Monday, July 14, 2008

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

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Science Knows No Boundaries

Alan I. Marcus, Mississippi State University
(An essay in the "What's American About the History of Science in America" series.)

Like virtually all historians of science before me, I entered the field from science; I had been a chemist. But unlike most science historians, I was never fully steeped in the scientific method as the only way of knowing or viewing natural phenomenon. I was too much of a sixties kid for that. Everything seemed more complex than what I had learned. Perspective seemed up for grabs. So when I was told that science knows no national borders, that scientific knowledge was an accumulation of data and facts that led to somewhere, I naturally felt dis-ease. I thought it quite cool how various practitioners of science in the past had figured things out, how they did whatever they did, but I never took it as a model for action, a model to be employed in some project to make the world a better place or to manufacture additional or new science. In that sense, I approached the history of science in the spirit of discovery but I never worried or even contemplated that that sense of discovery could or should be applied to the present or the future.

Years later I learned that some would call such an approach historical particularism. But it colored how I viewed the then current history of science tumult. A generation of historians in the early 1960s had tried to prove that there was science in America. They had settled on Joseph Henry at Princeton, the Smithsonian Institution, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz to show that Americans participated in the debates that were engulfing European scientists. In that sense, scientists could be found in America but their work was simply part of the worldwide scientific enterprise and these American scientists on a whole added relatively little.

Another group challenged that equation a bit later in that decade. Led by George H. Daniels, they asked not whether Americans practiced science but rather what constituted science in America. At the ouset, they dismissed the idea that there was simply one worldwide scientific community. What they posited instead were communities corresponding to national borders. What was science in the age of Andrew Jackson? What was the AAAS at its founding? What did Americans trained in Justus Liebig’s laboratory take back to the United States and establish there?

That was quite a radical precept. It dismissed any number of propositions that seemed to undergird history of science. By positing more than one scientific community, it implied that science was not universal but rather relative. And it emphasized the characteristics of the community of practitioners. Daniels, for example, tried to provide a template by which any group of practitioners took steps to meld themselves into a single entity in the manner of European scientists.

It remained a short step from that approach to a full blown analysis of the cultural context of science, scientific inquiry, or any other facet of science. That approach was ultimately taken in numerous ways and has characterized much of the history of science activity over the past three decades. In this framework, what the individual or collective experiences, knows, feels, suffers, learns colors if not defines what it/they see and what it/they believe. In a sense, it places a stimulus-response model of human behavior on scientists, the complexity of which solely depends on the individual.

This social force explanation has always struck me as unsatisfactory. And I never have been comfortable identifying science as a unique type of activity. Scientists practice science but they remain people and operate within certain cultural parameters or constructs. More immediately, they accept notions that characterize that culture. Indeed, as Michel Foucault, Quentin Skinner, and Clifford Geertz has taught us, those cultural notions make argument possible. Without accepting those notions, individuals would have no common fund of perspective from which agreement or disagreement could be located.

It has always been those cultural notions that have fascinated me. But if they are indeed cultural notions—notions found at particular places at particular times—then they should not just be the possession of scientists but manifested through the various activities and enterprises of that time and place.

Put into action, this leads to an interesting proposition too frequently ignored. Indeed, most historians of science—indeed, most historians generally—follow a particular person, event, discovery, theory over time to see how experience modifies that person, event, discovery or theory. This longitudinal approach is insular in the sense that it focuses exclusively on the impact of various forces on a particular person or thing to determine how that impact changed that very person or thing.

But the cultural notions approach begins simply by treating the labors of scientists as the product of discrete cultural notions. In that sense, scientists are no different than artists, lawyers, politicians in that particular place at that particular time. It stands to reason that scientists are not pursuing an extraordinary project but rather a common one. They employ notions held in common with their peers that help demarcate what they see. And if that is indeed the case, then the investigation of science and scientists needs to be latitudinally pursued and focused on interrogating those notions.

Since the method of scientists suggests that their efforts are anything but arbitrary or culturally-based, scientists are especially frank in expressing how they arrived at their work. And by being so certain of their objectivity, they are much more willing than then contemporary artists or literary specialists to describe sans guile their assumptions and thought processes; they become an extraordinary window into the cultural notions that circumscribe them. And in that final sense, history of science in America and history of American science stand as nothing less than the history of American culture through the details and practices of science and scientists. History of science then becomes integrated within American history.

Alan I. Marcus
Mississippi State University

What’s American about the History of Science in America? Restrospective and Prospective

The Forum is pleased to announce a new essay series on what it means to study science in an American context (broadly defined). Does awareness of the Americas as a place where science is practiced influence our understanding of that science? We are soliciting brief essays and comments (anywhere from 500-3,500 words) from scholars at all stages of their careers working any relevant discipline (not just history). Senior scholars might choose to reflect on how their understanding of science in America has changed over the years, if it has, while graduate students and recent Ph.D.s might discuss the relevance (or lack thereof) of the idea of American science to their research.

Thirty years ago, the field of history of science was oriented almost entirely toward Europe. At about that time, a number of scholars consciously identified themselves as historians of science in America. During the years between then and now, research that was once marginal to the discipline has become central, and many historians who were once on the periphery of the profession now stand among its leaders. The Forum hope to document what thirty years of change has meant to the theoretical construction of this field and related disciplines in order to gain a better understanding of where it is now and where it might be heading.

If you would like to write an essay for this series, please contact Daniel Goldstein, newsletter editor for the Forum for the History of Science in America(

We are delighted to present the inaugural essays in this series

Science Knows no Boundaries;” Alan I. Marcus;
Characteristics of the History of Science in America, with Some Programmatic Notes on Unity;” Clark A. Elliott;
The History of American Science: A Field Finds Itself,” Hamilton Cravens,

Each author reflects on his own relationship to the history of science, the overall character of the field, and suggests directions for its future development. Please join a discussion of these essays on the Forum’s blog.