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The Recombinant University

Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Stanford Biotechnology

The advent of recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s was a key moment in the history of both biotechnology and the commercialization of academic research. Doogab Yi’s The Recombinant University draws us deeply into the academic community in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the technology was developed and adopted as the first major commercial technology for genetic engineering. In doing so, it reveals how research patronage, market forces, and legal developments from the late 1960s through the early 1980s influenced the evolution of the technology and reshaped the moral and scientific life of biomedical researchers.

Bay Area scientists, university administrators, and government officials were fascinated by and increasingly engaged in the economic and political opportunities associated with the privatization of academic research. Yi uncovers how the attempts made by Stanford scientists and administrators to demonstrate the relevance of academic research were increasingly mediated by capitalistic conceptions of knowledge, medical innovation, and the public interest. Their interventions resulted in legal shifts and moral realignments that encouraged the privatization of academic research for public benefit. The Recombinant University brings to life the hybrid origin story of  biotechnology and the ways the academic culture of science has changed in tandem with the early commercialization of recombinant DNA technology.

304 pages | 18 halftones, 10 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2015


Biological Sciences: Biochemistry

History: History of Technology

History of Science



"...One can perceive a fine silver thread Yi weaves from the working practices of Stanford biochemists in the lab and the choices they made about how to structure their work, to the wider changes happening in North American research. For those interested in the history of the university, Yi’s accounts of the changes around research organization provide fascinating insights. Recombinant University makes important contributions to the history of science at large, and molecular biology in particular but also to the intertwined histories of research organization and funding, commercialization, and intellectual property legislation."

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

"Yi’s lucidly written The Recombinant University argues that modern biotechnology’s emergence rested on the realignment of the moral and political economies of biological research as much as on experimental innovations in the laboratory. The close analysis of Stanford provides needed depth to the study of the origins of the modern biotechnology industry. Yi’s account manages the remarkable feat of creating meaningful reciprocal connections between the fine structure of experimental work and broader transformations in American society. It offers a model for future studies of molecular biology, biotechnology, and society as well as setting the high standard by which they will be judged."


"The Recombinant University is a very meticulously researched piece of scholarship and there is
no way that I can do justice to its content and scope in the limited space allotted for this review. Yi skilfully weaves together a narrative that shows us the broader trends and actions of entire institutions and the biotechnology industry of the Bay Area, and wandering beyond science into cultural and economic history, while keeping in sight the individual contributions of various scientists."

British Journal for the History of Science

"The Recombinant University takes a fresh look at how genetic engineering was transformed from a research tool into an object of private investment and commercial returns. At the center of Doogab Yi’s probing analysis lies the question of the realignment between commercial enterprise and academic institutions, private ownership and public benefit of academic research. A historical understanding of these developments offers a timely and indispensable contribution to current discussions on the value and future of scientific research and public universities."

Soraya de Chadarevian, University of California, Los Angeles

"A valuable close-up of life science at Stanford in the 1970s, immersing the reader in the scene where so much of early gene splicing took shape."

Nicolas Rasmussen, University of New South Wales, Sydney

“Yi’s masterwork is a welcome deep-sequencing of how the double helix, DNA, gave rise to the triple helix—university-industry-government relations at the dawn of modern biotechnology. He burrows under the mythology and hero stories to find a rich story suffused with conflict long buried under the dollars that washed through biotechnology as it aspired to and then succeeded in joining established pharmaceutical manufacturers. Recombinant DNA was one of the root technologies, and Stanford’s biochemistry department was its breeding ground of a seminal technology of the twentieth century.  Yi’s story traces how a science department changed the world, for better or for worse, or a bit of both.”

Robert Cook-Deegan, Duke University

"The Recombinant University broadens the interpretive framework within which the beginnings of biotechnology are understood. Yi places the technical developments in biochemistry and molecular biology that made possible genetic engineering and the industrial and commercial development of biotechnology in an evolving relationship with legal, economic, and political changes from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. He presents a particularly illuminating portrait of the evolution of the Stanford Biochemistry Department, giving us a specific and detailed feel for the dilemmas, motives, and limitations of these scientists in grappling with the possibilities of commercialization."

John E. Lesch, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Communal Form of DNA Research
Chapter 2. “Mass Migration” and Technologies of Gene Manipulation
Chapter 3. System of Exchange in Recombinant DNA Research  
Chapter 4. Moral and Capitalistic Economies of Gene Cloning
Chapter 5. Who Owns What? Private Ownership and Public Interest in Recombinant DNA Technology in the 1970s
Chapter 6. Reenvisioning the Biomedical Enterprise in the Age of Commercial Biotechnology
List of Abbreviations
Works Cited


Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève: Marc-Auguste Pictet Prize for History of Science

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