AHA Member Spotlight: Theodore M. Porter

Theodore M. Porter

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Theodore M. Porter is a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles. He lives in Altadena, California, and has been an AHA member since 2009.

Alma mater/s:Stanford University, Princeton University

Fields of interest:
I was trained in history of science and European history. My research emphasizes the history of various modes of knowledge, especially quantitative ones like statistics, databases, calculation, rankings, and censuses. These interest me for the forms of objectivity they imply and the roles they define for scientists, scholars, and professionals. I do not rely much on quantification as a tool, but examine how it has been used, partly in mainline fields of academic science but especially in social science, social and economic administration, business, medicine, and public health. 

When did you first develop an interest in history? 
In school right through college I put much of my energy into study of the sciences, especially mathematical ones. But I always thought history was important, and when I decided a career as a scientist or engineer was not for me, I shifted to history as a major. While the history of science, for most of us who do it, is unambiguously a field of history, it provides also the opportunity to maintain, though in a different key, my scientific interests.

What projects are you working on currently? 
My main project is a book on history of eugenics and genetics from a different angle. From very early in the nineteenth century, insane asylums had been collecting information about the “causes” of insanity, among them “heredity.” As the alienists lost faith in their capacity to cure patients, they put increasing emphasis on the social functions of their institutions, including, they hoped, stopping insanity from reproducing itself. By 1900 the study of “hereditary defect” had become a vast enterprise involving Herculean efforts to assemble and use giant databases drawing from all kinds of social institutions including schools, hospitals, and militaries as well as mental hospitals. Asylum doctors were engaged in eugenics decades before Charles Darwin or Francis Galton published on evolution by natural or artificial selection. I argue that rising welfare-state institutions created the distinctive populations as well as data about them that made human genetics possible. We have been taught to credit “bio-informatics” to DNA research and the Human Genome Initiative, but in many ways it follows from this long tradition of statistical study of institutionalized populations. Even when the science seems to be sequestered away in university laboratories, it continues to depend on the work of social and medical agencies.

What is the last great book or article you have read? 
Deborah Coen’s forthcoming Earthquake Observers is a fascinating story of seismology as a kind of human science, one that, at least sometimes, allowed ordinary citizens to participate as indispensable observers  in the making of science rather than merely as targets of popularization. Outside the discipline, I like particularly the novels of Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I’ll mention a couple of movies: Good Bye, Lenin! and Kitchen Stories. I’d recommend these to almost anyone, not just historians, though they have a special charm in relation to history.

What do you value most about the history profession? 
I wish serious history were less dependent on a profession, and that as scholars more of us could connect effectively with a larger public. History matters, as we know, and serious historical explanations and practices are increasingly threatened in the public domain. The respectable press has largely joined the outcry against spurious science, but bogus history is equally rampant, and it too has regrettable real-world consequences. In my view, the profession’s most important task is to promote the integrity and vitality of history in public forums, and in particular in the schools.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
The ideal life, apart from research and teaching, would include a bike ride, a hike or climb in the mountains, cross-county skiing, or snorkeling during the day, and a concert, play, or dance performance in the evening. Not to leave out the delicious topic of food. I also love to travel, often, however, wearing my historical hat. The scholar’s life opens up travel possibilities that are all the more enticing because we so often find at our destinations colleagues and friends offering good conversation and unexpected local knowledge.    

Any final thoughts?
I’ll just put in my plug for the historical study of topics and activities, such as science, often dismissed as boringly “technical.” Some things that seem boring really are, but under the guise of technicality, much of what really matters is made to appear forbidding, routine, or inevitable. Finance and accounting are obvious and timely examples that call out for historical understanding. Medicine and technology, too, are human activities involving interested actors whose work matters for everyone. The presence of specialized knowledge is no reason for leaving such topics to specialists. When we look more closely, we find that maintaining an air of pure technicality demands constant vigilance, and that just below the surface, ironies abound. In my experience, it can be extremely funny, if darkly so, to learn how such practices are defended, what interests and what struggles lie behind them. From time to time, technical debates break through the surface of recondite routine, provoking open opposition and even calling its legitimacy into question. 

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