When people talk about becoming fast friends with someone, they often describe the experience as an easy ability to discuss anything, even the proverbial meaning of life. It’s a sign of a strong bond that you can feel vulnerable enough to share what you really think of life and how it has been lived.
What happens when it is your job to talk about the meaning of life with someone, to walk with them through the years as they take stock, evaluate failures and triumphs, and provide the odd piece of advice along the way? I would say that that is a pretty amazing job, and it is. But you also realize that one reason you are interviewing many of these folks is because they are nearing the end of their journeys. You become fast friends — one could say lifelong friends — and then, one day, they go away.
Interviewers have loss as their occupational hazard. Many of the narrators I speak with are in the late 80s, early 90s when I first sit down with them. Then it might be another twelve-to-eighteen months of interview sessions, breaks for illness and life events, reviews of transcripts, assembly of materials, publication, and even follow-up projects such as podcasts or additional interviews with others. Then – not always, but often – there are check-ins, updates, exchanges over a few years, often about more of the same: what things mean, what is important, the imperative of what we ought to do and the burden of what we often do instead. Of course, it’s important to realize that the temporary nature of our residence here is what gives life its eternal meaning. I watch people enact this understanding as they outline who they have been, who and what they have cared about, what they have witnessed, and what all this might mean for the future. But the fact is that the people I talk to become a part of me, and their departure takes my breath away, every time.
The consolation is that, if one has lived to the ninth decade, it is a kind of triumph to be celebrated and contemplated. I’m 52 years old. Although time is marching along, I am still usually at least a generation younger than the narrators I interview. Without getting analytical about it, there is just something elemental about an older and a younger person talking together. If, in general, our society suffers from too much talking and too little listening, it is especially true that we do not listen to older people often and carefully enough. An older person’s perspective is not just any perspective; it is the wisdom of a survivor. They have a visceral experience with life’s cycles and events of all kinds. Plugging into that way of knowing in these interviews is a gift. And while there is contemplation of the inevitable tragedies of life in these oral histories, and the eventual passing of these storytellers is sad, it is not usually tragic. So, accompanying a feeling of loss is a sense of gratitude and happiness that they lived a meaningful life with purpose and dignity.
I have been interviewing in earnest for about ten years, and my personal in memoriam list has increased with almost actuarial precision in 2020, 2021, and now this year.
In April, there was a memorial for economist George S. Tolley, with whom I spent a few weeks in Chicago in 2018, where I had a balcony view onto how sub-disciplines in economics developed around social and political problems: urban sprawl and housing costs, the pricing of environmental policies, economic development initiatives, and new ways of valuing health. He was 95.
In July, oral history impresario Tony Placzek passed away after spending the last four years of his life building two oral history projects, one about his dramatic family history and the other about underground political activism among physicists in Czechoslovakia. He was an inveterate optimist and a good friend. He was 83.
I first met Lester Telser at an event at which Nobel-Prize-winning economists fawned over his mathematical prowess in the jovial “taught me everything I know” manner of close mentees. He had little patience for dogma of any kind and was remarkably kind and generous of spirit. Talking with Lester was a master class in the importance of appropriate expertise and good judgment in the face of enormously complicated societal problems. As late as this summer, Lester and I were swapping tips on good papers and the hidden heroes of baroque chamber music. He died in September. He was 91.
I only met Thaddeus “Ted” Massalski briefly at a conference at Disneyworld, of all places. He talked about his incredible career as a professor of metallurgy and materials science, his key scientific discoveries and his experiences as both a refugee and a soldier during World War II. Here Professor Massalski tells the story of a narrow escape from the Nazis during World War II. He was 96.
Although I did not interview the following personally, we have lost some important friends to the Oral History Center this year: narrators and supporters Richard “Dick” Blum and Howard Friesen. Mr. Blum was a financier, former Regent of the University of California, and supporter of many causes. The Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research is awarded to an undergraduate whose outstanding paper utilizes the OHC collection. From our Regional Oral History Office community (renamed the OHC in 2015), we also lost interviewer, US political historian, and composer Julie Shearer.
For many people, the holidays can be hard for a number of reasons. One reason may be that they are a time of reflection and meaning-making, maybe a little bit like undertaking an oral history. Fortunately for me, mine involve bittersweet emotions this year. I feel lucky to have known the people who passed this year and sorry to have missed knowing the others. So, this season, I wish you peace with the difficult memories and joy with the creation of new ones with family, friends, and even the fast friends and acquaintances you have just met.
February 24th, 2022 was a date I was looking forward to, from a bureaucratic perspective. It would mark the transition to a new role here at the Oral History Center as the Interim Director. Of course, it was impossible to ignore the anxiety building about Ukraine. Even though predictions were made by many sources well in advance, the arrival of the world’s most recent invasion was no less shocking.
The invasion of Ukraine on that day was shocking. Its scale and horror were surprising to many of us. But it was not an unfamiliar story. The experience of invasion is a story often told, and it is stories, first-hand accounts, that are galvanizing tremendous worldwide support for Ukraine in this war. The power of these stories is also evidenced by their absence from the official state organs of Russia’s media, by the slippage of individual moments of protest past the censors, scrawled posters behind the measured tones of the polished presenter, by emails and texts to individual Russians from around the world, fragments of stories, coming one at a time.
Oral history in its modern form coalesced in the 1960s as a movement and an association to document the lives, experiences, and views of ordinary people, with a democratic ethos at its heart. The basic idea was that if you collected, archived, and published multiple stories from individuals and representatives of communities, they could stand in contrast to the single narrative of any social system — an institution, a government, those authorized to speak on behalf of others — which represents a tempered, aggregate, vetted version of the truth, one that may obscure or distort more than it reveals. The truth of one person’s experience is always partial to that exact extent. The collection, archiving, and sharing of multiple perspectives, it is hoped, is an incomplete antidote to conventional wisdom, dogma, propaganda, euphemism, and erasure. To the extent that these stories can be preserved, they promise to outlast the dominant truth of any particular group or era.
