In the 1940s and 1950s, British and American journals published a flood of papers by doctors, pathologists, geneticists and anthropologists debating the virtues of two competing nomenclatures used to denote the Rhesus blood groups. Accounts of this prolonged and often bitter episode have tended to focus on the main protagonists' personalities and theoretical commitments. Here I take a different approach and use the literature generated by the dispute to recover the practical and epistemic functions of nomenclatures in genetics. Drawing on recent work that views inscriptions as part of the material culture of science, I use the Rhesus controversy to think about the ways in which geneticists visualized and negotiated their objects of research, and how they communicated and collaborated with workers in other settings. Extending recent studies of relations between different media, I consider the material forms of nomenclatures, as they were jotted in notebooks, printed in journals, scribbled on blackboards and spoken out loud. The competing Rhesus nomenclatures had different virtues as they were expressed in different media and made to embody commitments to laboratory practices. In exploring the varied practical and epistemic qualities of nomenclatures I also suggest a new understanding of the Rhesus controversy itself.
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