Obituary: Olga Amsterdamska

Historians in the News

Olga Amsterdamska, sociologist of science and historian of science and medicine, died Thursday, August 27, 2009, from cardiac insufficiency, a complication of myositis.

Olga was born in Lodz, Poland in 1953. She studied philosophy and sociology at Yale University (BA, 1975) and completed her graduate education in sociology at Columbia (PhD 1984). Her dissertation, written under the supervision of Robert K. Merton, was published as Schools of Thought: The Development of Linguistics from Bopp to Saussure (Reidel 1987). Since 1984 she has worked at the University of Amsterdam, first in the Department of Science Dynamics and more recently in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research focused on social studies of science and medicine, particularly the historical development of the biomedical sciences and their relations to medical practice.

Olga's official training was as sociologist, and she was 'defined' as science studies scholar and active in different aspects of 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science). She was the editor of the journal Science Technology and Human Values, an Associate Editor of the American Sociological Review and, together with Edward Hackett, Judy Wajcman and Michael Lynch, an editor of the New Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (MIT Press, 2007). She also served as a member of the Council of the European Association for the Social Studies of Science and Technology and Vice President of the Section on Sociology of Science of the International Sociological Association.

Unofficially, however, Olga saw herself mostly as a historian of biomedicine, or rather as scholarly hybrid. She strove to overcome artificial barriers between disciplines, schools of thought and national traditions, and to promote truly interdisciplinary approaches -- which she believed to be sadly missing in our domains of study. Her 2004 article with Anja Hiddinga on 'Trading Zones or Citadels: Professionalization and Intellectual Change in the History of Medicine' used a bibliometric approach to display the parochialism of most historians of medicine, whose references were very largely to their own, narrowly defined, field.

Her own research -- on the development of epidemiology, bacteriology and biochemistry, the history of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, or the history of laboratory testing in medicine, was decidedly interdisciplinary. She applied approaches developed by historians, sociologists and anthropologists of science and medicine in order to study different ways of conducting medical research -- in the clinic, laboratory or the field -- and to learn how the institutional and professional contexts structured medical knowledge and its development. Her masterly contribution on 'Microbiology' to the recently published Cambridge University Press volume on The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences gives ample evidence of her range, her analytical and synthetic powers, and her literary skills.

In her free time, besides enjoying family and friends, Olga read widely and voraciously, and painted water colours. She is survived by her husband, Gene Moore, professor of English literature at the University of Amsterdam, and two daughters, Naomi and Hannah.

Olga was a stimulating and original researcher, an outstanding editor, and a scholar unfailingly committed to promoting a better understanding of what science and medicine are, and how they should be studied. She was always fun, but she was also conscientious and principled. She was interested in new approaches, but she could fight hard for her positions -- as many will recall from the debate about humans as actants.

It is a tragedy that such a generous and productive scholar she should suffer years of debilitating illness and die so young. She will be greatly missed by all her colleagues and friends.

Ilana Löwy and John Pickstone

comments powered by Disqus