The History of American Science: A Field Finds Itself

Hamilton Cravens, Iowa State University
(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

I became an Americanist for practical reasons. I thought that the entire world was interesting, but it seemed to me that if I wanted to do any research and writing in history, it was far easier to specialize in American history than in, say, modern European or classical history (two fields that tugged at me as an undergraduate). Yet I have retained my interest in European history and read widely in that vast terrain, especially in the history of France and of Germany.

America, then, was to be my focus. More was involved, however. I also gravitated toward intellectual history, and the history of science and of religion (by contrast, I found political history as then practiced not to my liking). Among the influences on me at the University of Washington in these areas were the American colonial historian Max Savelle, whose Seeds of Liberty (1948) I found an exciting portrait of an intellectual age, with fascinating detail on science and religion in eighteenth century America. I was also drawn to the history of science by Harry Woolf, then a charismatic presence among the junior faculty in the later 1950s and early 1960s, and a good conversationalist with students at morning coffee in the student union. There was also a personal element in the story. All through my childhood and adolescence I had been a solid believer in Christianity—an Episcopalian, in fact—and, lo and behold, at some point in my sophomore year in college, my religious faith evaporated, as if by magic or sleight of hand. So I wondered: was my experience typical of other Americans? Was this a part of what it meant to be modern?

On the basis of these and similar experiences I found myself at the University of Iowa in 1962 for my PhD, and cast my lot with Professor Stow Persons in the fields of American intellectual history and the history of American science. That was a very fortunate decision, for Stow was perhaps the most brilliant and precise scholar I had yet worked with—and I had been lucky enough to have worked with some excellent professors. The problem of the interaction between scientific and social thought, and their historical circumstances (the latter then meaning essentially institutional history) seemed to me to be a good area to investigate in American history, from Jamestown to the present. What I got from Stow was the sense that ideas always existed in a historical context—indeed, in an age (see his American Minds: A History of Ideas [1958]). What had attracted me to Stow in the first place was his work on the role of evolutionary science in American culture. I selected the heredity-environment controversy in the American natural and social sciences as my dissertation project. I realized that this must have been pivotal in the history of evolutionary thought. After all, the evolutionist had to reconcile continuity and change, or heredity and environment.

There was another reason as well. I had become very caught up in the excitement of the decade about civil rights, and I knew that the nature-nurture problem in biological and social science was a key to the red-hot issue of race in American life. I should mention another influence at Iowa—George H. Daniels, who was just finishing up his doctorate my first year at Iowa and launching what promised to be a brilliant career. I was very impressed by George’s dissertation, on Baconian science in America, for it was to my mind a model of how to do the intellectual and institutional history of science in a national culture. George’s work, which could be considered an example of historical sociology, or, more certainly, sociological history, became a guide for me. He identified a community of scientists and proceeded to relate these dramatis personae to a body of beliefs and actions. George’s dissertation was later published in a revised version as American Science in the Age of Jackson (1968). Such approaches were still relatively controversial among the doyens of the history of science establishment, who wrote about famous European scientists and their scientific ideas. America was not an important center of scientific activity, according to this line of argument, and the social history of American science, which several historians, including Richard Shyrock, A. Hunter Dupree, Brooke Hindle, and William G. Stanton, had done much to develop, was nevertheless to the establishment virtually trivial.

I was lucky in the first job I had, as an instructor at Ohio State University. All of us who were instructors taught relatively heavy loads of freshman courses, but we had only two preparations, so once the first two quarters of teaching were done, we could return to working on our dissertations. I say I was fortunate because of the Ohio State library, which was phenomenal and because of the associations I made there, especially with John C. Burnham, who taught history of American science there, and was a very helpful and supportive guide to the field, and several of my peers among the instructors whose interests were close to mine, especially David W. Levy, who was working on a superlative biography of Herbert Croly, and Henry D. Shapiro, who published a wonderful examination of the idea of Appalachia in American culture, but in truth there were plenty of other colleagues there who provided intellectual stimulation and good fellowship. To this point, I was still essentially an intellectual historian of America—I was not really a historian of science, in America, or even in Outer Mongolia, for that matter. It was in Columbus that I began to read deeply in the history of science, and my first reference points were Thomas Kuhn, whose classic Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) seemed to pose important questions about why and how scientists make up their minds and then change them, as did the work of Robert K. Merton, especially his classic study of science in 17th century England, which I admired (and admire) profoundly, for its attempt to link scientific and cultural values. Another important discovery that pushed me in the direct of the social history of scientific ideas was the brilliant dissertation of George W. Stocking, Jr., on American social scientists and race. Here was a dissertation that employed content analysis to link groups of people to specific ideas of science. The work of the two Georges—Daniels and Stocking—were formative for me and my work. Their published works were, in my judgment, absolutely seminal. And they are still eminently useful today.