The theme of this year’s annual meeting of the Oral History Association is “Walking Through the Fire: Human Perseverance in Times of Turmoil.” I wish I could say the theme was prescient, but these days it is just a good title for where we are at this moment in history.
This theme and this war spark memories of interviews I’ve done over the years. Materials scientist Ted Massalski recounted his narrow escape as a boy in Poland in World War II, sandwiched between the occupying Nazis and the advancing Soviet Army. In another oral history, engineering scientist George Leitmann told me what it was like to see the Nazis roll in to Vienna in 1938. There are many other stories of the survival of invasions and evacuations in our collection, including from Russian emigres who fled the Soviet Union, from former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien or restaurateur Ceclia Chiang, who escaped war-torn China, or economist John Harsanyi, who escaped from Soviet-occupied Hungary after World War II.
Before the pandemic, I completed a project on physicists who lived through the communist period in Czechoslovakia. Speaking from the land of Franz Kafka, they described the risks of running afoul of the state while running an “underground university,” which hosted secret political discussions of smuggled forbidden texts in the 1970s and 80s, and which paved the way for the turn toward democracy in the early 1990s.
Some of these Czech narrators believe that the threat of totalitarian control never really went away in that region, and for that reason remained vigilant. I was heartened and humbled by their swift action in the face of the invasion, their efforts to influence the Russian government to reverse course, and to help incoming refugees from Ukraine. Their stories will hopefully inspire the current generation of Czechs to defend their hard-won freedom.
What makes suffering so unbearable is when it is by design. In the strategy of total war, only most recently manifested in Ukraine, the burden of injury, death, destruction, division, and separation of loved ones is planned to produce a desired outcome: the conquest of territory in the most brutal terms, but also the achievement of enforced conformity, complicity, resignation, and humiliation of the recipients of this terror, in short, dehumanization.
What can make suffering more bearable, at least from my experience interviewing people who have passed through terrible events, is when the subjects of such terror bear witness to what they endured, name it, and pass the stories of loss and survival to others as a testament to their resilience and humanity. Storytelling, in the face of dehumanization, can promise a rehumanization, of those who survived to tell the story, those who did not, those who hear the story, those who keep it, and those who pass it along.
Of course, this most acute crisis, this war, requires direct and immediate action. Part of this action is a commitment to the expression and dissemination of narratives of multiple, diverse experiences, in Ukraine, in Russia, and everywhere a single voice threatens to silence all others. As gutted as I am by the horror of this war, I do find hope in the assistance provided to many millions of those who are suffering. The stories circulating about the plight of Ukrainians are aimed most urgently at stopping the war; but they are also, I think, about spreading the load of grief and loss to any and all who will listen. They indicate what is most powerful about oral history. Stalin is reported to have said, apropos of the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians at the beginning of the 1930s: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that is only a statistic.” Apocryphal or not, the statement expressed well the numbing effect of brutality at scale. But a story is not a list of numbers; it is the meaning of an experience to an individual. Oral testimony counters the enormity of Stalinist terror with an individual experience and perspective, amplified by the number of listeners, readers, and repeaters, each connected to one person’s visceral truth.
“So oral history is interviewing.” I get this a lot from people who are trying to understand what I do for a living. Yes, the interview is the primary way in which we gather our historical data, our stories. When people think of interviews in general, however, they might think of the police interrogation, the oral examination in schools, the journalist’s scoop, even an anthropologist’s study of a community, amongst other examples. Near the end of his life, philosopher Michel Foucault was hoping to do a large research project on the interview and the examination as sites of power relations. He could not have been more astute. In each of the examples above, control rests almost completely with the interviewer. The interviewers extract information from the narrator for their own purposes, often without consideration of the interests of the narrator, and sometimes directly against their interests. Sometimes narrators are allowed to see the resulting work; often they are not consulted.
By contrast, oral history as a disciplinary academic practice and as a social movement begins and ends with the problem of power. It’s not that we can get rid of power; power is interwoven through our relationships. Oral history methods acknowledge power relations as a problem to be managed, helping to ensure that the narrators tell the stories they want to tell. We begin with a process of informed consent, so that narrators know what to expect from beginning to end, and that they have the power to withdraw from the work at any moment, even after the project is finished. We then engage in a period of planning and research. Although a spontaneous, cold interview might seem more authentic, what happens in those cases is that the narrator is often at sea in their memories, their real-time decision-making about how to present themselves, and their anxiety about which stories to tell, in how much detail, and with what words. And then we are right back to the problem of the interviewer controlling the scene. By collaboratively planning in advance, the narrator and interviewer build a bond of trust and a plan around the nature of the storytelling.
And when the interview happens, we can both relax, and that’s where it becomes spontaneous. I call it “planned spontaneity,” with a heavy debt to Miles Davis’ approach to “controlled freedom” in jazz performance. Telling a story is like singing; it is singing. It can be an emotional performance of your deepest truths. I’d be tempted to say that the interviewer is the impresario in this metaphor, arranging things so that the narrator’s story shines. But my ideal role would be to serve as both the room and the audience, to let the narrator hear their own voice reflected from the back of the hall, and to see and sense the audience’s engagement with the performance. Ask any singer, and that’s what they need for a good performance; they need feedback from the audience and to hear their own voices.
That’s why, during the interview, I “read back” what I’m hearing periodically to give real-time feedback. But we also transcribe the interview so that the narrator can review what they have said and decide if that is the final form of the story, making changes as needed. Then we ask them to sign off on the finished product, with some guarantee of access to the narrator and their communities. All of these practices together form a set of protections that maximize the narrator’s power in forming, telling, and preserving stories for the future.
