This journal grew out of my graduate work. In pursuit of a Master’s in Liberal Studies, I acquired a few old biology textbooks on the hunch that a textual comparison might be the stuff of an essay. It turned out to be the stuff of an obsession. Three textbooks grew into a collection of 150, and that original essay mutated into the 50+ published here.
I had no particular affection for biology in high school, and even now wouldn’t say I am much a student of the science. But the textbooks proved to be a great primary document set, an almost infinite resource for anyone interested in American history and cultural studies. Ambitious authors and an anxious public sculpted and reshaped the high school biology curriculum throughout the twentieth century in an effort to guide and control that most unruly of bodies, the pubescent tenth grader. Lessons on taxonomy turned into metaphors of race and progress. Lessons on health turned into lectures on the dangers of sex with people not of one’s class.
Because they were published and revised more or less annually, biology textbooks are like tree rings, a nearly complete year-to-year record of the culture in which they grew.
About the Author
Ronald Ladouceur is and independent scholar interested in the intersection of history, science and visual rhetoric. Ladouceur holds an M.A. in Liberal Studies from SUNY Empire State College, and is an adjunct professor at the University at Albany. His published work includes “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks,” Journal of the History of Biology 41: 435 (2007), “Biology’s Bomb: Graphing ‘Explosive’ Population Growth in Cold War Textbooks,” Climate & Capitalism (2011), and “All with Theories to Sell: Carleton S. Coon, Bentley Glass, Marston Bates, and the Struggle by Life Scientists in the United States to Construct a Social Mission After World War II,” available via ProQuest (2008).
SCHOLARS’ NOTE: Except for the above (or unless otherwise indicated), the articles published to Textbook History have not been peer reviewed or published elsewhere. You are of course encouraged to cite the work. Just be clear in your references that you’re citing a blog, not a journal or thesis.