Elise Burton wins the prestigious Dan David Prize in history

February 28, 2023 by A&S News

Elise Burton, an historian of science, race and nationalism in the modern Middle East, has been named one of the 2023 winners of the prestigious Dan David Prize — the world’s largest history award.

Burton, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology (IHPST), was one of nine scholars to receive this honour.

She joins winners from across the globe working in Kenya, Ireland, Denmark, Israel and the United States. Each will receive $300,000 (USD) in recognition of their achievements and to support their future research and teaching.

The finalists were chosen by a global committee with members from a range of institutions including the universities of Cambridge, Paris, Pennsylvania and Seville.

“I was truly caught off guard and surprised,” says Burton. “The recognition is meaningful because I have pursued somewhat unconventional and methodologically risky work trying to bridge two disciplinary fields: Middle Eastern history and the history of science.”

Burton’s research focuses on developments in genetics, evolutionary biology, physical anthropology and medicine in the Middle East during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

She examines the relationship of these sciences to the formation of racial, ethnic and national identities, and how these identities, in turn, shape the dynamics of transnational scientific collaborations.

From this work, her first book, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity, was published in early 2021.

Based on archival research across the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. using sources in Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew, the book shows how Middle Eastern peoples — both as scientific actors and research subjects — played a key role in the history of human genetics.

“I knew this book wouldn’t make everyone happy,” says Burton. “My work critiques nationalist ideologies and holds up a mirror to a historical politics of science that is still relevant to present-day practices of human genetics. The picture isn’t always as flattering as some audiences would like.”

That’s why winning this award is especially satisfying.

“To have an international selection committee of eminent historians recognize my work in this way is a validation of some of the risk-taking in my research process and encourages my future ambitious projects.”

One of those projects is tentatively called “Race Across Asia.” It traces the flow of scientific ideas and research practices surrounding race and nationalism between Japan, India, Iran and Turkey since the 1950s.

“Looking specifically at the fields of medical genetics, forensic fingerprinting and archaeology, I will investigate how different kinds of trans-Asian scientific collaborations and educational networks relate to competing notions of Asian identity,” says Burton.

A second project examines the development of ancient DNA sequencing technologies, beginning with efforts to blood-type Egyptian mummies in the 1930s. She plans to write a history of these technologies that explores the role of Egyptian institutions, scientists and the mummies themselves.

“This award will be an enormous help to my research, because of the amount of funds and the fact that they are not subject to many restrictions,” says Burton. “My research requires a lot of extended overseas travel to work in archives and libraries, which can be difficult to coordinate. Thanks to this award, I can finally begin the fieldwork that until now has been held up.”

Endowed by the Dan David Foundation and headquartered at Tel Aviv University, the Prize was first established in 2001 by the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Dan David to reward innovative and interdisciplinary work that contributed to humanity.

In 2021, the prize was relaunched with a focus on historical research, honouring the founder’s passion for history and archaeology. Today, the prize rewards emerging scholars, aiming to help both academics and public historians fulfill their potential.

“’Elise’s brilliant scholarship is reimagining how we understand the global histories of science and their legacies for the early 21st century,” says Edward Jones-Imhotep, director of the IHPST.

“Her work is a shining example of the imaginative, critical and engaged research that we value and want to nurture at the Institute.”