Category Archives: What’s American About HOS in America

The History of American Science as Activism

Leslie Madsen-Brooks, University of California, Davis

(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

Earlier this year, I was undertaking research in the archives of a science museum when a fellow researcher, a senior professor, asked what I was working on. I told him I was looking into the ways a particular woman scientist worked with amateur scientists and botanical enthusiasts. He asked if I had been to the History of Science Society annual meetings. I said I wasn’t interested because I hadn’t seen sufficient evidence in paper titles that panels at the conference were engaging with gender issues in a substantive way. Since I’m a historian of women in science, there were other meetings on which I’d rather spend my lean conference-going budget.

He pointed out there have been women on the executive committee of the HSS, and I explained that was great, but that if a critical mass of participants weren’t going to be talking about women scientists or gender, then I wasn’t interested in attending. We parted cordially, but the conflation of women historians of science with the history of women in science was disturbing to me; they aren’t interchangeable, after all. It made me wonder if “women in the history of science” referred to both scholars and subjects, and that if a critical mass was met by combining the numbers of women in each category, then all things gender-related were thought to be well in the field.

Unlike many scholars of the history of science, I didn’t come to the field via a scientific discipline or via a history department. I am not a woman scientist, nor even a woman with a Ph.D. in history (my degree is in cultural studies). Rather, I discovered the history of science through a love of natural history museums, a fascination with taxidermy, readings in feminist science studies, and two nagging questions: Why am I not a scientist? And why do I know so many women who are former scientists or engineers? I wanted to know, historically, where and how women did manage to pursue lifelong careers in science. I wasn’t looking for extraordinary women—although I did find a few—but rather women who garnered respect within their disciplinary communities or their institutions despite cultural barriers to their entry.

At the time I began my research, I was supplementing my teaching assistant income by working in classroom outreach and exhibition development for a science center. I looked around me, and everywhere there were women who had majored in science but ended up in education instead. Websites of natural history museums featured the work of male researchers but had photos of women educators. I wondered about this relationship of women, science, education, and museums.

And thus I found my way into the archives of such institutions as the Smithsonian, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. There I found women scientists—amateur and professional—like botanists Alice Eastwood and Agnes Chase, taxidermist Martha Maxwell, San Diego Zoo director Belle Benchley, and botanical garden founder Susanna Bixby Bryant. I learned of their insistence on public outreach and how they made learning about natural history accessible to as many people as possible, sometimes over the objections of their male colleagues. In an era—the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth—when science became increasingly specialized and centered in university and government labs, these women refused to specialize. Indeed, they broadened their own bases of knowledge and invited laypeople to join them in this journey.

Maybe that’s what is needed right now in the history of science, a broadening into new spaces—literal spaces, in the sense of artifacts and public history, as well as disciplinary spaces, like cultural studies, that could benefit both from an infusion of history before 1960 and from research that involves paper archives as well as digital ones.

Drawing women of my generation (I’m 33) and political sensibility deeper into the field will require a broader understanding of what exactly constitutes the history of science. It’s going to mean bridging the gap between the history of science and science studies, those shadows into which “my” women scientists fell and from which I’m trying to pull them. The twenty-first-century practice of the history of science must be marked by a polyphony of voices within our research as well as a diversity of researchers. It sounds cliché, but it must be said: the history of science can no longer afford to focus almost exclusively on brilliant or wacky white men because those were not the only people creating or consuming science. Yet when I look at the titles of recent panels at history of science conferences, when I open Isis, that is largely the history I see.

For me, what will make the history of science distinctly American is an acknowledgment of the syncretism inherent in scientific practice in spaces like museums and in new disciplinary alliances. These are imperfect conglomerations, slippery liaisons. They will require new narratives, new ways of explaining themselves, not unlike Emily Martin’s retelling of the moment of human conception: sperm and egg are partners, not the penetrator and the vanquished. We must conceive of forms of scholarship that are interdisciplinary and provide appropriate space for new faculty, so that (and here I speak selfishly) scholars like myself can be hired based on our research—research that doesn’t fall neatly into current trends in history, museum studies, women’s studies, or ethnic studies. I am heartened when I see new varieties of collaboration among departments, such as the tenure-track food studies position created at the University of California, Davis, whose occupant divides her time between Food Science (in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences) and American Studies (in the Division of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies).

