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

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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:

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