In 2018, Melissa Sevigny stumbled upon a story so good that it kept her up at night.
Sevigny, a reporter for KNAU Arizona Public Radio, came across the name of botanist Lois Jotter while doing research on an unrelated project. Online information about Jotter was sparse. But through a book, Sevigny learned that Jotter and her mentor Elzada Clover had undertaken a harrowing journey down the Colorado River in the 1930s to collect unstudied desert plants. Months later, while visiting an exhibit at Northern Arizona University, Sevigny mentioned her curiosity about Jotter to university archivist Peter Runge. He retrieved a box from the archives containing Jotter’s yellow helmet—part of a trove of recently-donated items related to the voyage, which hadn’t yet been curated. Worn during the epic boat-battering trip through the Grand Canyon, the helmet was signed by Jotter’s teammates, including a message from a river-runner who had previously expressed doubts about her abilities: “To the girl who proved me badly mistaken.”
Seeing this object that meant so much to the botanist and realizing she’d be the first writer to dig into the archives’ new material sparked Sevigny’s excitement. “I knew I had to tell the story then,” says Sevigny, who immediately went to a table in the library and started writing.
That moment led to her story “The Wild Ones,” published in The Atavist Magazine in October 2019, which Sevigny is expanding into her upcoming book, Brave the Wild River. The story chronicles the experiences of Jotter and Clover, two women who were largely misunderstood in a dangerous landscape considered the domain of men. Newspaper reporters pegged the pair as women attempting a likely-doomed quest to conquer the Colorado, subjecting them to unflattering descriptions and showing little interest in their passion for plants. But in the botanists’ diaries and letters, Sevigny uncovered Jotter’s and Clover’s perspectives and vivid details about their lives and work.
Such stories of underrepresented characters and little-known historical events matter to Sevigny and other journalists who see shortcomings in the way science is typically reported. “There’s often been a presentation of big, sweeping master narratives of individuals,” who are presented as heroes, says Christa Kuljian, a science writer based at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa. And popular historical accounts of discovery have often left out characters—typically women and people of color—who helped incrementally move research forward or whose lives were influenced by the scientific enterprise. By covering stories that have been glossed over, reporters can fill gaps in the narrative, add missed perspectives, and create a more nuanced understanding of past events.
Since reporting on Jotter and Clover, Sevigny has found no shortage of overlooked story ideas. “Finding unsung science stories is really about just shifting your perspective a little bit,” she says. Even if characters didn’t have flashy titles or rewrite the laws of physics, their work was important, Sevigny says. “Once you start thinking about it that way, all of these people just pop out of the woodwork.”
Seeking Uncelebrated Stories
Because racism, sexism, and other prejudices have denied some scientists credit for their work, journalists often need to look beyond the author lists of scientific papers.
Poring over scientists’ books and biographies while researching her book Darwin’s Hunch, Kuljian came across many largely invisible contributions to the search for humans’ evolutionary origins. She noticed that in South African books from 1930 to 1950, words like “assistant” and “technician” often referred to Black researchers. As late as 1990, many Black scientists in South Africa were not fully recognized for their work, she says.
Citations in the footnotes of science-history books also can serve as breadcrumbs leading to little-known people or episodes. Several chapters of Kuljian’s book drew on an investigation she undertook that was prompted by a footnote. Similarly, Ainissa Ramirez, a scientist and science writer based in New Haven, Connecticut, says she often skips the main text of science-history books, instead following footnotes and endnotes to archives holding primary sources that she can mine for untold tidbits.
Historical objects can provide another avenue for finding characters with surprising stories. To find such objects, Sabrina Imbler, a science writer and reporting fellow at The New York Times, scoured museums’ blogs, Twitter accounts, and collection listings for odd items when they wrote for Atlas Obscura. When they found an auction listing a 19th-century photo of a Black performer with dwarfism who was dressed in drag, Imbler felt there was a story to tell. After learning that the performer, Thomas Dilward, sang, danced, and played the violin in minstrel troupes where all the other members were white, Imbler wrote a story about Dilward’s “remarkable, complicated life … in the margins of the historical record.”