Apart from research, practicing the history of science in the United States means seizing the teachable moment. Even if I’m teaching an American studies or composition course, when some young man brings up the idea that women and men’s brains are just wired differently, and that’s why there are fewer women than men practicing the “hard” sciences, I not only object to his comment as a scholar who prefers cultural explanations to biological ones. I also historicize his comment in light of nineteenth-century ideas that women’s ovaries would shrivel if they developed their intellects, in light of phrenology and anthropometry and other pseudosciences whose studies were at the time accepted at—excuse the pun—face value. Many science students take my humanities courses because they need to complete a general education requirement. Again and again I have made visible the culture of science to these students, and I delight in watching them be reflective about their practice of science, perhaps for the first time.

For me, to practice the history of science in the United States is to be an academic activist. It is to democratize history and science in ways similar to the projects undertaken by women scientists working in museums, zoos, herbaria, and botanical gardens in the first half of the twentieth century. It means listening to contemporary feminist voices emerging from the sciences themselves and looking for earlier manifestations of these interpretations of the natural world. If we are only looking backward, and not using our work to explain why so many Americans are scientifically semiliterate or why certain Americans succeed in the sciences while others do not, then what’s the point of our scholarship? The best history of science in America will be motivated not only by our collective fetish for the arcane, but also by a desire to bring a better understanding of history and science into the everyday lives of Americans.

What’s American (Studies) about the History of Science in America?

Kimberly A. Hamlin, Miami University

(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

Unlike many historians of science, few of us in American studies come from a background in science. We are trained to analyze culture from an interdisciplinary perspective and to connect the past to the present, often explicitly. Our research reflects this training as does our overriding concern for issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and access. Like the history of science, most American studies research on science and technology currently focuses on twentieth century developments and it is increasingly transnational in scope, again begging the question of “what’s American about the history of science in America.” I should also note that, to-date, American studies scholars have been more engaged with technology than with science, though in the last couple of years work on science has increased as well. Indeed, more and more scholars of science and culture seem to be gravitating toward the American Studies Association (ASA) as a possible organizational home and more exciting work on science has emerged from within American studies. In 2007, the ASA’s Constance M. Rourke prize for the best article published in the American Quarterly was awarded to Maria Farland (Fordham University) for her essay entitled “W. E. B. DuBois, Anthropometric Science, and the Limits of Racial Uplift” (December 2006). This year’s John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American studies went to Julie Sze (UC-Davis) for Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT Press, 2007). Sze’s research represents the best that an American studies approach to science can offer – it is rigorously interdisciplinary, and it places contemporary campaigns for environmental justice in a broad cultural (and historical) context. Her recognition by the ASA indicates that the field itself is becoming increasingly interested in engaging with the history of science, particularly as it intersects with culture.

In fact, perhaps it is science’s intersections with culture that define what is “American” (and American studies) about the history of science in America. As scholars in recent decades have established, science is, by definition and by practice, transnational. On the flip side, however, the ways in which people understand and respond to scientific ideas and findings are inherently local and culturally contingent. American studies scholars are particularly interested in the ways in which scientific ideas are received, resisted, and reformulated in culture, often in unanticipated (and unscientific) ways.

My current research project analyzes the popular and scientific reception of Darwinian evolution through the lens of gender. In exploring the American response to Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871), I was surprised to find many references to the work, both explicit and implicit, in courtship advice books. In 2006, I presented a paper at the History of Science Society conference in Vancouver about the reverberations of The Descent of Man, especially the theory of sexual selection, in nineteenth-century prescriptive literature. Of course Darwin probably did not anticipate that he would be cited as a reference in debates about the efficacy of “false bosoms” in attracting mates, to give just one example, but that was precisely the point. Scientific ideas travel throughout all layers of culture. And they are often disseminated and discussed by non-scientists who may or may not be familiar with their exact origins or concerned with presenting them in their scientific context. Indeed, it is through these secondary and tertiary iterations that many people interact with science. While I was nervous about presenting such a cultural analysis at the HSS, I received very helpful and supportive feedback from members of the Society and have continued to seek out ways to build bridges between historians of science and American studies scholars.