In the 1970s, the history of American science, to the extent that it was tolerated at all by the history of science establishment, was focused on the period before the Civil War and almost not at all on the social sciences. The history of science was still in the main a field in the history of European science, and we Americanists were rare birds indeed. Furthermore, there was a debate, which I thought exceedingly silly, on whether “external“ or “internal” factors were more important in the history of science. I threw my hands up at such arguments, thinking that they suggested more about the imagination –or lack thereof—of those who posed such questions than the material about which they were supposedly reconstructing as history. For a while too I remember distinguished scholars probing me as to whether the American environment or culture made a difference in how science was done. Some of this came from old ideas about American ‘exceptionalism’, or about the American character, especially from the myth and symbol school of American Studies, which thankfully Bruce Kuklick and other adepts laid waste to in that decade.

Within another fifteen or twenty years, the situation had changed dramatically. Many of the old disputes of an earlier time had gone up in a puff of smoke. Between 1968 and 1990 a veritable flood of books on science in America were published, and the points of view, while clearly more on the side of the social construction of science than its “pure” intellectual or ideological history, were far more diverse and complex—and, sometimes, a tad muddled. We could no longer say as Americanists that we stood for this or that set of propositions. There were too many of us, and we were off on our own individual pathways to scholarly accomplishment. What now engaged many Americanists was what interested many historians working in other specialties in American history, viz., what were the roots of the present? This presentist mentality has dominated especially American history for many decades, and its appearance among historians of American science became an indication of some kind of intellectual integration of Americanists within the larger discipline and profession—for better or for worse, may be one of those questions such as what is beautiful to one is ugly to another.

Yet more is involved than this in the field’s development. The old arguments about American science, which George Daniels did so much to undercut in his excellent American Science in the Age of Jackson (1968) no longer interest us. And what were these assumptions? Namely, that natural history was the larger research interest, as distinct from the physical sciences, among American scientists; that science was practically-oriented, as distinct from the avowedly theoretical approach to nature; that there was a marked lack of specialization during the first half of the nineteenth century; and that science was still largely a pursuit of amateurs. George made a reasonable argument that most American scientists worked from a structured set of philosophical assumptions that constituted orthodoxy locked in time—in that particular era, and that they constituted a coherent scientific community. Now we know much more about science from the colonial period to the post Cold War era, and many such older questions simply do not engage us. One small example: who today is still pondering what an amateur scientist was? As the youngsters in our culture might say, that is so ‘yesterday’. It is utterly meaningless. And now too historians of science are looking beyond the old Europe-America dichotomy towards a global perspective on the history of science. That makes these ancient preoccupations even more – well, ‘yesterday’, or even ‘day before yesterday’ [to coin a bit of slang].

At this point, in 2008, to look back upon the early days of the field is to recognize that the field has changed, and that many of the older questions and themes simply do not engage us. For one thing, there is a considerable faction in the history of science profession, Americanists included, who see science as a series of cultural practices, which makes many of the old issues moot. As for me and the question of the ‘Americanness’ of American science, I have been—I think—fairly consistent in saying that science in America has some characteristics that are recognizably American and some that are not, and the most important thing about ‘American science’ is that it has been practiced in America, with all the complexities and ambiguities that statement implies. In particular in my work and conversations with two brilliant colleagues, Bob Schofield and Alan I Marcus in the 1980s and 1990s at Iowa State University, I traded in whatever remaining sociological ideas I had for anthropological ones, something that my work in the history of anthropology had encouraged in any event. Science was a part of the national culture. It was also a part of an international culture. Most importantly, it belonged in a particular age. It is this structuralist approach, as understood in Europe, not in the United States, that has given our work here at Iowa State and elsewhere a slightly different perspective than that of many in our field.

As for whatever advice a grizzled oldster like myself could possibly offer to a beginner [since that issue was asked for in the call for these essays] I would say that one could have a field day working in the many mansions of the history of American science. There is so much we simply do not know. We still lack a good, solid framework or narrative of the history of science in America. And our ignorance of many things—the history of chemistry, for example—should be encouragement for as many ambitious scholars as there are likely to be in the next generation – and still there will be new fields to cultivate. I for one would suggest that a good outline of the narrative of science in America would derive from the distinct ages of the American past—or pasts, to be more precise, for one would find, I would insist, that, as a professor of mine once put it, the meaning of meaning changes meaning from one age to another, and, within that context, scientific ideas and practices change along with everything else in the culture.

Hamilton Cravens
Iowa State University

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