Book review: Writing about women’s lives in science

An edited version of this book review appeared in the latest issue of British Journal for the History of Science (vol. 49, 2016, pp. 529-30).


Govoni, Paola, and Franceschi, Zelda Alice (eds.), Writing about Lives in Science: (Auto)Biography, Gender, and Genre. Goettingen: V&R Unipress, 2015. Pp. 287. ISBN. 978-3-8471-0263-2. €44.99 (hardback).

Biography within the history of science has repeatedly been rescued, revived and reconsidered: from Thomas Hankins’s 1979 ‘Defense of Biography’, to the essays in Telling Lives in Science (1996, eds. Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo), the 2002 workshop that led to The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (2006, ed. Thomas Söderqvist), the 2006 ‘Focus’ section in Isis and now this collection. Many of those who have written biographies have been reflexive about their motivations and their version of their subject’s life and character. Richard Westfall, for example, produced some fascinating reflections for the 1985 collection Introspection in Biography, showing the wisdom of B.J.T. Dobbs’s comment that Newton is “something of a Rorschach inkblot test” for historians (Isis 85 (1994), 516). Those academic biographies of major figures have, after all, still been produced and, as Margaret Rossiter and Pnina G. Abir-Am led the way from the 1980s onward, so too have collections and considerations of lives of women scientists.

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Captain Cook and Australia Day: invasion, exploitation and science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first posted on 27 January 2014.

Captain Cook’s contested reputation casts him as imperialist villain or man of science. Whatever we think of him, the two roles are not mutually exclusive

Statue of Captain Cook at Greenwich
Statue of Captain James Cook outside the National Maritime Museum. Photograph: David Iliffe/Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday [26 January] was Australia Day and, thanks in part to social media, it seems to have been more overtly contested than ever before. As a much-shared piece on this website stated, for many Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration. Marking the anniversary of the arrival of the 11 British ships known as the First Fleet in 1788, its choice as a national holiday has long been contested. In my Twitter feed, #invasionday was more prevalent than the trending Happy Australia Day.

As a historian of science working on the history of 18th-century navigation, I’ve noticed how often Captain Cook appears as the symbol of the British invasion. Yesterday, for example, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman joked on Twitter that he had a Cook-shaped piñata to celebrate the holiday (that wept white tears when hit) and, earlier in the week, Cook’s family cottage was graffitied with slogans, including “26th Jan Australia’s shame”.

This is odd, in some ways, as Cook died nearly a decade before the Fleet sailed. He did not invade or settle, nor, even, was his ship the first European contact with Australia. However, the fact that his cottage was vandalised in Melbourne, having been moved from Yorkshire in 1934, perhaps tells us almost everything we need to know about how Cook’s reputation has been welded to his brief visit to Australia and has been both near-deified and villainised ever since.

In illustration of the complexity of Cook’s legacy, ex-pat New ZealanderVicky Teinaki alerted me to a film on display at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Yorkshire. The museum’s website describes it as “recording the reaction of contemporary communities to Cook’s legacy” and these, Vicky said, could be generalised into three groups: “acknowledging he was a great & brave explorer, anger at the white man diseases he brought, or ‘better English than French’”.

The reaction from this side of the world depends, I think, on whether Cook is viewed as the military man – a blue-coated, gun-toting officer of the Royal Navy – or the explorer and man of science. He was, of course, both, for the categories are not mutually exclusive. On the Endeavourvoyage he was paid by and carried out the instructions of the Navy andthe Royal Society of London. He was both a vessel commander and one of two astronomers charged with carrying out a range of observations, including the 1769 transit of Venus and longitude determinations.

Those who cast Cook as a man of science note not only his ability in astronomical observation and mathematical calculation, but also his careful observation of the new lands, flora, fauna and peoples he encountered. Regarding Cook’s journal descriptions of the latter, theNational Library of Australia is careful to note that “Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, had advised Cook by letter to treat with respect the Indigenous people he encountered and to communicate peacefully with them.”

Yet it is obvious that all the science undertaken on his and similar voyages was part and parcel of the process of exploration and colonisation. The transit of Venus observations were bound up with attempts to improve navigation and cartography, which, along with botany, geography and ethnography, provided information about how best to exploit new territories.

Cook is, perhaps, less directly worthy of vilification than those who developed policies for colonisation and who governed societies that forgot the caution and respect that Morton had urged. Equally, however, he is among those to whom we might attach collective guilt for their role in making empire and exploitation possible.

