“A good wife and a healthy child are better for one’s temper than frogs.” For Gabriel Finkelstein, Emil du Bois-Reymond was “the most important...

“A good wife and a healthy child are better for one’s temper than frogs.”

For Gabriel Finkelstein, Emil du Bois-Reymond was “the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century.” Most famously in a series of experimental works on electricity, but also in a series of public lectures that generated very strong, furious responses, du Bois-Reymond galvanized (ha! see what I did there? galvanized? electricity?) nineteenth century publics of all sorts. In Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press, 2013), Finkelstein considers how someone so famous and so important could end up so forgotten, and he does a masterful job in rectifying that situation. The book traces du Bois-Reymond’s life and work, from a childhood in Berlin, to an early life and schooling in Bonn, and then back to Berlin and beyond in the course of a mature career in laboratories and lecture halls. We meet the scientist as teacher, as writer, and as public and university intellectual, and follow his transformation from Romantic to Lucretian and his dual existence as simultaneously staunch individual and product of his class and culture. The chapters are beautifully written, and range from exploring diary pages and love letters to laboratory equipment, with stopovers to consider frog pistols and hopping dances of joy along the way. Whether du Bois-Reymond was accepting the advice of his friends (as offered above) or avoiding his underwear-proffering mother-in-law (of which you’ll hear more in the conversation), he emerges here as not just an important historical figure, but also a fascinating person who’s a joy to read about. Enjoy!

The author suggests the following links for interested listeners who would like to learn more:

  1. A short description of the book on the MIT Press website.
  2. A Q & A that goes into more detail about the book that John Horgan published on “Cross-Check,” his blog for Scientific American.
  3. Another Q & A with Andreas Sommer at Cambridge University for his blog “Forbidden Histories“.
  4. Du Bois-Reymond’s “frog pistol,” as featured in the current exhibition “Mind Maps” at the Science Museum in London.
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