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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2007

Book Reviews

Biotech: the Counterculture Origins of an Industry

Rebecca Hedreen
Hilton C. Buley Library
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven, Connecticut

Copyright 2007, Rebecca Hedreen. Used with permission.

Biotech: The Counterculture Origins of an Industry, Eric J. Vettel. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2006. ISBN 978-0-8122-3947-8. Hard Cover, $39.95.

"This is, in fact, essentially a revolutionary period of discovery." (p. 81.) That quote, from an anonymous graduate student at Stanford, not only describes the times, but also sums up the book. Eric J. Vettel, the Bancroft Postdoctoral Fellow in United States History at UC Berkeley, and Founding Executive Director of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, combed oral histories, university records, and corporate archives to assemble a compelling history of the California Bay Area biotechnology industry. This is the era before the current controversies of biotechnology: cloning, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods. The technologies discussed are the roots of our current technologies, but the conflicts that shaped the early industry are still affecting science today, especially issues of government funding, anti-science public opinion, and corporate control of research.

While the title specifies an industry, a large portion of the book is devoted to the academic roots of that industry, at the University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of California, San Francisco. Berkeley's Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory, the Medical Center at UCSF, and several other academic research laboratories are profiled. In part, this book explores the philosophical divide between "pure" and "applied" research, and the sometimes damaging effects of that divide on programs, careers, and public relations. The powerful effect of personality and worldview are also explored, such as Wendel Stanley's (the head of Berkeley's Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory) decision to reject early DNA research, which contributed to the demise of the BVL.

Vettel also traces the national trends of government funding and public opinion. The heyday of post-war "fundamental research" funding, when scientists controlled the research agenda with public money, was eventually followed by calls for either voluntary or mandated restrictions on research the public viewed as dangerous, and the book ends with the introduction of private corporate laboratories. This was the era of "Silent Spring" and the thalidomide scandal, and Vettel gives examples of both defensive and positive (and perhaps, relieved) responses on the part of researchers to the attacks on so-called "pure" research.

A central section contains black and white photographs of people and places mentioned in the text, science related cartoons, and photos covering protests of the Bay area institutions. The source notes in the back are lengthy, and organized by chapter and page number, making it easier to find references noted in the text. A separate list of sources is also included. The index is mostly personal and place names, but does include major topics, such as "federal funding" and "women bioscientists".

The main audience will be those interested in history: of science in the United States, of the Bay Area, of government spending, or of the biotech industry. The closest book to this one is probably Cynthia Robbins-Roth's From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology (Cambridge: Perseus, 2000). The two books would make good companions, since Biotech covers the very early corporations like Cetus, while From Alchemy to IPO highlights Cetus's successors, such as Genentech and Amgen. On the other hand, the books are also very different, because Robbins-Roth is a biotech industry insider and the book is business focused, while Vettel is a historian and writes about the science and the industry as embedded in the larger culture. Readers might also be interested in Universities in the Age of Corporate Science: The UC Berkeley-Novartis Controversy, a new book from Temple University Press.

Libraries with collections in the biotechnology industry, the history of science, or California history should definitely consider this book.

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