The problem of power might be mitigated by this set of practices, but power is always unfinished business. There is the history of the interview itself, whose reputation for extraction, exploitation, and manipulation is not lost on many communities. There is the university, a site of state, political, and economic power, and the authority to include or exclude that hangs over the interview. Anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot wrote about the ways in which the decision about what gets included in archives is the first and perhaps most important violence done to history. Narrators and interviewers come to the interview within multiple, overlapping sets of power relations, exclusions, and hierarchies that threaten to distort and even block trustful communication.
For the interviewer’s part, there are two basic orientations that help with – but do not solve – these problems. The first is empathy. I have interviewed a lot of powerful people, people who might seem from a distance invulnerable, privileged, at ease. I hate to sound obvious, but everyone has experienced exclusion, denigration, and trauma of some kind in their lives, often of many kinds. Sometimes exclusion is a source of pride; but it is most often a source of pain. I have a lot of power and privilege, but I can tap into experiences of the exercise of arbitrary authority, exclusions, bullying, violence and trauma in order to attempt to connect to those who have experienced far greater violence, who have lived lifetimes inside social structures of exclusion and trauma. But if we amplify voices of the excluded, we have to understand that connecting and collecting can too easily end up as claiming and taking.
Empathy is only one part of it. That assumption of some kind of access to another’s experience is another problem of power and privilege. Interviewers also have to begin with the assumption that vast oceans of human experience elude them. Research can help, but a fundamental orientation of humility and respect is required to establish a bond of trust with a narrator. Is there some core of human experience that we all share? Of course. But history shunts us all into patterns of human experience that are both radically different and arranged in a long list of intersectional hierarchies of arbitrary value – race, class, gender identity and orientation, citizenship, disability, body politics, and surely more structures which we as a society have yet to recognize, never mind address. All of that comes into play in the interview encounter, and it may determine whether the interview happens at all. A humility before this pageant of exclusion is the necessary companion to empathy.
What I’m presenting here isn’t new. The oral history community has been wrestling with these questions for a long time, especially with its frequently expressed commitment to using oral history to explore those hierarchies of value, to shine a light on and validate the experiences of the excluded and the othered. Although I’m an oral historian, I’m also a historian of science. One of the things I’m interested in is how disciplines define themselves. One of the patterns about knowers in a discipline is that they are sometimes poor interpreters of their own origins and practices. Researchers often have the hardest time seeing the very spot from which they observe. It may be precisely because of their commitment to reflexivity that oral historians may not be able to see, or perhaps hear, these challenges. We check our audio equipment, but sometimes we don’t check how we are listening, or whether we’re able to hear something at all. Our most important listening equipment is between our ears, or maybe inside our chests, and limited by our lived experience and frames of reference. What we need to continually re-examine and affirm is our commitment to empathy, humility, and trust in our work.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to “sit down” remotely with my colleague Shanna Farrell to talk about her new book A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits, out last month with Island Press. I wanted to ask her about her book in light of her experience and perspectives as an oral historian.
Burnett: Throughout the book, you are careful to situate yourself in terms of race, gender, and nationality, and you identify and explore the racially exploitative history of spirits production. How did you approach race and inclusion as criteria in your interviewing?
Farrell: Race and inequality is a very important aspect of the beverage industry and a topic that isn’t always highlighted in a story. I felt that it was necessary to acknowledge the exploitative history of a few spirits in the book, especially when it comes to the link of slavery and colonialism. The book tells the story of the people who make, or made, each spirit, and this includes enslaved people. The spirits industry wouldn’t exist without them and it is crucial that their contributions be recognized, as well as the systems of power, such as colonialism, that impact their place on the global stage. I also wanted to acknowledge that I’m not always the best person to tell specific aspects of these stories, like the chapter on agave. As an oral historian, I ask people to narrate and make meaning of their own lives, and wanted someone from Mexico to tell the story of mezcal. I’m grateful to those who were willing to share their stories.
Burnett: Could you tell us about influences on this book project, and how you thought about distinguishing your own voice as a writer?
Farrell: Though I write non-fiction, I read a lot of fiction. Narrative, structure, and imagery are all big parts of how I think about literature, my work as an oral historian, and as a writer. Topics related to sustainability can sometimes feel heady or overly scientific, so I wanted to make the book approachable for readers so they could connect to environmental issues. I channeled my favorite fiction and poetry prose when I was writing with the hope that the audience would find it engaging.
Burnett: Trust is such an important factor in oral history work. Tell us about how you built trust among the various communities you worked with for this book. What were some of the challenges to be overcome?
Farrell: Trust is crucial. Like in oral history, my work with the narrators in A Good Drink were built on relationships. I’d been bartending for over a decade when I was making these connections and I relied on the cocktail community to introduce me to narrators. I used a lot of oral history methods when I was getting to know these folks, like being transparent about what I was doing (writing a book), asking for consent to record them, and allowing them to review the section of drafts that they were in. These methods were paramount in gaining trust and I’m still in touch with many of the people in the book.
Burnett: In oral history, we’re used to helping narrators make meaning out of their stories. Can you tell us about how you balanced that approach with your role as sole author?
Farrell: I was interviewing people about their approach to sustainability when making spirits or mixing drinks and we’d often discuss the implications of their various models on the environmental, like carbon footprints and climate change. While my interviews for this book were not so much life histories–wherein narrators are asked to reflect back on their lives and make meaning of them more explicitly–the people featured in my book had the opportunity to see where their work fit into the big picture. From there, I shaped the narrative to illustrate a spectrum of ways that eco-consciousness extends from the farm to the distillery, instead of a “one size fits all” approach.
Burnett: Did your interviewing process change as you moved through the project? Did the interviews become more focused, for example?
Farrell: I used oral history interviewing techniques with most of the interviews I did for the book. In many cases, we started at the beginning of someone’s life or work to understand how they became interested in the environment and when they realized it was possible to incorporate sustainable practice into making spirits. Some of the interviews, especially the ones that I did during the COVID-19 pandemic, were remote, so we took more of a topical approach because of the interview format. I asked both specific and broad questions in each of the interviews, and many follow-up questions. I also did quite a bit of field work, which included distillery and farm visits, so these experiences were blended into the interview process.
