Digitizing life: The introduction of computers to biology and medicine

2006 2006

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Abstract (summary)

Digital electronic computers have become a sine qua non of almost all research in modern biology and medicine. The overwhelming majority of investigators of living processes employ computers to help them make observations, manage data, perform calculations, design and test theoretical models, and discuss their findings. Because so many experimental agendas and so many institutional norms have been contingent on the presence of computer technology, it is difficult to imagine life sciences research without it. Nevertheless, the machine's proliferation in this area was neither inevitable nor expected. Indeed, circa 1960, when computers were extensively utilized in the physical sciences as well as in administration, even rudimentary plans for their use were seldom seen in the life sciences.

In a series of case studies, this dissertation investigates how the study of life transformed from the exemplar of an area that could not be computerized to exemplar of one that could. Exploration of mid-century inquiries into the structure and function of genes and proteins as well as medical diagnosis reveals that early computerization of the life sciences (1949-1959) was heavily informed by the belief that applying the methods of operations research to biological problems would render those problems suitable for computer analysis. The computerization of biology and medicine was also the consequence of concerted efforts (1959-1965) at the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health to rationalize and mathematize life sciences by introducing computers to them---investigating the motives of computer advocates, researchers, and university administrators clarifies the very particular intellectual, institutional, and political conditions that fostered the growth of biomedical computing.

Emphasis is also placed on specific computer systems. Examining the development of MIT-built Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) (1960-1965), establishes the degrees to which biomedical research and computing transformed to accommodate each other as well as the prominent role of physiologists in biology's computerization. Discussing LINC's use illuminates the irreversible consequences of computerizing the laboratory. The Dendritic Algorithm (DENDRAL) project at Stanford University (1964-1966) sheds light on the intersection of artificial intelligence and biology as well as the growing interdependency of molecular biology and computer development.

Indexing (details)

American history;
Science history
0337: American history
0585: Science history
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; Biology; Computers; Digitizing; Medicine
Digitizing life: The introduction of computers to biology and medicine
November, Joseph Adam
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 67/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Creager, Angela
Princeton University
University location
United States -- New Jersey
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
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