If Cook is guilty in this way, were not also many of those who stayed at home? Morton and the Royal Society, who linked their enterprise firmly to Britain’s imperial interests? John Harrison and the Commissioners of Longitude, who looked for ways to make long-distance sea voyages and the data they brought home more reliable?

This train of thought led me to recall an interview I recently heard on Radio 4, with a scientist brought in to discuss the Moon’s potentially exploitable natural resources. How might we manage the claims of different nations (limited, in theory, by international agreement) and private companies (currently unlimited in law) to these minerals? Might this lead to conflict, injustice and over-exploitation?

The planetary scientist pushed the questions away. We do not yet know if anything useful is there, he said, and no one yet has the resources to make lunar mining profitable. His aim is simply to find out what is there, not to worry about the consequences. Given what history tells us, it might seem better to resist looking. At the very least, it seemed shockingly blasé to say that any future conflicts, rivalries and ruination would have nothing at all to do with the curiosity-driven likes of him.

Cook could not foresee the results of his actions. Understanding of the transmission of disease or the consequences of introducing alien species was limited; rivalry for worldwide empire was, as yet, in its infancy, and belief in the virtue of spreading European knowledge and values was firm. Cook is blamed because of hindsight, a little of which should always prompt a greater sense of responsibility today.

Historians of science look forward to a unique gathering

Cross-posted from The H Word.
Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope

This Friday sees the deadline for submissions to what will be the largest ever meeting of historians of science in the UK, and almost certainly the largest for at least a generation to come.

Last Friday already saw the closing date for organised symposiums within the International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and the organisers tweeted:

 has just received its 1000th symposium paper abstract. 23 Nov 12

With the individual submissions still to come in, this promises to be huge for the history of science, which usually counts conference delegates in the 10s or 100s.

The event is taking place next year, 22-28 July 2013, in Manchester. It is officially hosted by the British Society for the History of Science, and is being co-ordinated locally by members of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

As well as an extremely full academic programme, the website promises to show off the history of science, technology and medicine in Manchester, “the original ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution” withdisplays, events and tours, including to Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope of which has been appropriated to the event’s logo.

There will also be a “fringe” that will include films, music, theatre and performance, aimed at the public as well as delegates. Importantly, there may [edit – this is unconfirmed as yet!] also be an entire pub, the Jabez Clegg, handed over for the conference, selling, I’ve been promised, unique and appropriately-named cask beers. (It helps that the Manchester department includes a postgrad with experience of organising beer festivals and a historian of brewing.)

As well as being large, the Congress, an activity of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, will, of course, be very international. It will be an important opportunity for scholars working within very different contexts to get together. This is the 24th such Congress – they take place every four years, with recent meetings having been held in Mexico City (2001), Beijing (2005) and Budapest (2009). It has not been in the UK since Edinburgh in 1977.

Probably the most famous of all the International Congresses of the History of Science was the second, in London in 1931. It was here thatBoris Hessen delivered his paper, “The Soci-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia“.

As the title suggests, this presented science as something that did not stand aloof from its social and economic context. It has been considered foundational for research into the relationship between science and society, or “external” rather than “internal” history of science. Certainly, it was remarkable at the time, being a full-blown Marxist account, which concluded:

The great historical significance of the method created by Marx lies in the fact that knowledge is not regarded as the passive, contemplative perception of reality, but as the means for actively reconstructing it. For the proletariat science is a means and instrument for this reconstruction. That is why we are not afraid to expose the “terrestrial origin” of science, its close connection to the mode of production of material existence. Only such a conception of science can truly liberate it from those fetters in which it is inevitably trapped in bourgeois class society.

Such international gatherings have often been stages on which politics can be performed. It was not just Hessen, but a whole set of Soviet delegates who took the audience by surprise in 1931. Their papers were gathered together and published as Science at the Crossroads, by Nikolai Bukharin. It was to provoke heated debate, touching a nerve in a time of crisis of capitalism in the west.

I am told by old hands that Cold War politics coloured the Congresses of the 70s and 80s. Things have changed again, but I suspect that there will be lively interest in the diversity that continues to exist when the field is seen at its broadest. The British organisers, naturally, are interested in showcasing the wealth of resources and scholarship that can be found in Manchester and the UK. Beyond that, it would be great if the size of the event can help raise awareness of the discipline.

I will be there, as one of the co-organisers of a symposium on current history of science research taking place in, or in partnership with, museums. There is plenty to choose from: Arabic science, paleontological specimens, radio communication, Chinese natural knowledge, science at war, theology and science, ancient astronomy, east-west encounters, gender and knowledge, mathematical institutions, and much, much more – including the history of the sauna and new insights into bicycle history.