Burnett: When you began your project, you had a pretty clear idea of the themes you wanted to explore, such as sustainability. What were some themes that emerged from the interviews themselves, and how did you incorporate them? Did some topics or themes emerge that didn’t quite fit this project that you might want to work on in the future?
Farrell: Sustainability was the organizing theme from the very start of this project. But each category of spirit has a different set of circumstances because the source material–the raw ingredients, like corn, agave, sugarcane, and pears–all grow differently. It’s possible to practice crop rotation for some of these crops (like corn) but not for others (pears), so I learned that there are complex challenges for each corner of the market. We can’t judge all spirits the same way, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Burnett: You write that the project began with your realization that there was an unsung world of distillers who thought about spirits as slow food. What’s great about your interviewing is that you really get inside what slow food, organic, community farming, and farm-to-table practices mean to people who do this work. My impression is that storytelling seems to be inseparable from the products your narrators produce: “Know what you are drinking;” “We’re talking about how a bottle tells a story.” Put another way, part of the value of the product is the story of making it, the cultures that surround it. To the extent that that’s true, did you adapt your interviewing style and your own storytelling to this context?
Farrell: You’re right–the story of how these spirits are made is an integral part of their identity and what gives a distiller a unique voice in a crowded market. I was aware of this going into the interviews, so I didn’t change my style of interviewing very much. Instead, I spent a lot of time talking to people about farming practices and how to capture the essence of the ingredients in a bottle, which isn’t something you hear much about when people talk about spirits. I was less interested in how spirits are aged or what type of wood they rested in–aspects that dominate most of these conversations–and focused on the origin story of each of the products. I found that the people who were really thinking about how their spirits are agricultural products and how they fit into the food system had a lot of say about this, so I knew I was hitting on an important topic.
Burnett: On the producer side, this is a story of small, innovative entrepreneurs lifting up local work and community and environmental values. But on the consumer side, these often involve quite expensive products and practices. Given your last chapter on the prospect of scaling up these small, artisanal practices, are you optimistic about greater accessibility down the road on the consumer side?
Farrell: I’m very optimistic that these products will be more accessible down the line, not just in terms of price but in where they are available. In the book, I focused on one of the spirits in their line, but many of the narrators have many more products that sell for various prices. It’s not cheap to make high quality products so I don’t think a bottle of Jimmy Red will ever cost $15–and it shouldn’t–but they have other products that aren’t as pricey. And while many of these producers are distributed nationally, some aren’t; I’m hopeful that someday soon they’ll be more widely available so we can all try just how delicious a sustainable spirit can be.
A Good Drink is available at your local independent bookstore.
I realize that the title of this new oral history, “Bruce N. Ames: The Marriage of Biochemistry and Genetics at Caltech, the NIH, UC Berkeley, and CHORI, 1954–2018,” can give the impression of a sequence of institutional histories framed by the life of one researcher; it’s really more about a certain type of scientific inquiry that manifests itself as a career that is both varied and foundational to the work done at each of these places. Dr. Ames studied with H.K. Mitchell at the California Institute of Technology at the beginning of the revolution in molecular biology, which was the coming together of genetics, or the study of inheritance and development, and biochemistry, or the study of the chemical processes that underlie cellular processes. A key part of this revolution of course is the discovery of the helical structure of DNA by James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and Francis Crick at Cambridge University. But to boil it all down, it became possible to see biochemical processes functioning not only as reactions to changing environments but also as the expressions of a genetic code that could be “switched on” or repressed experimentally. At Caltech, Ames displayed the kind of curiosity that endeared him to scientists like Max Delbrück, whose “phage group” was beginning to look at these biochemical mechanisms of genetics.
There was just a handful of sites in the early 1950s where this new work was being undertaken. Although Ames did his graduate training in biochemistry, he was always “hopping the fence” to look at what was going on in other disciplines, especially genetics. He joined the National Institutes of Health in 1953 as a fellow, and rose to become the Chief of the Microbial Genetics section in 1962. During his time at the NIH, Ames split a fellowship year at Crick’s laboratory at Cambridge and another at Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod’s laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. Historians of science have recorded their suspicions of some of these famous scientists, who learned of Ames’ idea that the biosynthetic pathways of histidine were achieved through the activation of several coordinated genes, which led to Jacob and Monod’s theory of the operon—which is a cluster of genes expressed by a common promoter—without attribution to Ames. Asked about it decades later, Ames seemed surprised that historians of science had documented this observation. But these research programs in which Ames participated laid the foundations of the molecular understanding of life: in 1961, Sydney Brenner (Crick Laboratory) and Monod published the discovery of messenger RNA, or mRNA—a copy of DNA that initiates cellular processes—which is the foundation of the new vaccines developed to protect against COVID-19.
What becomes apparent reading Bruce Ames’ oral history is that he himself functioned as a kind of synthesizer. A restless mind began a research track, produced results, but then became distracted by an active curiosity with respect to research in other areas of biology, or even in social sciences or political philosophy. In the labs he ran at NIH, UC Berkeley, or the Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute, Ames generated interest among colleagues, post-docs, technicians, graduate students—even among undergraduate students or amateur activists—to undertake research in a new direction. Once the program was off the ground, Ames was often already thinking about new areas of research.
Such was not always an easy path, as the expected institutional rigidity and disciplinary boundaries sometimes made for cool receptions when Ames attempted to enter a new field. In the mid-1960s, just before he moved from the NIH to take up a professorship in biochemistry at UC Berkeley, Ames became interested in the chemical preservatives in potato chips. This was the beginning of a long research trajectory in genetic toxicology, or the impact of toxins on DNA, at a time when the relationship between DNA damage and diseases such as cancer was poorly understood. Out of this research, Ames developed a simple inexpensive bacterial test for the mutagenicity of chemical substances, what became known as the Ames Test, which cut dramatically the time and money it took to determine the degree to which chemicals caused cancer using the standard method, animal trials. In the wake of this success, Ames was also frustrated by what he saw as the institutional inertia and the misunderstanding of critics of science and industry. To advocate for a more balanced view of modernity, Ames applied his test to the plants humans eat every day, and found mutagenic chemicals that are produced by the plants themselves in far higher doses than the trace amounts of pesticide residues that accompany them.
