Excavating the History of Biology: Q&A with Brad Bolman

The research of Brad Bolman, Founders' Circle Member in the School of Historical Studies, focuses on the history of knowledge about organisms since the nineteenth century. "I study how scientists and other interested parties come to know what an organism is, whether it’s a beagle, a rose, or a truffle," he explains. "We all have ideas about ourselves and other creatures—that pigs and humans have similar skin, for instance—but we don’t always know where these ideas come from or why they persist." Bolman tries to trace those origins and excavate the conditions under which a variety of studies and experiments that might seem bizarre today made sense to people in earlier times. Bolman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2021 and served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's Institute on the Formation of Knowledge from 2021–23. While at IAS, Bolman is working on a transnational history of mycology and fungal science tentatively titled, "The Decomposition Book."

What currently excites you about your field of research?

Working in the shadow of a disastrous global pandemic and amid vital political debates about the meaning of truth, it has never seemed more important to me to study the contexts under which scientific knowledge is produced, shared, lost, and preserved. Our world is structured by the findings of the life sciences in countless, critical ways, which just about everyone now recognizes at some level. This makes it a thrilling time to be a historian of biology, in my view.

What do you enjoy most about being a researcher?

At a fundamental level, I have always loved unraveling mysteries. Why did this random person decide to devote themselves to this topic and not that one? Is there a letter somewhere that gives a hint at the answer, or some scintillating details? How did some concept travel from one very particular place to the other side of the world? In another life, I might have made for an earnest local private eye with a very poor business sense.

Marshall A. Barber fungus
Wellcome Collection
Photograph of Marshall A. Barber, a physician notable for his study of malaria, holding a fungus

When you aren’t researching organisms and life, how do you like to spend your free time?

I am fascinated by games, everything from bridge and crosswords to historical simulations like “Civilization,” both as leisure activities and as tools for thinking about social practice, narrative, agency, etc. Other than a handful of unpublished crossword puzzles, I haven’t designed any myself, but I am always eager to try new ones.

What’s a hidden talent that you have that you don’t usually get to show off?

As a child, I spent a few summers going to theater day camps and learned how to juggle. I can no longer pull off the most impressive tricks, but juggling is one of those skills that never really vanishes. 

IAS has a long-standing tradition of afternoon tea. As an incoming IAS scholar, how do you drink your tea?

As an enduring coffee obsessive, I hope to develop a more elaborate answer to this question during my time at IAS.