Beckman at 25: Gabriele Ferrario and David Schleifer

2012 is the 25th anniversary of CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry. To celebrate the Beckman Center’s remarkable achievements and its many accomplished fellows, we will be profiling one former fellow each month over the course of the year. This month we’d like you to belatedly meet Gabriele Ferrario (profiled in April but never posted on the blog), and David Schleifer, our pick for May.

Gabriele is a Research Associate at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University. The Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection contains 190,000 medieval manuscript fragments, mainly in Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic, and Arabic. The manuscripts were recovered from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo, in 1897-1898 and shed light on relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians from as early as the ninth and tenth centuries C.E.— if you know how to read them. Gabriele, who is a master of languages, does. He works on the personal letters, legal deeds, and literary and sacred texts contained in the collection, particularly focusing on descriptions of Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew fragments dealing alchemical, scientific, and magical material. It is a perfect project for one who describes his main interests as “the history of alchemy and of medieval sciences, the transmission and reception of Greek knowledge in the Islamic world, and the philology of medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts.”

Gabriele Ferrario.

Gabriele has an undergraduate degree and master’s in Oriental languages from the University of Venice “Ca’ Foscari,” and he completed a Ph.D. at the same university in 2007. His thesis included an edition and a translation of the Arabic original and the Hebrew version of the medieval alchemical treatise Liber de aluminibus et salibus, a project that he pursued while he was a Roy G. Neville fellow at CHF in 2007-2008. He is planning to publish a revised English version of his thesis shortly.

Gabriele has published articles on Arabic and Hebrew alchemy, showcasing his facility with languages, among which are: “Understanding the Language of Alchemy: The Medieval Arabic Alchemical Lexicon in Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms Sprenger 1908,” in Digital Proceedings of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, Vol. I (2009); and Iss. 1, Article 2, and “Origins and Transmission of the Liber de aluminibus et salibus,” in L. Principe (ed.), Chymists and Chymistry. Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chymistry (Sagamore Beach, MA, 2007), pp. 137-148. I heard Gabriele speak about his work at the Taylor Schechter Genizah Unit in Cambridge last September, and believe his to be among the most exciting work being done in the history of science.

I first met David Schleifer a little over a year ago, at a workshop in Boston. He came up to me in order to introduce himself and to tell me how helpful his time at CHF had been (he was there well before I had joined the staff). His comments made me an immediate fan. His enthusiasm for the institution as well as for his own work actually increased my own appreciation for the Beckman Center. I have since learned that David's work is always characterized by such zeal. When I asked him if he would tell me a little bit about what he is working on these days for this blog post, I found that he has more exciting projects going than I think I am allowed to cover in a blog entry!

While he was at CHF as a 2008-2009 Haas Fellow, David, who received his Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University in 2010, worked on a project titled “Getting Better for You: Trans Fats, Risk, and Innovation,” a project that was closely related to his dissertation. That dissertation is now taking shape as a book proposal titled What Happened to Trans Fats? It is hard, however, to imagine how David finds time for writing his book, given his many current projects, but given his proven ability to multi-task (just ask him for his C.V.), I have no doubt that he is managing it. At Columbia, David is currently studying patient attitudes about overuse of medical technologies. In addition, he is writing about how cardiologists have tried to defend an embattled technology—cardiac stents—against evidence that stents do not save lives in patients with stable angina. And finally, he is part of a team at coding data to create a unique new database that tracks pharmaceutical companies’ charitable donations.

David Schleifer. Photo by Lauren Silberman.

But despite the nature of much of his current research, which is particularly focused on medicine, David’s real interest is in corporate science and technology. He edited an influential special issue of the Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society on corporate science, an issue featuring an article of his own as well as an article by CHF alum Ben Gross. David’s introduction to that issue is among the journal’s most-read articles, showing clearly the significance and contemporary relevance of David’s work. As if that weren’t enough, David coauthored a book chapter with Aaron Panofsky (UCLA) about grassroots biotech entrepreneurship for a book tentatively titled Democratizing Inequalities, currently under review.

David’s work has been recognized for academic excellence. An article from his dissertation research, “The Perfect Solution: How Trans Fats Became the Healthy Replacement for Saturated Fats,” was published in Technology and Culture in January, and was based in part on research that he did at CHF. An earlier version of that article won the American Sociological Association’s Science, Knowledge, and Technology Section’s Sally Hacker-Nicholas Mullins Award for Best Graduate Student Paper in 2009. His work, however, is also timely and relevant beyond the academic sphere, finding the sort of wide audience that most academics can only aspire to. We expect David’s work will continue to have a significant impact. He has done so much in the last few years that we know he will be someone to watch in the coming ones.

We are very proud to call both Gabriel and David Beckman Center alumni.

Carin Berkowitz is the associate director of CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry.

Beckman at 25: Jennifer Rampling [Periodic Tabloid]
Beckman at 25: Bruce Lewenstein [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: Fellows

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