Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Can Business History Inform History of Science?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/02 at 10:30 PM

Daniele Cozzoli used his Brown Bag Lecture to step through a detailed chronology of the development of antihistamines in France during the World War II period. The French laboratory Rhône-Poulenc and the Institut Pasteur are at the center of the early developments of antihistamine drugs in France. The relationship between them seems to have been complicated and deeply personal. For example, Ernest Fourneau left Rhône-Poulenc to direct the Therapeutic Chemistry Lab at the Institut, but then convinced his former employers to finance his new laboratory. An uneasy agreement was reached about results from the Institut would be openly published, but research conducted under the auspices of Rhône-Poulenc, either at the Institut or at the company itself, would be allowed to maintain a greater level of secrecy: “Reseachers of the Pasteur Institut [sic] were driven by scientific considerations only and by their creativity, whereas researchers of Rhône-Poulenc were subjected to strategic directions of the firm.”

Daniele Cazzoli talking about the development of antihistamines at the Chemical Heritage

Initially, French research on antihistamines was conducted at the Institut under the direction of Fourneau. Research progressed through the end of the 1930s, though it is unclear from Cazzoli’s talk how this research fit into this Institut-Rhône-Poulenc relationship. In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, Rhône-Poulenc positioned itself against the business interests of the German I.G. Farben and Bayer. Cazzoli claimed that both the German companies and the French had vested interests in maintaining the Rhône-Poulenc’s independence. Apparently Rhône-Poulenc flourished during the war, at least as judged by the number of patents they secured.

The German occupation prompted certain chemists to leave France: Rudolf Meyer came to the U.S., while his former colleague Bernard Halpern fled to Switzerland. Contact between the two led Merck & Co. to begin pursuing antihistamines. By promising a channel to U.S. markets, Merck also encouraged Rhône-Poulenc to pursue antihistamine research in France. By the middle of the war the agreements between Merck and Rhône-Poulenc had begun to fall apart, allowing the rival CIBA to step in and sign agreements with the French company.

Cazzoli ended with some thoughts about the relationship between business history and history of science. His micro-history, he claims, shows both the strategic weaknesses in Rhône-Poulenc’s marketing and, on the science side, explains the “gaps in the history of the discovery of antihistaminics [sic].” More broadly, Cazzoli wants to claim an important role for business history along side history of science when trying to tell the history of pharmaceutical companies: “History of science explains the behavior of scientists, whereas business history explains strategies of companies.”

During the question-and-answer period two people asked questions that get at the difficulty in Cazzoli’s presentation. First, what is the scientific training of the managers at Rhône-Poulenc? Were those managers advised by scientists? Were they former scientists? Cazzoli’s presentation distinguished between science and business—managers did business, chemists practiced science. This set of questions was pressing on the validity of that distinction by asking about the scientific training or knowledge of managers. Cazzoli claimed that the managers at Rhône-Poulenc all came from scientific backgrounds.

A second set of questions pushed Cazzoli further down this path. Phrased more broadly, this time the questions challenged Cazzoli’s assumption that science and business are practiced in entirely distinct spheres. Pointing to the literature that has shown how managers and other businessmen have approached their business with strong intellectual commitments and, equally, how scientists have approached their science with a keen eye trained on the economic pay-offs, the question asked Cazzoli to justify demarcating between these spheres. Cazzoli’s response was incredibly suggestive in the fine-grained detail it offered about the intellectual, social, and political commitments of the various scientists and managers involved. But he failed to connect the dots, and instead concluded that these spheres remained distinct.

I left Cazzoli’s talk unconvinced that you can, in fact or in principle, separate business history from history of science. I don’t think that such distinctions are meaningful, helpful, or even possible. I heard the final questions asking Cazzoli to defend his approach, which separated one from the other. Cazzoli’s parallel histories—the strand of business history running alongside the thread of history of science—failed to interact in a way that made either story richer. Instead, we seem to have been left with a timeline of business decisions and alliances and a timeline of pharmaceutical discoveries and drug patents. Surely we can do more than that.

Tags: chemical heritage foundation, historiography, pharmaceuticals