Science journalists who are looking for a timely hook can start with a current hot topic and delve into its backstory.
In addition to photos, auction listings may contain old scientific or medical tools, sometimes peddled as “grotesques” or “monstrosities.” Journalists can search for such objects in Google News using keywords such as “sale,” “weird,” and “historical.” Such items may also lead to stories about social issues related to science. For instance, Imbler wrote about the injustices surrounding collections of scientific objects.
Science journalists who are looking for a timely hook can start with a current hot topic and delve into its backstory. For example, during the pandemic, freelancer Wudan Yan wrote about a Chinese mask pioneer for The New York Times, and Emily Sohn, also a freelancer, explored the history of handwashing for Popular Mechanics. To find intriguing characters and events related to a newsy issue, reporters can search for books and journal articles by science historians on that subject. One place to find such materials is the Isis Bibliography of the History of Science, a database of scholarly writing that can be searched by topic.
Digging for Details
Once a reporter has identified a story, they need to excavate details from a variety of sources to bring it to life.
In the hunt for source material, librarians and archivists can be helpful allies. Generally, libraries hold published materials, but their special collections can include unpublished items, as well as other rare and unique finds. Archives house both published and unpublished documents and other records of people, institutions, businesses, and government agencies. Archives may contain scientists’ correspondence, grant proposals, and teaching notes, says Robin Rider, a curator of special collections and historian of science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
WorldCat, a vast worldwide library catalog, includes the contents of many archives. Some items are publicly available, but others require an archivist or institution to grant access. Starting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rider notes, many archives have expanded remote access to scanned materials. And many digitized items can be viewed at the HathiTrust, a global consortium of research libraries.
Primary sources may provide key narrative details or glimpses of characters’ personalities and emotions.
Primary sources may provide key narrative details or glimpses of characters’ personalities and emotions. These documents include first-hand accounts such as journals, letters, interviews, and the historical character’s research articles. In the diaries of the botanists Jotter and Clover, “you can actually hear their voices,” says Sevigny. For instance, Jotter camped alone for one night during her Colorado River voyage after a series of mishaps separated her from her companions. On the river, “everybody thinks she’s supposed to be terrified,” Sevigny says. But in a letter to her mother, Jotter wrote, “I had a lovely time.”
Reporters can also find rich details in oral history repositories available at institutions such as universities, scientific societies, and government agencies. Many library catalogues include oral history interviews, and national and regional oral history societies list collections. Some collections, such as the one at the Science History Institute, allow users to search for keywords in transcripts; others, like that of the American Institute of Physics,* include indexes by topic.
The audio recordings in these types of collections capture people telling stories conversationally, not in the dry way they’d typically recount events in a scientific journal, says Latif Nassar, co-host of Radiolab. But people interviewed for oral histories may have forgotten important details, Nassar says, so journalists should seek corroborating information.
Secondary sources include perspectives by other scholars in science-history journals, as well as contemporaneous news stories and documents. These materials can provide support and context about the ideas, events, and culture of that historical period.
For instance, earlier this year, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, was reporting on the mestizo myth, an idea with colonial roots that has persisted for centuries in Latin America. According to this myth, the “mixed race” people of Latin America no longer have to contend with racism, and its proponents promoted the idea that racial mixing could create an ideal blend of desirable traits. While exploring how the idea has influenced genetic and genomic research in the region, Rodríguez Mega found an Argentinian census from the late 1800s that read, “The question of races does not exist in the Republic of Argentina.” The census declared that the country’s “population will be unified, forming a new and beautiful white race product” that blends “all the European nations that were fertilized in the American soil.” That text, Rodríguez Mega says, shows how the mestizo myth obscured Indigenous and Black identities in Latin America even as racial disparities have been documented.
Other useful information may come from living family members and acquaintances who knew a historical character.
