Wednesday, January 7, 2009

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.


  1. I'm the librarian at Rancho Santa Ana botanic Garden. I hope to meet you next time you do research here. Gotta love Alice and Susanna. They'd make interesting subjects for a biography, I have no doubt.


  2. While I appreciate the sentiment of this post (a critical mass of women historians of science shouldn't be conflated with the discipline as a whole taking women or gender and science seriously), I am a little disturbed about the logic of avoiding HSS. If you want to make gender a more pervasive category of analysis in history of science, wouldn't organizing a panel on the topic at HSS be a better mode of activism within the discipline than restricting yourself to already specialized conferences?

  3. Leslie,
    In January I'll be launching a website ( that will match volunteers (aka citizen scientists or amateur scientists) with researchers running citizen science projects. It will be very easy to search for specific types of projects so you may want to search for botanical projects and see if any women researchers are heading them up. Happy to help if you'd like.