The Elof Axel Carlson Collection - Part 3

The following is the third post in a series about processing the Elof A. Carlson Collection under the NHPRC Basic Processing Grant.

Elof Carlson: Renaissance Man

The Elof A. Carlson Papers span Dr. Carlson’s career from his first teaching post at Queens University, Canada through his retirement and second career as a writer. As the bulk of Dr. Carlson’s career was spent at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (Stony Brook, NY on Long Island), the majority of documents reference his life at work at and around that institution. Carlson hand-wrote a significant portion of his work and when donating his papers he was kind enough to include a guide to deciphering his handwriting. He was a habitual doodler and very skilled amateur artist. Many of his academic writings contain hand drawn illustrations. He also authored poetry and plays.

The first major group of papers are in the collection the Teaching Files, which are labeled by course. Titles include "Fall 1969 Biology 101", "Spring 1974 Biology 1974", and "Fall Biology 1975". Many are handwritten and some are on oversized index cards.

Elof Carlson lecturing in the 1970s.

Next, are Carlson’s Research Files, which also arrived organized in labeled folders, alphabetical by person or subject. The files contain photographs, manuscripts, and correspondence spanning 1967-1989. The major themes covered include birth defects, genetic history, mutations, drosophilia, Mendelian inheritance, and eugenics.

Carlson's files were organized and well labeled, which greatly aided the archivist processing the collection.

The collection continues with Carlson’s non-Muller manuscripts. He authored text books for Stony Brook and the general biology industry, and also wrote books for the general public. The CSHL Library has a complete set of his published books. As Dr. Carlson is a prolific writer, his articles, essays and papers are interspersed throughout his collection, often filed under the subject of the paper. There is an extensive reprint collection of his published articles as well. The gem of this section is Medical Genetics Rounds, Seminars and Library Notes which is a handwritten manuscript with Dr. Carlson’s illustrations.

Elof Carlson: A Man of the People

Biographical statement and self-portrait by Carlson.

One of Carlson’s fundamental beliefs was that biology should be taught to, and understood by, the average person so that they may make informed decisions about their life. He noted that today’s society is increasingly complex, where a person may be adamantly against the death penalty and anti-war but may approve of genetic testing and abortion. With this in mind, much of his lay writing explores biology in terms that are easy to understand and with themes that are relevant to the general public. He wrote a series of articles for the Southampton News that draws on the life sciences to help explain controversies such as genetic counseling, eugenics, elective abortion, intelligence testing, racism, racial mixing, the induction of cancers, smoking and health, radiation hazards, sperm banks, cloning and so called “test-tube babies.”

…we make our decisions with incomplete knowledge. The principles which explain why a dividing cell dies when its chromosome is broken, do not tell us what values to choose. But deciding about the safety of nuclear reactors, dental x-rays, diagnostic medical x-rays, and the testing of nuclear weapons is very much dependent on that biological knowledge…Unless science is taught in a human context that strikes right into our bodies, our family, our awareness, we leave it for science-mavens to lap up.

Elof Carlson: A kindred spirit of Samuel Pepys

Carlson’s collection concludes with his personal diaries from 1963-1997, most of which were indexed with illustrations. The diaries document both his personal and professional lives. Additionally, Carlson has indicated he has another 300 indexed volumes which he will donate to the CSHL Archives which contain important information on the history of SUNY, Stony Brook.

The above image is page from Carlson’s diary entitled “Journal Abroad 17 February 1973-28 February 1973” and includes a hand-drawn map of central Stockholm. Although this diary focuses on his European sojourn, it is peppered with scientific observations and drawings.

Overall, the EAC Collection provides insight into Carlson not only as a scientist, but also as a teacher, author, historian, and public spokesman. Researchers interested in Hermann Muller and scientific ethics in the 20th century will find a wealth of information in the papers of Elof A. Carlson.

- Amy Driscoll, Project Archivist

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