The writings of a historical character’s contemporaries may contain details about that person and how they were perceived. But reporters should keep in mind that some perspectives expressed in letters and news articles might contain inaccuracies because of that source’s biases. For instance, Sevigny found a man’s letter describing Clover as “motherly.” “This description didn’t fit her at all,” Sevigny says, and it contradicted how one of Clover’s students characterized the scientist. To gauge the accuracy of sources, reporters can also seek perspectives from historical or living people from underrepresented groups.
Other useful information may come from living family members and acquaintances who knew a historical character. These sources can fill in details about personality traits, formative events, and family history, Kuljian says. Sevigny has used Ancestry.com to look for relatives of scientists she’s researching and has found local historical societies helpful in tracking down characters’ family.
Older people who lived during the time period in question may also provide relevant details. For her book The Alchemy of Us, Ramirez interviewed over a hundred people to learn about the history of a number of different technological advances. An African American chemist named Caroline Hunter, who worked at Polaroid in the 1960s and 70s, described noticing a mock-up identification card from South Africa on a company bulletin board. That nugget from the interview led Ramirez to write about the South African government’s use of photo IDs during apartheid and Hunter’s activism in opposing Polaroid’s role. Hunter, Ramirez says, provided details and descriptions that couldn’t be found in newspaper articles, journal articles, or archives.
After reporters uncover details related to their story, they may face new challenges in assessing or presenting complex material for readers. Some stories require thoughtful handling of disturbing historical episodes, for instance. Or journalists might need to seek help from social scientists or sensitivity readers to interpret what they’ve found.
Kuljian uncovered a troubling story while investigating neuroanatomist Raymond Dart’s 1936 expedition to the Kalahari, as part of her reporting for Darwin’s Hunch. Dart is renowned for describing a fossil of Australopithecus africanus, but how he collected people’s bones for comparative anatomy isn’t well-known, Kuljian says. She learned that Dart had arranged to collect the body of a young woman named /Keri-/Keri even before she died, while she was being treated at a hospital.
Since some readers might find the material traumatic, Kuljian wanted to present the story sensitively. To help her audience process this difficult episode, she wrote in first person about her experience of viewing /Keri-/Keri’s body cast, or molded form, in Dart’s collection and her own horror at the unsettling scene. Kuljian also shared her conversation with the curator, who had not known /Keri-/Keri’s story and expressed surprise and dismay at her treatment.
Sensitivity readers also can help journalists navigate tricky historical material related to gender or race issues.
When presenting content that may be disturbing, Kuljian says she sometimes prepares readers by including a warning about the nature of the upcoming material. She also gives societal context—explaining, for instance, the biases inherent in historical characters’ educations and ideas.
With years of research experience in paleoanthropology and training in the history of science, Kuljian drew on her own background in reporting on the study of human origins. But when science journalists are covering ground that is new to them, it can be overwhelming to make sense of decades of historical background and academic research. “One can get lost with all this information,” Rodríguez Mega says.
In these situations, reporters can turn to anthropologists, historians, and ethnographers for help. Rodríguez Mega interviewed experts in these fields to understand the historical context and gain perspective on how the mestizo myth relates to modern science. Without their input, he says, the story “would have been ten times more challenging.”
Sensitivity readers also can help journalists navigate tricky historical material related to gender or race issues. I recently worked with these experts while writing a story for Sapiens that describes archaeological research on foods cooked and created by Black people who were enslaved in the Americas. The story presented several challenges. For instance, I wanted to emphasize these people’s humanity and avoid focusing on their victimhood, but I didn’t want to minimize the injustice of enslavement. My editor brought in sensitivity readers to evaluate whether we were striking the right balance and to weigh in on other issues related to the article’s framing and word choices.
Though historical stories can pose challenges for writers, they’re worth tackling. Viewing science through the lens of history not only reveals the complexity of research, with a fuller cast of characters, but also allows people to see themselves in science. “When we tell stories that show humanity in all its breadth,” says Ramirez, “and when we show people as being flawed, we make people feel that this enterprise is for them, too.”
* Correction 10/22/21: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to the American Physical Society instead of the American Institute of Physics.
Carolyn Wilke is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Chicago-based freelance science journalist. Find her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.