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.

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.