Nicolas Rashevsky's Mathematical Biophysics
This paper explores the work of Nicolas Rashevsky, a Russian émigré theoretical physicist who developed a program in “mathematical biophysics” at the University of Chicago during the 1930s. Stressing the complexity of many biological phenomena, Rashevsky argued that the methods of theoretical physics – namely mathematics – were needed to “simplify” complex biological processes such as cell division and nerve conduction. A maverick of sorts, Rashevsky was a conspicuous figure in the biological community during the 1930s and early 1940s: he participated in several Cold Spring Harbor symposia and received several years of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. However, in contrast to many other physicists who moved into biology, Rashevsky's work was almost entirely theoretical, and he eventually faced resistance to his mathematical methods. Through an examination of the conceptual, institutional, and scientific context of Rashevsky's work, this paper seeks to understand some of the reasons behind this resistance.