A master’s thesis lies buried in my dresser drawer. It bears the title, “The Popular Front Government of France, June 1936-June 1937.” The typewritten pages are brittle and yellowed. Although it has literally been around the world, packed and repacked in my mother’s many moves, the document itself has rarely seen the light of day since it was approved by a history department committee in 1943.
Today’s thesis can fly around the world even when its author can’t. In the summer of 2008 on a flight to Berlin, I happened to sit next to author/poet Jon Cotner, who was editing an on-line journal published by the University of Liege, Belgium. I wanted to submit an article based on my newly minted thesis about the alchemy of al-Razi, but I worried about the wisdom of exposing a work that I might later want to publish. What would my advisor say?
I let it go.
My first article on the al-Razi thesis was launched into cyberspace.
That summer I started a blog. This was uncharted territory for me, but a German friend recommended WordPress. I put together an active blog page, followed by a short biography and a c.v., and finally a page with the abstract of my thesis on al-Razi’s Book of Secrets. Although its content is relatively static, this last page turned out to be the most active one of all, sending my translation and analysis to wonderful and unexpected places.
People from ten countries on four continents have contacted me to ask how they can get a copy. Some are academics looking for an English translation of the Book of Secrets. Others have an interest in the history of perfumes, chemistry, metallurgy, or alchemy itself. I’ve had requests for copies from Morocco, Malaysia, Iran, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United States (California, Kentucky, and Arkansas). As I willingly shared the document, I realized that the weak link in this distribution system was me. If I were not here answering emails, the thesis might as well be stored in a file cabinet. I chose to self-publish.
The thesis published as a book is self-sustaining. It’s available on Amazon worldwide. Twitter has helped spread the word. I recently received a notice that a medical history professor from Egypt tweeted a link to my book to his 21 followers which was then retweeted to 1357 followers by a scholar in Japan! The message read: Thesis: “Al-Razi’s Book of Secrets wp.me/PibPp-w via @GailMTaylor A 1000 years-old chemical laboratory manual !”
By internet standards, these are not huge numbers. But how else could such a geographical reach be achieved? Some contacts have led to citations in other works, such as an article on the Arabic foundations of chemistry in a Dutch educational journal which cites the Liege article. (1) Sometimes the sequence of internet to print is reversed, and a book which is marketed on line and available in both print and digital format cites one of my print articles on al-Razi. See Jackie Tempo and the House of Wisdom, by Suzanne Litrel. (2)
All of this internet exposure has enabled my thesis to continue to carry out its goal of drawing attention to the works of al-Razi and the dynamic exchanges of medical and scientific knowledge between Europe and the Islamic world over 1000 years ago. The growth of its international reach, most of which took place while I was deep in my 6 years of doctoral work, is very exciting. For a clinical laboratory scientist who went out of sequence from career to graduate school to retirement, I was rewarded by seeing my academic contribution expand on line.
If I had completed my master’s degree at the “normal” time, i.e. soon after graduating from college in 1966, it would no doubt be buried in my dresser drawer with its 1943 predecessor. But by waiting for the 21st century, I have the joy of seeing it take flight.
(1) Huseyin Sen, “Arabischewetenschap (3): chemie,” NVOX, October 2012, No. 8, 400-402.
(2) Suzanne Litrel, Jackie Tempo and the House of Wisdom (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Inc., 2012).