Regrettably, it can hardly be denied that you can become a competent scientist without giving a thought to the history of your chosen subject. But the history is there all the same, and if you have only the foggiest idea about what was done before you entered the field, you will have no way of assessing the significance of your own work, and you will certainly overestimate its originality and its importance. Worse still, you may occasionally find that your bright idea was someone else's half a century ago, and that arguments in which you are currently engaged were raging long before you were born, and sometimes with greater acuity. That can be an embarrassment when someone else draws the fact to your attention.
I know of no work that more aptly illustrates these homiletic remarks than Theodor Boveri's monograph on the origin of malignant tumours, my recent translation of which now appears as an online supplement to JCS (Boveri, 2008; Harris, 2008). Scientific monographs written before the First World War are rarely cited in the current literature, especially if they were written in a language other than English; but Boveri's Zur Frage der Entstehung maligner Tumoren, published in 1914, still regularly finds a place in the introductory remarks of each year's crop of cancer research papers. But these citations do not often indicate that the authors have actually read what Boveri wrote. Sometimes views are attributed to him that he simply did not hold, but more often a statement attributed to him is quoted out of context and is consequently misleading. This is not surprising. Boveri's monograph, in the German original and in an early English translation, have long been out of print and even second-hand copies are hard to find. The frequent citations simply parrot earlier citations, and with increasing ineptitude.
Boveri's monograph is a masterpiece of astonishing originality and foresight. It was he who first proposed that malignancy is due to a disorder in the chromosome constitution of the cell, that karyological disorder is initiated most commonly by abnormalities of mitosis and that centriolar malfunction might sometimes be involved. He argued that malignant tumours are clonal outgrowths; that the intrinsic nature of cells is such that they multiply exponentially unless they are restrained; that the restraint is imposed by the process of differentiation; and that malignancy arises when this restraint is impaired. And his discussion of the significance of aneuploidy seems to me to be to be more profound than some of the views put forward today.
The new translation bears a heavy load of annotations. The aim is to draw attention to the cogency of Boveri's ideas to problems that are still being argued about in today's cancer research literature; and, at the same time, to remind readers that if they see further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.