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Faculty Focus

In Memoriam: Dorothy Nelkin (1933-2003)

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The community at NYU School of Law mourns the death in May of Dorothy Nelkin, University Professor, professor of sociology, and a member of the Law School faculty since 1990. Her scholarship, focusing on science, technology, risk, and public values and perceptions, won international recognition and renown. A prolific author, she published 26 books and well over 200 articles on a wide range of subjects in the social study of science, including genetics, creationism, nuclear power, occupational safety, AIDS, body tissue controversies, and other issues in science and technology policy. Shortly before her death, she completed a book on DNA art titled The Molecular Gaze and a revised edition of The DNA Mystique. Fluent in French, she lectured widely in Europe and other parts of the world on contemporary issues and controversies relating to science. She explained her quest as trying to “understand how people understand science.”

At the Law School, Nelkin taught courses on Law and Science and Law, New Technologies, and Risk. A number of these offerings were co-taught with other faculty, including Professors Rochelle Dreyfuss and Richard Stewart and Global Visiting Professor Upendra Baxi of India. The courses dealt with controversies over the social and legal implications of the revolution in microbiology and biotechnology, including themes of privacy and property; risk, regulation, and human rights; informed consent and conflict of interest; and the policy implications of different assumptions regarding genetic determinism. She was admired by students and colleagues for her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, her interest in and deep respect for facts, her irreverent attitude toward established pieties, and her insistence of the importance of public values and attitudes in science and technology policy. She was an inspiration to many students with interests in the intersections among science, law, and public policy.

Deeply committed to interdisciplinary research, Nelkin was concerned about the subversion or misuse of science for political or profit-making ends. She was worried about the civil liberties implications of assembling DNA databases for crime-fighting, and was skeptical of efforts to link behavior, especially criminal behavior, to heredity. She was also concerned about loss of independence of scientific researchers and the infiltration of corporate influences and commercial motives in university-based science. Nelkin also opposed technological fixes for what she regarded as fundamentally value or social problems. At the time of her death, Nelkin was closely involved in a major research project with Professor Stewart and Global Law Professor Philippe Sands on international regulatory conflicts over genetically modified (GMO) foods and crops. Her elements of the project dealt with issues regarding public attitudes towards GMO technologies, participation in regulatory decision- making, and public trust in science and government. She was emphatic that controversies over technological risks and their regulation could not be resolved by science, and that assessment and regulatory management of risks must explicitly take into account public values and perceptions. Stewart and Sands will carry on the project in her memory.

As part of her effort to “understand the dynamics of behavior with respect to genetic ideas,” Nelkin recently collaborated with an artist, Suzanne Anker, in a project on the use of DNA images and themes by artists. They assembled an exhibit of DNA art held at the New York Academy of Sciences this past spring. Their book, The Molecular Gaze, will be published this fall. Nelkin completed her edits on the page proofs days before her death. Her fortitude and commitment to the scholarly enterprise were never more evident than in her final days.

Nelkin was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, and received her bachelor’s degree in 1954 from Cornell, where she taught for nearly 20 years before coming to NYU School of Law in 1990. Although she never earned an advanced degree, she achieved the highest levels of distinction and recognition, including memberships and directorship in a wide variety of scientific and scholarly academies and learned societies and the receipt of many grants and awards. The Society for the Social Study of Science awarded her the Bernal Prize in recognition of her founding role in establishing the field of the social study of science and her lifetime contribution to it. She served on numerous scholarly editorial boards and on many governmental and non-governmental advisory boards addressing questions of science, medicine, and public policy.

Nelkin is survived by her husband of 50 years, Mark Nelkin, emeritus professor of applied physics at Cornell; a daughter and granddaughter; and a sister. A memorial service was held September 10 at the Law School.