In 2007, Carolyn de la Peña (UC-Davis) and I founded the Science and Technology Caucus within the American Studies Association to provide a community for scholars interested in the interdisciplinary study of science and technology within and beyond American culture, as well as foster more discussion of scientific issues within the ASA. We were honored that Robert “Jay” Malone, executive director of the History of Science Society, traveled to Philadelphia to attend our inaugural meeting and express his interest in collaborating with the Caucus. During the Caucus’s two years of existence, we have organized several science- and technology-related panels at ASA meetings, as well as an archives tour of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. We are also delighted that the University of Massachusetts Press has announced a new series on Science, Technology, and Culture, edited by Caucus members Carolyn de la Peña and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

While there are many exciting developments in terms of research on the history of science in America, it appears that more could be done in the classroom to integrate science into the broader study of the history and culture of the United States. Many of us in American studies and related fields wholeheartedly agree with Clark Elliot’s observation in his July 2008 contribution to this essay series that “One of the primary failures in the development of history of science in America (as a field of study) seems to be the relative lack of progress in integrating science into American studies and the overall writing and teaching of American history.” I recently conducted an (entirely unscientific) survey of current and recent course offerings at several of the top American studies programs. What I found confirmed Clark Elliot’s observation. With a few very notable exceptions (such as Daniel Kevles’s courses at Yale and several at UC-Davis), most schools do not offer any American studies electives on science or technology. Nor does it appear that the history of science is a focal point in many introductory classes. The same could be said for many history departments, especially those that do not have a historian of science on the faculty. Perhaps the ASA Science and Technology Caucus and the Forum for the History of Science in America could work together to develop ways to better incorporate the history of science into history and American studies curricula.

Weaving science more fully into history and American studies classes not only enriches our understanding of U.S. history and culture, it also appeals to a broad range of students and can yield interesting results. This academic year, I have been fortunate to teach the American studies senior capstone course on the theme of “Darwin in America.” While most of the students had not previously devoted much thought to the ways in which evolutionary theory has influenced, and continues to influence, American life and culture, I have been exceedingly impressed by their enthusiasm for the topic and by their capstone projects. One student has designed and will actually teach a seven-week film course on depictions of evolution in popular culture, and another has planned a week’s worth of public events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. These events will culminate in a university- and community-wide birthday party for Darwin on February 12, 2009 to be held at Miami University’s Hefner Zoology Museum. While Darwin would no doubt be surprised by such a celebration, just as he may have been puzzled as to why he was invoked in discussions of “falsies,” his birthday offers a unique opportunity for us to reflect on the interplay between science and culture in America. As we blow out the candles on Darwin’s birthday cake, let us continue to think about new and innovative ways to incorporate these insights about the history of science into all levels of history and American studies classes.

A Voice From the Beginning

John Burnham,Ohio State University

(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

To the best of my knowledge, I was only the second person to offer a regular course in the history of American science in a major graduate school, in this case, Ohio State University. That was in 1963-64. The first to offer such a course was Hunter Dupree, at the University of California, Berkeley. It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that the History of Science Society finally a few years ago honored Dupree’s landmark contributions to the field of the history of American science.

When I started my teaching, there were only rudimentary materials available. Fortunately, I had been trained to teach from primary sources, and so I developed a reasonably coherent course. Almost immediately, in 1964, Nathan Reingold published a collection of nineteenth-century documents, which was a great help for that part of the course. Brooke Hindle had already published The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (1956), which did basic synthesis on the earlier period, and Dupree’s Science in the Federal Government (1957) provided as much of a narrative as then existed. Most of the rest of the resources were biographical—some very insightful and helpful.

Clark Elliott in the Spring issue of News and Views notes that up to the present time, no synthetic history of American science, written by a professional historian, has appeared. That is accurate for the period since 1972. (There is some hope. I keep urging Ronald Numbers to publish the results of his synthetic thinking.)

So thin were the teaching resources in the 1960s that I published Science in America: Historical Selections (1971), a book of primary source selections covering the entire history up through the appearance of the environmental movement of the 1960s. It is an embarrassing fact that for a generation, at least, the brief introductory materials in that book constituted the best synthetic account of the history of American science in print—not because of the virtue of the synthesis there, but because of the lamentable lack of good synthetic work by my colleagues.

