On the Sunday before Christmas, I bike to the UCLA campus in Westwood for the last time. Out of breath and full of sweat after climbing the hill in a boringly radiant sun, I find professor Norton Wise waiting for me outside Bunche Hall. With a special key he activates the elevator, which takes us to the sixth floor and his office. The quarter has already ended, the campus is deserted, but the climate control still runs full power. Under these circumstances, Wise and I speak about sources, philosophy and himself in the history of science. Norton Wise was previously director of the history of science program at Princeton University, and returned to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2000 to become Distinguished Professor in History and soon Co-Director of the Institute for Society and Genetics (until 2011).
“Goedemiddag, ik had zeven boeken aangevraagd, ik weet niet of ze er al zijn?”
“Jaaaa”, zei de bibliothecaris grinnikend, “die zijn er al”, en keek naar de kar waarop de Description de l’Egypte lag opgestapeld, zeven dozen van 100×70 cm, een stapel van zeker een halve meter hoog. En dit waren dan nog alleen de platen. Ik had eerder omvangrijke werken aangevraagd, maar dit was toch wel de overtreffende trap.
Tijdens mijn onderzoek naar de (voor)geschiedenis van evidence-based medicine stuitte ik min of meer bij toeval op onderstaande brief in the Lancet van 24 januari 1976.
Why do you write?
Sir, – The number of medical papers published is monstruous large. How much has one really learned from last year’s erratic efforts to read journals? And think of all the work involved in producing the published and unpublished papers, the millions of blood-samples, and the laboratory tests, and of all the assistants, medical and paramedical, who had to be employed; and think of all the people who were measured and tested as controls. Was the primary object of all this to improve the treatment of disease or to publish papers? If the former, then publishing is only a secondary object – that of letting other doctors know something that may be of use to them. But if publication is the primary object, then one naturally suspects that the work is being done for advancement and benefit of the author(s); it is scarcely being done for the benefit of other practitioners.