobles in early December.

The Kendall Square model

Scheffler says he plans to use the Levitan Prize to explore whether there is a formula for success behind the growth of the local biotech industry.

“If so, what are the ingredients? How important was MIT? How important was the regulatory framework? How much can be planned, and how much is serendipity? Can Kendall Square be replicated?” he says. “These are some of big questions I hope my research will help to answer.”

Scheffler says biotech firms tended to cluster in tradtionally industrial areas like Kendall Square, with clusters of factory buildings that provided open spaces for changing lab arrangements, solid floors, and high ceilings — all ideal for biotechnology research.

But he notes that Greater Boston also offered a more crucial resource: people. That included not just cutting-edge researchers but also the technical workers and clerical staff who work in the area’s universities and hospitals.

“It’s not just the ideas and technical innovations,” Scheffler says. “It’s also the people. A successful industry requires people with specific skills in order to flourish, and many of those people already lived here.”

Right place, right time, right archives

To date, histories of the biotech industry have tended to center on San Francisco, not only because the Bay Area is home to some of the industry’s major companies but also because the archives of many important Bay Area researchers, institutions, and firms have long been available to the public, Scheffler says.

Greater Boston had lacked such resources until recently. Now, libraries at MIT, Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, and elsewhere have built a critical mass of archival material. One archive that has proven vital to the early stages of Scheffler’s work is the Recombinant DNA History Collection, held by the MIT Libraries and compiled by the late Charles Weiner, a professor of the history of science and technology at MIT.

In addition, Scheffler says many key players in the early biotech industry still live in and around Cambridge, and he plans to embark on a series of oral histories to enrich the more linear narrative presented by the archives.

“It’s just incredible timing,” he says. “If I had begun the project 10 years ago, the archives wouldn’t have been available. But if I started any later, I might have missed the chance to interview many of the people who were involved in the industry at its very beginning.”

A jumpstart from the Levitan Prize

Scheffler says the Levitan Prize also comes at the perfect time. “It’s thrilling to receive this award, particularly at the very beginning of a project,” he says. “This research is going to require long hours in the archives and conducting interviews, so support at this early stage jumpstarts the whole endeavor.”

Scheffler says he plans to interview not just pioneering researchers and company founders, but also the political leaders, day-to-day lab technicians, and citizen activists involved in biotech. Casting such a wide net will lead to a history that accounts for conflicts, contradictions, and dead ends as well as the industry’s successes.

“I would be so grateful if this award served as a beacon for those people whose experiences and views might otherwise not be included in official records,” he says, such as part-time technical workers, activists, and Kendall Square residents.

The Levitan Prize from MIT SHASS is awarded annually to support innovative and creative scholarship in the humanities. Established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry who was also a member of the MIT Corporation, the prize was first awarded in 1990. 

This story was prepared by the MIT SHASS Communications Writing and Editorial Group: Emily Hiestand, Kathryn O’Neill, and Daniel Evans Pritchard

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