In 2000, Ames retired from UC Berkeley and became a senior research scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute until his retirement in 2018. During this time, Ames followed the logic of his inquiries into plant toxicity to examine nutrition, specifically the micronutrients that protect our DNA from these mutagenic chemicals or processes. He then embarked on a third career — or fourth or fifth, depending on what we count — of research on micronutrients. With over 550 publications, he is among the top hundred most highly cited scientists across all disciplines. But perhaps more interesting than the story of a peripatetic and pioneering mind is Ames’ frequently proclaimed reliance on the talents of other researchers and technicians, whose widely varying backgrounds and skills, including those of his wife and fellow UC Berkeley scientist Giovanna Ferro-Luzzi Ames, complemented his talents and made the research possible. From oral histories of top scientists, we can easily conclude that science is about leadership, but the skill of leadership is revealed over and over to be the identification, nurturing, and coordination of diverse talents. That will surely be another of Dr. Ames’ lasting contributions to science.
This interview with University of Chicago economist George S. Tolley is the latest in our series of interviews with Chicago economists as part of the Economist Life Stories project. However, along with this twenty-hour interview, we are also releasing online for the first time the oral history with his father, Howard R. Tolley, first head of UC Berkeley’s Giannini Foundation, and chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (USDA) during the New Deal and World War II. This interview, conducted by Dean Albertson in the early 1950s, comes to us from the archives of the Columbia Oral History Project, which graciously granted permission for us to publish these interviews together.
These interviews will be of enormous importance to historians who are interested in the social and political contexts of the social sciences. Economists at the University of Chicago have been deeply involved in policy advocacy and policymaking since the beginning of World War II. Growing up in Washington during the Great Depression, with a father who was responsible for analyzing and providing solutions to Depression-era farming, George S. Tolley felt that economics was the calling of his generation: to figure out how to prevent such a calamity from ever happening again.
George completed his PhD at the University of Chicago with Theodore Schultz and D. Gale Johnson in the 1950s, and returned as faculty in the 1960s. Schultz was the impresario for the department during this period, bringing his ethic of service to the nation, along with many important contacts. G.S. Tolley was part of Schultz’s agriculture group at Chicago, in which many prominent economists researched problems of agricultural modernization, whether in the rural US or around the world. True to this spirit of service, Tolley became the Director of the Economic Development Division of the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture in 1964-65, and in 1974–75, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Tax Analysis of the US Department of the Treasury.
As an outgrowth of his research on resource use and farm labor migration, G.S. Tolley was in on the ground floor of two new research areas, urban economics and environmental economics, neither of which could be more topical today. He also consulted widely for federal, state, and municipal agencies on urban and environmental problems from the 1960s until the present day, both as an academic and in his capacity as CEO of his firm RCF Consulting, Inc. As agricultural economics became central to policymaking in developing countries, so too did urban economics, as megacities mushroomed across the globe, echoing the influence of the agriculture group in this domain. In the late 1980s and 90s, George also produced a seminal work on health economics, which moved the field to a broader view of the economics of wellness.
Social sciences emerged to identify, define, and address the social problems and challenges of the age of which they were a part. If we think of the ideal of science as a belief in the possibility of making knowledge that stands independently of the biases, instrumentation, and idiosyncrasies of observation and experiment, we can understand what the social scientist is up against. Notwithstanding the commitments of many social scientists to such an ideal, it’s impossible for them to escape the social context in which they operate. Both of these oral histories chronicle policy controversies and challenges, and the emergence and evolution of sub-disciplines to tackle particular social problems (low farm income, labor migration, housing inequality and urban sprawl, management of natural resources, or the management of an insurance-based health care system). And both economists focused on the economics of human geography, the price of proximity to markets, opportunities, amenities, and resources. But the larger pattern in both life histories is this: the higher the political stakes of an area of research, the greater the social scientist’s commitment to an ideal of value-free science, often out of sheer necessity. George S. Tolley’s basic approach in his career was humility before the complexity of economic and social phenomena. But that approach becomes a policy orientation in itself: careful analysis of blanket prescriptions or proscriptions, and an understanding of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned plans, an orientation he passed on to his many accomplished graduate students.
When I asked John Prausnitz about his interest in science growing up, he said “I really recognized that chemistry is life. Chemistry is how we live, and the body, what we eat, and what we inhale. Chemistry is it.” This is one key to understanding John Prausnitz’s approach to science and to life. He doesn’t separate them. His intellectual pursuits are not narrow. Although less and less so, engineering can still be understood as “mere” applied science, a question of fitting the fundamental principles long ago worked out by pioneering scientists to industrial or commercial processes. If this supposition was ever true, it really began to come apart around the time that Dr. Prausnitz entered the field of chemical engineering in the 1950s. And while he faced a brief moment when a possibility of a career in the private sector was presented to him, he quickly chose instead to devote his entire career and the rest of his life to UC Berkeley.
The mind of Dr. Prausnitz works on at least two tracks. First, he considers the challenges beyond the confines of the academy; but he also ranges widely over scientific and humanities literatures for tools to help him to interpret and solve these problems. He was a key mover in the foundation of the field of molecular thermodynamics: using the principles of molecular behavior worked out in physical chemistry to predict properties and behavior of mixtures of substances in various states. The scope of this revolution in engineering is hard to grasp until one considers the fact that many large-scale chemical processing factories were designed, constructed, and operated without careful consideration of chemical behavior at the molecular level. Some of his models that simplified the interactions of types of molecules were adopted by entire industries and would dramatically improve their efficiency and efficacy over the decades.
