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Subject: Doctor Frederic L. Holmes, Studied Scientific Process

March 27
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Date Posted: April 07, 2003 6:46:20 EDT

Dr. Frederic Lawrence Holmes, a leading authority on the history of medicine and science who wrote detailed accounts of the creative processes behind landmark scientific discoveries, died on March 27 in New Haven. He was 70.

The cause was cancer, said Dr. John Warner, a colleague at Yale.

Dr. Holmes, a professor, was best known for writing books that recreated in painstaking detail the investigative processes used by scientists like Dr. Hans Krebs, the biochemist whose discovery of a metabolic cycle named for him led to a Nobel Prize in 1953.

Each of Dr. Holmes's books was the result of years spent poring over historic documents, scientific journal articles, correspondences and diaries. And unlike conventional historians, Dr. Holmes also relied on sources like laboratory notebooks.

This approach to recreating the fine structure of scientific creativity, something he called the "research pathway," became the hallmark of his career.

"He was a pioneer in using lab notebooks as a source for reconstructing day-by-day activity in the laboratory," said Dr. Warner, Dr. Holmes's successor and the chairman of Yale's program in the history of medicine and science. "He would take the notebooks and bring them to the scientists and go over every little detail with them. The real key was his combination of both notebooks and oral history."

He added, "He came up with a much more nuanced depiction of science in action than any historian has done, particularly in the life sciences."

One of Dr. Holmes's most celebrated works is a two-volume study, "Hans Krebs: the Formation of a Scientific Life, 1900-1933" (1991), and "Hans Krebs: Architect of Intermediary Metabolism, 1933-1937" (1993).

For more than a decade, Dr. Holmes used laboratory notebooks and interviews with the biochemist, who died in 1981, to reconstruct the history of his work on the citric acid cycle from his first thoughts about the famous metabolic process to the acceptance of the discovery by other scientists.

Two of Dr. Holmes's other highly acclaimed books are "Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of the Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology" (2001), and "Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life" (1985), a study of the scientist often referred to as the father of modern chemistry.

Frederic Lawrence Holmes was born in Cincinnati in 1932. He received his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from Harvard. He taught at Yale for several years starting in 1964, until cost-cutting led the university to abolish its history of science and medicine department in 1972. He accepted a department head job in the same field at the University of West Ontario in London, Ontario.

Dr. Holmes returned to Yale in 1977 as chairman of the medical school's section on the history of medicine, and became instrumental in reviving the Ph.D. program.

He spent the rest of his career at Yale, recruiting faculty members for the history of science program and helping to establish it as one of the most prominent in the country.

A year ago Dr. Holmes, who lived in Bethany, Conn., learned he had stomach cancer, sparking in him a strong desire to finish two major projects, colleagues said. Shortly before he died, he published a book on the work of Dr. Seymour Benzer, who demonstrated how genes function at the molecular level.

The other book compares all of his case studies and then extracts the fundamental points of each. It is to be published in 2004.

Dr. Holmes's wife, Harriet Vann Holmes, died in 2000.

He is survived by three daughters, Susan Holmes of Belgrade, Me., Rebecca Holmes of Bethany and Catherine Kirby of Branford, Conn.; a brother, John C. Holmes of Arlington, Va.; a sister, Nancy Sen of New York City; three grandchildren; and his partner, Petra Gentz-Werner of Berlin.

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