The Iconography of Researchers

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In 20th-century America the public relations departments of corporations like DuPont and GE adopted the pose of a scientist inspecting a flask as an emblem of progressive research.

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Writers and academics depend on news photographers to help call attention to their work and shape their image. Can the relationship backfire? Take this item in the New York Times about the research of the Tulane university microbiologist Dr. David Mullin, who collects giraffe manure in a local zoo to help identify new microbes for producing biofuels -- almost a perfect popular science feature. Look closely at the photo of Dr. Mullin in his white coat staring warily over reading glasses at a flask of mysterious liquid. Does the pose remind you of someone else? Yes, it's Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. All Dr. Mullin needs is a bow tie and Austin Powers teeth.

In fairness to the Times, the iconography of scientists gazing at flasks of liquid has an ironic history. In the 17th century it came to represent quack doctors' claims to diagnose by inspecting a flask of the patient's urine. As late as the 19th century, it was generally avoided by painters and photographers in portraits of leading scientists and physicians. Only with Albert Edelfelt's 1885 painting of Louis Pasteur did the image become respectable again through the subject's immense prestige. In 20th-century America the public relations departments of corporations like General Electric and DuPont adopted the pose as an emblem of progressive research. (See David Nye's excellent Image Worlds on GE.)

Today the contemplated flask has lost its original stigma. It even has a certain chic: One stock photo house offers a "Portrait of a cute scientist showing a conical flask in a classroom." Still, the similarities between the Mullin and Lewis images remind us of the subliminal heritage of centuries-old satire.

Image: Shutterstock

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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