By immersing himself in the literatures of different scientific disciplines, Prausnitz attacked problems with a much broader perspective than if he had stayed in his field, respecting the boundaries of disciplines. Over the decades, Dr. Prausnitz has also been a witness to the expansion of the field of chemical engineering, from petroleum production processes to electro-chemical engineering to bioengineering. Prausnitz was not merely a champion on the sidelines of these new subfields; he immersed himself, quite late in his career, in molecular biology in order to collaborate on contributions to bioengineering, drawing especially on work with the Department of Energy in its sponsorship of biofuels research. Again, Prausnitz brought to bear his expertise in molecular thermodynamics to help place the research on a stronger footing.
Always, however, Dr. Prausnitz was thinking about the larger context and meaning of the work, and as an academic, this meaning had a lot to do with teaching and students. Like all great mentors, he took an active role in the progress and wellbeing of students and collaborators. As an enthusiast of the history of science, he understands that science is above all a human endeavor and a social process.
– Paul Burnett
These times pose great challenges for us as individuals and as a nation. We are being called upon to look beyond our own narrow interests and to make changes in our behavior to keep ourselves and others safe. In reflecting on my interviews over the past year, most of which are not yet publicly available, I see people who have identified problems and engaged with them directly. I see people having hard conversations, which includes taking some degree of responsibility, either personally or institutionally, for something that has gone wrong, or that has been going wrong for quite some time. I see people who act in accordance with their values.
In the San Francisco Opera project, I see Dramaturg Emeritus Kip Cranna and former General Director David Gockley having difficult conversations about budgets and staffing during periods of crisis, which, in the arts, is always a relative term. I see former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau spending a lifetime advocating for the excluded and disadvantaged, and taking criticism after making difficult administrative decisions. I see Susan Graham—one of the first professors of computer science at UC Berkeley—participating in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that was established during the Obama Administration, which recently warned the federal government of the urgent need to replenish the national stockpile of personal protective equipment that had nearly been depleted after the H1N1 pandemic. And although I did not conduct the interview with nurse administrator Cliff Morrison, I felt close to his story, as it features prominently in the podcast I worked on about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. After spending a career caring for people living with AIDS, Morrison is currently participating in a study of the long-term effects of COVID-19, having contracted the disease while performing similar acts of service in this latest pandemic. In Cliff’s story, he took the step—audacious for the early 1980s—of asking patients what they needed and providing it for them, overriding an established hierarchy in the hospital by doing so. Although he was not the first to suggest patient-centered care, his act of courage was an important catalyst for the development of the “San Francisco Model” of nursing care that has since become a standard around the world.
But one of the interviews that really stays with me is with Bob Kendrick, who had a 60-year career in the mining industry. He tells a story of a mine accident that happened while he was the superintendent. What he relays in the story—and the fact of his telling it—is an example of taking responsibility that I take to heart.
And finally, there’s the oral history of George Leitmann, an engineering science professor at UC Berkeley who returned to Europe and risked his life to fight the Nazis and to make the world a better place.
In recent months, we have all been reminded, again, of the call to respect one another and to act to reduce harm to others, whether this involves simple acts of observing public health recommendations or speaking out and acting against organized discrimination, implicit bias in our own work, and systemic problems with police brutality against African Americans. Many of the oral histories listed below are examples of people who have spent their lives serving some idea of the greater good. I am grateful to all of my narrators this past year for reinforcing the importance of stepping up and taking responsibility for the world we live in, and the world we want to live in.
This year, we celebrate the completion or near-completion of the following interviews:
Bob Kendrick – Global Mining and Materials Research
George Leitmann – University History
John Prausnitz – University History
Bruce Ames – University History
Robert Birgeneau – University History
Susan Graham – University History
David Gockley – San Francisco Opera
Kip Cranna – San Francisco Opera
George Tolley – Economist Life Stories
A large number of recent news items have reflected on our current crisis by looking to the past for comfort, commiseration, and even some answers. My own writing on this is no exception. However, we need to be very careful about how we use history to inform our current context.
“Were masks effective in the 1918 flu?”
I was recently asked this question for an article that just appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a fascinating exploration of the politics of masks in California during the 1918 flu, and the fact that Mayor Davie of Oakland was jailed for not wearing a mask in Sacramento. However, my statement at the end of the article, applied historically, is not correct by itself. I’m quoted as saying the gauze masks of 1918, “may not have been much use to the user but did offer protection to those around them.” I had in mind the ultimate public health lessons learned from the 1918 flu way down the line, in a study concluded a little more than ten years ago.
But back in 1918, public health leaders who studied the problem thought that the mask laws and mask use by the public were minimally effective.
This is from a study published in 1919 by the California State Department of Health. The above graph showed very little difference in death rates between Stockton, which mandated the wearing of masks in public, and Boston, which did not. So, early on, authorities were skeptical of the effectiveness of masks, but they also felt that masks were not used properly.
Part of the disappointment was that medical authorities had advised using medical gauze, which had a tighter weave than what most people understood as “gauze.” Then as now, not everyone had access to the personal protective equipment solutions that were recommended. People were using cheese cloth for masks, with predictable outcomes. The problem was the user. A more pessimistic appraisal of masks came in a study published in 1921 by physician William T. Vaughan:
“One difficulty in the use of the face mask is the failure of cooperation on the part of the public. When, in pneumonia and influence wards, it has been nearly impossible to force the orderlies or even some of the physicians and nurses to wear their masks as prescribed, it is difficult to see how a general measure of this nature could be enforced in the community at large.”
William T. Vaughan, Influenza: An Epidemiologic Study, (Baltimore, MD: American Journal of Hygiene Monographic Series, No.1, 1921) 241.
