The Oral History Center is pleased to welcome Liz Semler, our new historian of science, medicine, and technology!
Liz comes to the UC Berkeley Library from the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Elizabeth Semler is a medical and business historian and received her PhD from the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, where her academic work focused on the relationship between chronic diseases and diet in the United States and the Nordic countries. Her dissertation interrogated the intersections of epidemiological research, American business interests, and the development of public health prevention policies in the twentieth century. During her time at the University of Minnesota, Elizabeth taught undergraduate and community education courses on medical and technological history. She also participated in numerous public-facing history projects, including museum exhibits, educational websites, and film documentaries. Taken together, this work has fed Elizabeth’s passion for collecting, preserving, and making history accessible to broad audiences.
We sat down with Liz for a Q&A to get to know her better, which is below.
Q: When did you first encounter oral history?
A: I first encountered oral history in the first year of graduate school – I had the opportunity to participate in a project documenting the history of cardiovascular innovations at the University of Minnesota. This involved interviewing practicing clinicians, research scientists, and academicians about their contributions to cardiovascular care. It was a very different experience than studying archival documents and other static sources. Although I enjoy archival work, it was exciting to be able to ask questions and directly interact with narrators!
Q: What role did oral history play in your previous work?
A: I have worked on numerous public history projects over the past decade that have contained oral history components, with topics ranging from medical to the history of computing. Oral histories were also an important component of my dissertation project, which focused on the relationship between coronary heart disease and diet in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
Q: Which interviewers have been your biggest influences, oral historians or otherwise?
A: I really enjoy listening to Anna Sale’s interview podcast Death, Sex & Money. She does a great job of discussing challenging subjects with folks and I have learned a lot about how to tackle difficult, sensitive topics from listening to those conversations. I just learned the podcast may end in December, 2023. Who knows what will happen to archived episodes, so I recommend people give it a listen while they can!
Q: What projects are you most excited to work on at the OHC?
A: I’m still in the process of familiarizing myself with upcoming projects at OHC but I’m already very excited by the resources here at University of California, Berkeley as well as in the broader UC system. As a medical historian, the collections at UCSF have grabbed my attention – I’m looking forward to building connections across campuses and, hopefully, bringing together the resources of the Bay Area in collaborative projects.
Q: What is your dream oral history project?
A: Before COVID-19 shuttered things in 2020, I was in the process of interviewing folks who had worked at the midwest-based supercomputer company Cray Research. The company’s history is really interesting but extant archival materials are minimal and little has been written about Cray from an historical perspective. I’d like to finish capturing people’s experiences at Cray, if possible!