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Biomedical Computing

, 360 pages

17 b&w illus.

May 2012



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Biomedical Computing

Digitizing Life in the United States

Imagine biology and medicine today without computers. What would laboratory work be like if electronic databases and statistical software did not exist? Would disciplines like genomics even be feasible if we lacked the means to manage and manipulate huge volumes of digital data? How would patients fare in a world absent CT scans, programmable pacemakers, and computerized medical records?

Today, computers are a critical component of almost all research in biology and medicine. Yet, just fifty years ago, the study of life was by far the least digitized field of science, its living subject matter thought too complex and dynamic to be meaningfully analyzed by logic-driven computers. In this long-overdue study, historian Joseph November explores the early attempts, in the 1950s and 1960s, to computerize biomedical research in the United States.

Computers and biomedical research are now so intimately connected that it is difficult to imagine when such critical work was offline. Biomedical Computing transports readers back to such a time and investigates how computers first appeared in the research lab and doctor's office. November examines the conditions that made possible the computerization of biology—including strong technological, institutional, and political support from the National Institutes of Health—and shows not only how digital technology transformed the life sciences but also how the intersection of the two led to important developments in computer architecture and software design.

The history of this phenomenon has been only vaguely understood. November's thoroughly researched and lively study makes clear for readers the motives behind computerizing the study of life and how that technology profoundly affects biomedical research today.

Joseph November is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

"November's work is a compelling (and fun) read for anyone working in this field, and documents the fragility of a new discipline and the careers of the people creating it—and the magic mix of talent, determination, and sheer good luck that marks the difference between success and failure (or, a delayed and muted success). It also illumines the critically important role of larger social forces, particularly that of government as a patron of science and technology."

"Computers changed research in the life sciences in the 1950s and 1960s. Historian Joseph November engagingly relates how... November's style is convincing and compelling."

"A fine pick for medical, science and computer collections alike."

"Yes, it's about computers, but very readable."

"A well-written, engaging piece of historical scholarship... One cannot help but appreciate November's talent at synthesizing and distilling a vast array of highly technical subject matter, making it accessible to not only polymaths, but also any intelligent, dedicated reader."

"An interesting account of information technology's grand entry into biomedicine in the US and its impact on advances in numerous life science disciplines."

"In this finely drawn, much-needed study, November shows how a few visionary physicians, life scientists, and computer specialists first created common cause and transformed their respective fields... Conveying that mutual transformation makes Biomedical Computing a significant, timely contribution to both the history of computing and the history of biomedicine."

"... This book constitutes an obligatory read for historians interested in twentieth-century science and technology; and is an important reference for philosophers and social scientists investigating contemporary developments in biomedicine."

"This book will be essential reading for historians of both biomedicine and computing. November has done these fields a great service by mapping a complex but fundamental set of technical and institutional relations that have given momentum to our contemporary digitized lives."

" Biomedical Computing offers a clear path into an otherwise uncharted territory of the history of computing in biomedicine. Those interested in the history of medical technology, biology, or computing will appreciate the insights of this book."

"Rich local detail... Biomedical Computing offers an essential framework for marrying the bigger picture with case-by-case local analysis."

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