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The British Journal for the History of Science turns 50

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The British Journal for the History of Science
The British Journal for the History of Science has been published since 1962. Photograph: Melanie Keene

This seems to be a good year for anniversaries in the history of science, particularly 50th anniversaries. Science studies clearly turned a corner in 1962. I have already mentioned the anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and there has been much attentionon Rachel Carson’s now-classic Silent Spring. This year also sees one of the discipline’s leading international journals, the British Journal for the History of Science, turn 50.

The British Society for the History of Science, which supports the BJHS, has been reflecting on the journal’s history and celebrating the anniversary by making a selection of past articles free to access.

This moment – when academic publishing is being scrutinised with questions of open access, impact ratings, and the role of print in a digital world – is an interesting one in which to reflect on the past and future of a journal. Will it continue to build up on my bookshelves, in physical form? What was the journal’s role in defining and cementing the discipline? Which articles have been most influential? How have our interests changed over the last half century?

Some of these issues are considered in the October issue of Viewpoint[PDF], the magazine of the BSHS. I particularly enjoyed a feature that got five current scholars to look over the articles published in the very first issue BJHS, from June 1962. They provoke some interesting reflections, although as Frank James writes:

An inattentive reader comparing the first with more recent issues of the BJHS might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the history of science over the last fifty years. The subject matter looks remarkably similar – papers on the history of institutions, communication technology and genetics all continue to be written about in the Journal and elsewhere. But a detailed reading … reveals an entirely different approach….

One of the things that James notes is that four out of the five contributors to Issue 1 were scientists. In 1962 there were only a few tiny enclaves of professional historians of science. Today, although the discipline is still not large, the vast majority of articles in the BJHS are by academics working in history, history of science and science studies departments. The journal was a sign of this nascent professionalisation.

The change in the content of the BJHS thus chiefly reflected the way in which professional historians of science sought to differentiate their approach from what came before. In particular there was a rising interest in the social, cultural and economic contexts in which science and technology were developed and used. As a result, there was a reduced focus on the specialist technical content of scientific publications.

There are other changes. For example, Andrew Gregory, examining “Greek astronomy and its debt to the Babylonians”, notes that the last century saw a gradual shift away from a “great cultures” understanding of the development of science, to one that takes interest in a wider range of cultures. Historians now take note of the many routes through which knowledge has been transmitted, and have developed an interest in these cultures for their own sake, rather than purely for that of developing a story of progress from great civilisation to great civilisation.

As with so much academic research, the BJHS is not free to access. University libaries usually subscribe and members of the BSHS receive a print subscription and digital access to the whole 50-year back catalogue. Profits are shared between the publisher, Cambridge University Press, and the Society. It is a reasonable model compared to some, since it benefits the discipline as well as CUP, and there will, increasingly, be Research Council-funded research that will need to be made publicly accessible.

It seems a good omen that the Society and CUP should have decided to mark the anniversary by making a selection of articles open access. The list has been put together by two eminent former editors of the journal,Simon Schaffer and Janet Browne, and there are some corkers.

Ranging from the 1970s to 1990s, they show where history of science has headed since 1962. To pick a few, there is Hugh Torrens’presidential address on Mary Anning, Anne Secord on artisans and gentlemen corresponding on natural history in the 19th century, J.R.R. Christie considering big picture historiography of science, Steven Shapin looking at Robert Boyle’s self-fashioning and Deborah Warner asking “What is a scientific instrument?

There is much in these physical and digital pages that is worth revisiting. It continues to provide food for thought, despite changes in fashion and developments in scholarship. Here’s to BJHS’s next 50 years!

Why whiggish won’t do

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The March of Progress image of human evolution 1965
The March of Progress, first published by Rudolph Zallinger in 1965. Its over-simplified presentation of evolution is just as misleading as “whiggish” histories of science.

Two anathemas of academic historians of science have been attracting a certain amount of interest in the history of science blogo-twittersphere lately. One is whiggishness and the other heroes, the two of which often come together in history writing and broadcasting aimed at a broad audience.

Two things kicked this off. One was a piece, Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History, by William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association. The other was the advertising of a lecture on Heroes of Science by Roger Highfield, which took place last week at the Royal Society.

To be clear what we’re talking about, read Cronon’s piece. He offers a great introduction to the concept, and its originator, Herbert Butterfield. He concisely explains that Whig histories tend to “praise revolutions [for history of science, we could read novelties, ideas or individuals] provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present”.