Mask skepticism was officially sanctioned by the Surgeon General of the US Navy in a 1919 report:
“No evidence was presented which would justify compelling persons at large to wear masks during an epidemic. The mask is designed only to afford protection against a direct spray from the mouth of the carrier of pathogenic microorganisms … Masks of improper design, made of wide-mesh gauze, which rest against the mouth and nose, become wet with saliva, soiled with the fingers, and are changed infrequently, may lead to infection rather than prevent it, especially when worn by persons who have not even a rudimentary knowledge of the modes of transmission of the causative agents of communicable diseases.”
“Epidemiological and Statistical Data, US Navy, 1918,” Reprinted from the Annual Report of the Surgeon General, US Navy, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919) 434.
Although the Surgeon General of the US Navy acknowledged that wearing masks by hospital staff was good practice, “the morbidity rate, nevertheless, was very high among those attending the sick,” and may only have prevented infection from a direct, close hit from a cough or sneeze of a patient. The protocols followed in the contagious annex of the US Naval Hospital in Annapolis, MD, were sufficient to prevent cross-contamination of “cerebro-spinal fever” (aka meningitis), diphtheria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and German measles. Not so with influenza. In fact, the infection rate of staff was as high in the high-protocol wards as in the improvised hospitals. In one improvised hospital at the Navy Training Station in Great Lakes, IL., the infection rate was higher among those corpsmen and volunteers who wore masks than those who did not!
But what did all of this mean? Again, a discussion of a specific piece of technology by itself is not enough. This was not simply a question of “mask or no mask,” but of design, construction, supply, and use. The wearer needed to use a well-designed mask properly, and change masks frequently. Therefore, most of the expert complaints about masks around the Spanish Flu pandemic in the US seemed to be about the users and reliable access to steady supplies of properly constructed masks, not the concept of wearing a mask.
Indeed, that’s what the research team led by Howard Markel found when the Pentagon asked them to study the Spanish Flu pandemic. In 2007, they published their report on non-pharmaceutical interventions during epidemics and found that there was a “layered” effect of protection by using multiple techniques together: school closure, bans on public gathering, isolation and quarantine of the infected, limited closure of businesses, transportation restrictions, public risk communications, hygiene education, and wearing of masks.
So the key historical question here is not whether or not masks were useless. The broader, more troubling historical pattern that Erika Mailman revealed in her article is clear: the problem of public trust in public health. Some Americans, then as now, do not like being told what to do.
They especially do not like being instructed by “experts.” Americans arguably had more respect for expert authority during the flu pandemic than they do now, but even then, some would wear masks in public to comply with the law, then remove them when they went indoors, in close quarters with others and with poor air circulation, when they needed protection the most. Mayor Davie’s casual rebellion aside, citizens might grudgingly comply with the letter of the law, but not its scientific spirit. I’m reminded of a recent TikTok video of a woman in Kentucky who entered a store wearing a mask with a long slit around the mouth because it “makes it a lot easier to breathe.” Another problem, then as now, was that the right equipment in a time of crisis was unavailable. So people made masks with what they had available. But a cheesecloth mask was probably worse than no cloth, especially if they touched it frequently and changed it rarely.
A public health technology such as a mask is not just a simple, inanimate object. It’s the care with which it is designed and constructed; it is the infrastructure that can assure a steady, sanitary supply; it’s the use of one technology and practice in conjunction with others, and it is especially the informed users who take responsibility for their own health and those of their fellow Americans. Going back to the graph near the beginning of this blog post, we see that the curve of the death rate was bent by this layering of multiple public health interventions. Masks were not used widely and well enough to make much of a difference, but public health authorities tended to believe in their effectiveness for front line workers exposed to the worst of the flu pandemic. If we invested more in public health research, primary health care, and public health education, we could improve even more the quality and quantity of these layered non-pharmaceutical interventions, which worked together in 1918-19 and which are working now. We can do better with building our communication and trust so that all of these measures can work together. But for them to work together, we have to work together.
Many comparisons have recently been made between COVID-19 and the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19. There has also been a lot of great research by historians into that pandemic, specifically to discover any lessons that might apply to future pandemics. Historians of medicine Howard Markel and Alexandra Stern at the University of Michigan conducted a large study of the Spanish Flu in the wake of the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. One of the most important lessons they learned was the difference that social distancing could make. Remember the graph that was in the news early on in the COVID-19 pandemic which showed the differences in case-fatality rates between Philadelphia and St. Louis? This is where the evidence for the concept of “flattening the curve” comes from. The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the same effort then compiled all kinds of information in an online encyclopedia of the Spanish Flu.
We at the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley have our own stories that touch on the Spanish Flu. Using our “Advanced Search” fields in our collection’s search engine, you can search using a number of terms to bring up these oral histories. I found eight for “Spanish Flu,” accounting for duplications. But it’s important to try different search terms. When I searched “flu” and “1918,” I got 591 hits. And when I pull up an oral history in PDF form by clicking “view transcript,” I hit Ctrl-F (or Command-F if you have a Mac), and type a search term into the field. When I hit “Enter,” I’m taken right to each location in the transcript where that word is mentioned, in sequence. A lot of the mentions of flu come from our Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront Project and a series on Russian immigrants to the US that was conducted by UC Berkeley Professor Richard A. Pierce in the 1960s and 70s.
Usually there is just a brief mention or anecdote about that dreadful year 1918, as these are life histories about much more than that time of crisis. But what’s striking about these narratives is just how much was going on at the time. First of all, there was a world war that had claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. Social order had disintegrated across much of Eurasia; harvests were not attended to; revolution was overturning society in Russia; Russian Jews were being killed and displaced in pogroms, and millions of young men were returning from the Great War to their homes thousands of miles away, in many cases bringing new and unfamiliar germs along with them back to their families and communities. In addition, organized national public health institutions were underdeveloped in many countries, including in the United States. The newly named US Public Health Service was only six years old when the flu struck, and the germ theory of disease had only begun to shape public health policy over the previous few decades. Then, as now, states and municipalities in the US had widely varying responses to the epidemic. Furthermore, no one knew exactly what viruses were at the time. Though much larger bacteria and parasites could be seen under a basic microscope, viruses were defined as undetectable substances that passed through the finest filters they had for measuring particles. So, in addition to a poor understanding of the nature of viruses, part of what made the Spanish Flu so devastating was that human bodies in 1918 were in general more vulnerable to disease at that particular moment because of all of the other factors that tended to cluster around epidemics: war, famine, persecution, and mass refugee migration.
