Is biography fiction or fact?

blond woman sits
Dana Bauer

Science writer Pat Shipman discusses whether biography is fiction or fact.

Pat Shipman, science writer and adjunct professor of anthropology, kicked off the fall 2004 season of Research Unplugged on Wednesday with a discussion titled, "Biography: Fact or Fiction?"

"I think a good biographer has to write fiction some of the time to make apparent a significant event in someone's life," Shipman told a group of students, faculty, and community members at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. She also pointed out that while "hard-line biographers" disapprove of such methods, many writers of popular biographies use literary devices, such as the creation of dialogue, to tell the stories of their subjects.

Shipman's first biography, The Man Who Found the Missing Link: Eugene Dubois And His Lifelong Quest To Prove Darwin Right (2002), is about a late nineteenth century European scientist who uprooted his family and moved to the Dutch East Indies to search for the remains of what he called Pithecanthropus erectus, the missing link between modern humans and their distant ancestors.

While she had copious notes, letters, and diary entries from both Dubois and one of DuBois' colleagues, who "went home every night and recorded every conversation they had," Shipman still had to build a story around the skeleton of the facts. For example, a short note in Dubois' diary and a passage in a letter led Shipman to believe that Dubois and his wife had lost a child during their very difficult years abroad. But she couldn't be completely sure. "I included an imagined reaction to the death of this child in the book," says Shipman, "because I don't think you can understand Dubois' scientific obsession if you don't understand what his family paid for it."

audience in chairs listens

Research Unplugged is held at the Penn State Downtown Theatre on Allen Street.

A professor of cell biology and anatomy at Johns Hopkins Medical School before she began writing books about science, Shipman had great success with The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins (1996), which won the 1997 Rhône-Poulenc Prize, and Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight (1998), which won the Phi Beta Kappa prize for Science. John Noble Wilford, writing for New York Times Book Review, praised Taking Wing for being "alive with the stories of the many people, historical and living, who have puzzled and argued over the meaning of the fossil bird.... Her reporting takes us into the minds of these scientists."

Shipman's other books include To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa (2004), and The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science (1994). Her next project is a biography of Mata Hari.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is adjunct professor of anthropology, 315 Carpenter Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2509; pls10@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 06, 2004