A Voice From the Beginning

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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 na├»ve 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.

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