Here Cal professor of business Jacob Marschak reminisces with his sister Frances and historian Richard Pierce about fleeing the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, on a boat to Sevastopol:
Jacob Marschak: That was already after the Armistice, and there were many German prisoners returning. The Spanish flu was then raging, and was quite devastating. Many died of it. On the boat I got a terrible attack of it, and my sister nursed me. One man died of it and we buried him at sea.
Frances Sobotka: On the steamer he was severely ill with Spanish flu; I didn’t get it but he did, and it was very hard on him, because it was already about October, very cold, and he had the highest fever that I ever knew, and we had only places to be on the deck. Then somebody allowed him to go and stay in the machine compartment, which was too hot, and he always had a bottle of cognac with him. He was no more a drunkard than you or I, but somebody told him that it was the best thing against Spanish flu. By the time we reached Sevastopol he could already walk, but he was still very weak, and held my shoulder as if I was his stick.
Jacob Marschak, “Recollections of Kiev and the Northern Caucasus, 1917-18,” conducted by Richard A. Pierce in 1968 (Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1971) 75.
Fate, chance, and one’s family, social, and financial resources helped determine who lived and died. Mary Prout, one of the narrators for our Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Project, describes her aunt’s good fortune when the flu came for her. Here she is from an interview in 2002 with Ben Bicais:
My mother was a housewife, but she became a nurse before my mom and dad got married. An excellent nurse, loved it. But her father didn’t want her to become a nurse because he felt that it was too hard on girls. They had to do all the custodial work and everything. So she said, “Okay, Father, I’ll graduate from high school, and then in three years I’m going to go to become a nurse.” And he said, “That’s fair enough.” So she had a young sister, and in three years, they both went to Mary’s Help [Hospital], both became RNs. Then after— well, it was after the war, I guess, my aunt was just a little gal, and she was getting that virulent flu that they had then, that terrible flu. It was just awful. So my mother knew that she wouldn’t live through it. So Mom tried to get an ambulance, but she couldn’t find one, so she got a hearse, and she went down to the veteran’s hospital in Palo Alto, picked up my aunt and saved her life, really. … Oh, yes, that was terrible. People were dying by the inches.
Mary Hall Prout, “Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project” conducted by Ben Bicais in 2002, (Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2002) 27.
Things were bad enough here in the US, but in Russia, years of war and the Bolshevik Revolution had depleted supplies of food, and people had to barter away the last of their possessions for scraps. Russian émigré Valentina Vernon, whom historian Richard Pierce interviewed in 1980, described her diet in 1918:
Vernon: We ground that horrible stuff, and then used the skins from the potatoes you could get a few of potatoes, they were a sort of luxury. The skins were put in the oven and dried out and made into a powder, and the cakes made out of the dried vegetables were rolled in the black stuff and fried in coco-butter. Awful! There was no butter, but you still could find some coconut. And then the dried fish (seledki) , that was the main supply of food. So naturally we lost some weight. And this was our existence until we left.
Pierce: When did you leave?
Vernon: In September, 1918, just 18 days before the birth of my son. I had the Spanish flu, but I didn’t die, and my son didn’t either. Like the doctor here, who says Russian women are awfully tough! But my sister-in-law refused to leave, and they shot her husband. (Vernon, 1980, 15)
Another émigré, Boris Shebeko, describes his experiences during the First World War and the Russian Civil War in his oral history. Since I couldn’t search this PDF – which was just a scan of an old photostat copy – I started scrolling through the transcript for references around the time period of the end of World War One. I quickly became immersed in the stories. He seemed to careen from one life-threatening experience to another: almost being overtaken by singing Cossacks, who rode their horses directly into his machine-gun fire; stepping over giant cracks on a march across the frozen Lake Baikal; or getting into a knife-fight with French sailors in Constantinople. He even suspected his colleague of being a serial killer! The Spanish Flu was just one of his problems in those days.
Boris Shebeko, “Boris Shebeko: Russian Civil War 1918-1922 and Emigration,” conducted by Richard Pierce in 1960. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1961.
After reading through these fascinating stories, I was left wondering what influenza meant in those chaotic contexts of war, migration, and near-starvation. In 1918, the global circulation of people was higher than at any time in history. And by some measures, the world was much more interconnected in 1918 than it was even as late as the 1970s. In 2020, we have our own special mix of challenges. We are clearly, obviously much more interconnected on a global scale. In 2018, there were 4.3 billion passengers on flights. Add this incredible daily migration across the globe to our exposure to ecosystems that had until now been isolated from this global community, and we see an increase in our exposure to germs to which we have no natural immunity. We call these new epidemics —SARS, Zika, Ebola, COVID-19—”emerging” diseases for these reasons. Although we know so much more about viruses and how to treat them than we did in 1918, we have not learned as much as we could from previous pandemics. Scarier yet, the knowledge we do have has not guided policy, and in some ways we are still very much flying blind in this pandemic.
What do these oral histories tell us about epidemics? As horrifying and tragic as some of these stories are, they are the stories of survivors, those who were lucky, resourceful, and somehow positioned well enough to help themselves or to help others. As we learned in our First Response podcast, about the early AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, people tend to have two basic reactions in epidemics: fear, which can lead to scapegoating and selfishness; and love, sympathy, and a sense of duty to family, communities and even to complete strangers, which lead to mutual aid, careful planning, adaptation to changing circumstances, and rational action based on the available facts. Let’s allow these histories of resilient survivors to be our guides, now and into the future.