Eventually the first half of the course was covered by a series of superb monographs: Hindle on the colonial period, John Greene on American Science in the Age of Jefferson (1984), and George Daniels’ 1968 book on the Jacksonian era (the importance of which was described by Hamilton Cravens in the Spring News and Views). One might add Robert V. Bruce’s long-delayed The Launching of American Science, 1846-1876 (1987). The twentieth century remained unsynthesized except for the partial but brilliant work of Daniel Kevles, whose 1964 doctoral dissertation on the history of physics I started drawing on immediately, along with the work of Hamilton Cravens, much of which appeared in The Triumph of Evolution in 1978.

For two generations, beginning even before the years covered by Clark Elliott’s analysis in the Spring Issue, a variety of scholars produced publications of varying quality. Much was indeed antiquarian. Some was limited, in many ways, not least in being so narrow as to lose general significance. Other work was good to superb, such as Charles Rosenberg’s very early articles on agricultural science—which stood me in good stead as a teacher. When I last taught the course, at the very beginning of the twenty-first century, I still had the feeling that the field had not fulfilled the promise we saw those many years ago.

I have often speculated on why succeeding waves of younger scholars did not make the splash I expected. Nor was I the only one, as I discussed the problem with colleagues. I rejoiced at the formation of the Forum for the History of Science in America, and I still hope that it generates the momentum I have observed to come out of other groups. In the beginning decades, the problem for the field lay, I think, in the contingencies of history: the people and the institutions involved.

The main institution I shall mention is the History of Science Society. As I came into the field, in the United States Thomas Kuhn was revolutionizing and upgrading it in the United States, in the company of some exceptionally good general historians of science or historians of European science like Charles Gillispie (and one could name many more). The idea of national histories of science, a problem discussed at length by a number of scholars, did not play well in that context. There was an Establishment group in the HSS, and they were aggressively growing the field. In the course of doing so, they implicitly and, unfortunately, explicitly put great store in excluding or labeling as below standard many (but not all!) second-rate and amateur contributors. I need not point out how this upgrading process tended to marginalize contributors to the history of American science or sciences. Some of the naïve snobbishness in the Establishment was comic, but some, I think, was tragic and destructive. The supportive, stimulating, and positive atmosphere that I observed working in the Midwest History of Science Junto meetings was a distinct contrast to the HSS—and did much more good for every grade of scholar present.

Nevertheless, national historians of science, as others have observed, had a hard time gaining any credibility in general American history (a terribly overcrowded field), and they were generally second-class citizens in the general history of science. Not even the enthusiasm of people working in fresh new fields, as recalled by Alan Marcus in the Spring Issue, could overcome this handicap.

The number of people centrally involved in the history of American science has always been limited. Many or most people writing in the field have had primary identities elsewhere. In the core group, things very early went sour, as can happen, for example, among faculty members in a small college. Members of the self-appointed Establishment in the history of American science were not strong enough in subject matter or scholarship to manage a proper upgrading in their subfield. An informed diagnosis that I heard at the time was that one domineering senior figure hounded many young people to see just one more “important” archive and then another, so that they never finished, or never published—terrified by the prospect of hypercritical colleagues’ devastating censure. In such an atmosphere, it took great courage for anyone to publish, much less synthesize, and so work in the field remained, overall, narrow.

And, regrettably, the openness that Clark Elliott correctly detects now in the literature did not extend to the personnel in the field. Sadly, there was much exclusion, favoritism, envy, and all of the other petty personal negatives that can appear in a small group with a limited or timid viewpoint. In general, they did not welcome new opportunities and outlooks (as Alan Marcus hints in his piece).

In the general field of U.S. history, the colonial and early national periods have been mined out to an extraordinary extent—and one does not even mention the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is not surprising that, in the history of science, the twentieth century has become more attractive to scholars. But what was happening in the United States, especially by the middle of the century, became central to world science, and the incursion of general historians of science into American science became a widely discussed phenomenon. This meant that provincial historians now had formidable new competitors, and the bar was raised even higher. Suddenly if one wrote the history of science in the United States, one also had to deal with events overseas—for which many scholars were untrained or otherwise unprepared.