Such history tends to be triumphalist, presentist and linear, although also uncomplicated, narrative and with an in-built claim to relevancy. Because it picks winners and weaves its narrative from the threads of winning ideas – as judged from a modern standpoint – it tends to include heroes (forward-thinking folks who, in C P Snow’s wrong-headed phrase, “have the future in their bones”) and their adversaries (obstructive villains, stuck in the past).

Science does not, and did not, happen this way. This is generally agreed, yet a defence of the approach has been offered in several of the recent posts, comments and talks. The view is that heroes and linear, progressive narratives are required if we want a wider public to read our work or to be inspired by history, science or, indeed, history of science.

I find it hard to accept that it is only by distorting the facts that we can be relevant or inspirational. Is it only by feeding children tales of great men and a triumphant march to the present that they will ever take the bait and bother to read more? Can the general public only stomach fairy tales about heroes and villains?

Firstly, particularly for those who see history of science as a vehicle for science engagement, I want to offer an analogy. It is the “March of Progress” illustration of human evolution: linear, progressive, uncomplicated and misleading. It is an iconography that, as Brian Switek put it on Twitter, “needs to be dumped”. Last year, Frank Swain placed it among his list of Five iconic science images, and why they’re wrong, and a few days ago, Glendon Mellow explained that an alternative icon of evolution by natural selection “should totally be a jumble of primates jockeying for position and way more crowded”.

That sounds very familiar to me. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is emphatically the case that science’s history should be similarly crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

Secondly, for those writing or talking about history, I want to question the purpose and motivation of reaching wider audiences. The fact that for most lay readers history is entertainment is used as the excuse that only already-acceptable, rip-roaring yarns will do the job. But if it is history, it is being presented as fact (or our current best knowledge and interpretation of fact) and readers are unfairly being led astray.

I disagree that history necessarily has to commit the sins of presentism by judging events or people by today’s standards, to seem relevant. Rather, I think that one of the most useful things that history can do for us is to demonstrate that today’s (or our national, class or any other kind of) standards are not the only ones by which things can be judged. Just as meeting new people and travelling to distant parts of the world can provide essential perspective on our lifestyles and values, so can travelling to the past. We should be prepared for the fact that things that seem obviously right to us today will not seem so in the future.

Finally, whiggish narratives, strewn with heroes, only hinder understanding of how the world works. As Athene Donald has written, heroes and geniuses are unrealistic and unhelpful for those who might enter scientific careers in the future. They are equally so for those who are not and have no interest in becoming a scientist, but nevertheless live in a world in which understanding the real rather than ideal relationship between science, technology, people, power and politics is hugely important.

It is not good enough to say that we can entice people with simple stories in the hope that, if they enjoyed it, they will read more and understand better. Most will simply be stuck with the first version – hence the continued existence of science textbook-style history. Rather, our job is to find engaging ways to tell the fuller and more meaningful story.

(Pseudo)scientific history?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

There have been many writers who have claimed that history can be, or should be, scientific. Different things are meant by this, of course, and such statements are provoked by different motivations, although generally they trade on the perceived successes, rewards, professionalism and certainty of the sciences.

There have, historically, been two opposing trends in “scientific history”. In one case the claim is that patterns and laws can be found if the historic record is studied in the right way. The ideal model has variously been Newtonian physics, statistics or mathematics. In the other, the “scientific” element is careful observation and recording, in the manner of natural history. These approaches produce radically different histories, and can underlie very different attitudes to, for example, the importance of individual agency.

Looking for broad patterns, or for the detailed “facts” among the archival or tangible remains of history, are natural impulses, found throughout humanity’s attempts to understand or make use of the past. The claim of being “scientific” is a more recent phenomenon, dating from the cultural success of science in the 19th century.

I have written a couple of posts on my former blog relating to these 19th century debates, including in a review of Ian Hesketh’s book The Science of History in Victorian BritainHenry Buckle is, here, the example of broad-sweep pattern-finding, while JR Seeley and the new breed of professional academic historians looked for legitimacy by focusing on detailed examination of primary sources.

I do not believe that history can predict the future (although I certainly think that important lessons can be learned) but, as Hesketh suggested to me on Twitter, some sort of proof of patterns would seem to be suggested by the regular revival of such approaches.

The latest comes from Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, who coined the term “cliodynamics” in 2003 and was recently interviewed for Nature. The approach, which uses mathematical modelling to analyse interactions between and long-term trends in social and demographic systems, has a number of advocates and there has even been a journal since the end of 2010.