My own observation of current younger scholars in Europe in a parallel dilemma is that they are building on a local history tradition out of the Annales school—but they largely skip the national category (or include it as a particularity) and situate their subjects in a global perspective. This is interesting in a general way and still empirical and understandable in the specifics. Moreover, in a global framework, the particulars can really carry general significance.

I can only predict that, as usual, Americans will follow the Europeans. The particularities of the American scene have a bright future when placed in a context of global patterns. And now that in history in general the intellectual (or doctrinaire) barriers to narrative history are falling away, there may yet be hope that a new generation will take courage, look carefully at the sources—both primary and secondary—and produce many fine syntheses of what happened in the area of science in America.

Characteristics of the History of Science in America, with Some Programmatic Notes on Unity

Clark A.Elliott, Belmont, Massachusetts
(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America?” series)

The study of science in America has a history of its own and is relevant background to a discussion of the general topic. At the beginning of the post-World War II era and the related growth of history of science as a field of study, the focus was on European developments and, arguably, the emphasis was on so-called “internalist” history. American science was a side show to what had taken place across the Atlantic. The early generation of Americanists, for the most part, were (1) not disciplinary historians and (2) were especially interested in the nineteenth century. Given these conditions, the focus of Americanist interest was on the historic development of an infrastructure in support of scientific work, the emergence and character of a multi-layered scientific community, the development of a social and political ideology that granted science a place in the American cultural pantheon (including an examination of the power relations between science and other cultural entities, especially organized religion). The self-consciousness that gave birth to the Forum for the History of Science in America (deliberately, not American Science) was the product of this state of affairs at the time. I opt to define the term “American” to mean the United States of America, which shares a common history and governmental structure, with the social and cultural character that has grown up around that common background. I have no real argument with colleagues who extend the definition to include all of North America and sometimes beyond. But that shift to a geographic rather than a governmental and cultural entity (i.e., the USA) would seem to dilute the possibilities for studying the scientific enterprise in a historically-meaningful context.

In very general terms, there appears to have been three loosely defined periods of science in America (and perhaps in modern science overall). In the beginning (seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries), science was most closely identified with the general culture and society, and during the nineteenth century a concerted effort took place to establish science as a separate and self-governing enterprise. The success of this effort led to the second period (roughly 1900-1950), when science was substantially independent and centered in the insulating academic environment. The third (post-1950) period grew out of the great successes of wartime research and an increasingly complex relation between science, technology, industry, and politics. Unlike the period before 1900, when science had to be concerned with the ways in which its pursuits were affected (and perhaps limited) by the general culture, after 1950, the shift turned to the ways in which science itself was the active agent, exerting a significant influence on general American culture, society, economics, and politics. The fact that research on science in America, as a sub-discipline, grew up largely focused on nineteenth-century developments, poses a significant challenge to those who wish to extend the field to cover what, in many ways is a quite different entity in the post-1900 (and especially post-1950) era.

There are, of course, various approaches to history of science and none has been exclusively characteristic of studies of any one of the broad historic periods outlined above. A significant amount of work has been done on the social and organizational history of recent science, and studies on the pre-1900 period have sometimes focused on the history of disciplines. Disciplinary studies are more feasible for the recent period, however, simply because “American” science is part of an international coordinated effort. In such cases, what is American about the topic may be integrated into a broader approach where national interests are not considered. Ideally, of course, socio-political and intellectual interests are now more apt to be integrated and the local aspects made part of the overall story. Nonetheless, for recent science there is a dilution in the way in which many (disciplinary) studies can be called American even when Americans are involved.

Some interesting historiographical questions arise in trying to characterize or define American science. Is it anything that happens in science in America? Is it possible to describe or characterize American science in any distinctive way (as when referring to nineteenth century science as mainly measurement, data collection, or instrument-oriented)? Has the democratic ethos, religious foundation, or philosophical outlook of Americans formulated or emphasized a particular interpretive inclination among American scientists (perhaps comparing the pre-professional and professional eras in American science)? Is what is “American” about American science mainly about organization, politics, cultural effects, and the like?

These are challenging questions but they are for others to pursue. My engagement in the field has been much more pragmatic – identifying the actors, delineating salient “events” (chronology) to serve as a factual substructure for research, identifying archival resources, bibliography. The listing of new books and dissertations on American science in News and Views beginning in 1980 (after 1984, the newsletter of the Forum for the History of Science in America) has taken a fairly broad approach to the subject. It might be helpful to consider some of the characteristics of those writings on American science, as background to reflection on the nature of the field.

About 7,000 books and dissertations were issued during the period from 1980 through 2006. On average, the number of citations grew by roughly 15% every five years. About a quarter were biographical in approach (that is, they dealt with the life and/or work of one or several individuals), and about 10% were institutional in orientation (defining institutions very broadly, including universities, societies, government entities, business concerns, and others).

Around 85% of the books and dissertations related to particular scientific disciplines, although a variety of historiographic approaches were used (including biographical and institutional studies). The other 15% of the total output is characterized as humanistic, organizational-institutional, and social-political aspects, relations and events of science (about evenly divided among those three categories). It may not be surprising to point out that the largest disciplinary subjects (about 20% in each case) were medicine (health sciences and practices) and technology (technology, engineering, and invention). Environmental history (together with agriculture) amounted to 10% of the output, and works on the social and cognitive sciences about the same. Only about a quarter of the works relate to the history of basic scientific disciplines (astronomical and atmospheric, earth, life, and physical sciences, and mathematics). Around one-third of the monographic output in the period through 2005 spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and only about 15% relates specifically to the period before 1900. These numbers confirm what is impressionistically known, that the history of science in America is now heavily weighted toward the twentieth century. Work on the eighteenth century and earlier is largely vanishing, accounting for only about 2% of the items in the bibliography as of 2005.

Whatever else can be said about Americanist studies in science, it is a varied and vibrant enterprise. Whether it is a coherent field is liable to examination and contemplation. Undoubtedly, there are many individuals writing on what can be called American science whose professional loyalties are elsewhere – in environmental studies, history of physics, religion, literature, and other specialized areas. The history of medicine and technology are integral to certain views of the American scene but both are self-consciously and separately organized activities and many of their practitioners no doubt consider themselves as only marginally related to the history of science.

In a situation where many practitioners set their primary gaze on other historical fields or are faced with divided loyalties, an actualization of American science as sub-discipline may have limitations, in so far as the intellectual enterprise is concerned. But there is much to be done in building and maintaining the infrastructure, not unlike the tasks taken up by the American scientific community in the nineteenth century. In terms of organizational effort, this can be a primary locus of activity by the Forum for the History of Science in America. There is an ongoing need to identify and distribute notice of new publications, archival repositories and collections, and websites – i.e., to take charge of the whole question of research resources in the broadest possible sense. The Forum in the past produced a directory of interested historians and it may be time to consider a renewal of that project (especially now that technology has made its creation and maintenance so much more feasible) – i.e., to define the field also in terms of its practitioners, irrespective of whether they are Forum members. Periodically, the field would benefit from a “needs and opportunities” review, to look not only at what has been done (sometimes overdone) but topics or problems that are deemed interesting but neglected. Admittedly, scholarly work is best when it is generated in a laissez faire environment, but occasionally reviewing the landscape can be helpful, perhaps especially for graduate students, who could apply their efforts in areas that promise maximum impact.

One of the primary failures in the development of history of science in America (as a field of study) seems to be the relative lack of progress in integrating science into American studies and the overall writing and teaching of American history. This should be a more active area for the Forum. Appointment of a Forum subcommittee (or a joint committee with the American Studies Association and/or the Organization of American Historians) to study the topic with recommendations for action would be a worth while project. In raising awareness of American science small things can be beneficial – e.g., it would be helpful if reviewers were encouraged to mention that a work is situated in the American context, even when the books’authors do not aim to write specifically on science in America. In fact, it would be useful if all history of science reviews would consistently refer to the political or geographic locus of a work, when such limitation is an aspect of the book. In this same vein, an effort should be made to encourage more studies comparing American science to the corresponding situation in other national settings. Finally, why, after all this time, has no one written a general work on the history of science in the United States, from the colonial period to the present? Beyond inertia, the answer to that question alone would elevate the whole topic of American science to a level of concrete discussion

See the cumulated bibliography, now including about 7,100 citations and with subject headings, at:

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