As the Wikipedia article on cliodynamics suggests, its practitioners attempt “to explain ‘big history’ – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse”. Things, therefore, that capture the popular imagination, that might just convince those in power that this is useful knowledge and – significantly – things that academic historians, focused on primary sources and “micro-histories”, have perhaps tended to neglect.

post on the History Today blog by Paul Lay suggests it is a kind of pseudoscience, adding, “Given the way in which mathematical modelling, using past data to predict future trends, has brought the global economy to its knees, this may not be the best time to introduce such methods to the more pragmatic discipline of history.”

Further doubts are voiced at Scientific American blogs, with Maria Konnikova’s post, “The humanities aren’t a science: stop treating them like one”.

I will admit that I have not read Turchin’s detailed work, or the other papers in the journal, and so my comments are based on the Nature interview and a 2008 article he wrote, again in Nature. His opening gambit here would do little to endear him to historians:

What caused the collapse of the Roman Empire? More than 200 explanations have been proposed, but there is no consensus about which explanations are plausible and which should be rejected. This situation is as risible as if, in physics, phlogiston theory and thermodynamics coexisted on equal terms.

The recent interview notes that academic historians are deeply sceptical about cliodynamics. This is not (just) a knee-jerk defence against interlopers from the sciences claiming that they know better than those who have trained long and hard in the ways of more standard approaches to history. There are many historians today who understand that other disciplines can offer us a number of useful tools. But their experience and training also helps them to understand that historical data is a complex business.

Turchin writes that his analysis is based on his collections of “quantitative data on demographic, social and political variables for several historical societies”, but, strikingly, gives no indication here of what his sources might be. The interview states that he and colleagues drew “on all the sources they can find – historical databases, newspaper archives, ethnographic studies”, and, from these, somehow locate factors such as “indicators of corruption … and political cooperation”.

Just how, I wonder, do they do that, across several cultures and vast stretches of time, with any degree of confidence? The detailed studies of historians have amply demonstrated that information contained in their sources cannot be taken on trust or treated equally. We need to have detailed understanding of the terminology of the period, their methods of collecting information, their political interests in sharing (or hiding) it and a sense of who was writing, who reading and why.

Turchin’s interpretation of his results is also pretty strange. He claims that his work has revealed regular 50-year cycles of political violence in the United States: that it was “almost absent in the early 19th century, increased from the 1830s and reached a peak in around 1900. The American Civil War occurred during this period of growing unrest. The instability then subsided during the 1930s, and the following two decades were remarkably calm. Finally, in the 1960s, political violence increased again.”

One has to wonder just what “political” and “violence” mean here, let alone “50-year cycle”. And, just because the Civil War was within the country, why is it counted and the 1812 and Second World Wars ignored?

Treating data like this and pulling out results like these seems to do neither science nor history any favours.

The first HSS: the sad fate of a 19th-century history of science society

Cross-posted from The H Word.

James Orchard Halliwell in 1863, two decades after the early demise of his Historical Science Society. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the quadrennial Three Societies conference – a joint meeting hosted alternately by the US-based History of Science Society, the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science and the British Society for the History of Science. This year the HSS were hosting in Philadelphia.

As the HSS’s website states, it is “the oldest such society”, having been founded in 1924 as a means of supporting the history of science journal, Isis, itself first published in 1913. This was the very earliest dawn ofhistory of science as an independent and professional discipline.

The scientific past as a topic of interest has, of course, a much longer history – one we could trace right back to the earliest biographies of figures that we would now identify as “scientific” – but it is a little-known fact that there was an earlier HSS – the Historical Science Society – nearly 80 years earlier than the American one. The first HSS, founded in 1840, was also focused on publication, in this case being close to the model of the Camden Society, founded in 1838, or the Hakluyt Society, founded in 1846, for the publication of manuscripts or rare texts in scholarly editions.

This period, when printing was becoming cheaper and literacy rates and leisure time were increasing, saw the first great push in the business making primary sources more widely available. It was, arguably, akin to the 21st-century explosion in digital archives of printed and manuscript material. It provided new opportunities and new audiences for those with expert knowledge and access to key archives.

This period also, not coincidentally, saw a push in the history of science – with the publication of William Whewell’s History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences being the most ambitious example. The Historical Society of Science could have been the signal of a bright new dawn in the field, one solidly based on knowledge of the primary sources. Significant antiquarian and scientific figures gave the enterprise their blessing (George PeacockAugustus De MorganFrancis Baily andBaden Powell all joined, bringing the membership up to a mximum of 179). And yet, unlike the Camden and Haklyut Societies, this HSS barely lasted three years, although it nominally existed until 1846.

Was the problem an intrinsic lack of interest in the minutiae of Letters Illustrative of the Progress of Science in England from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to that of Charles the Second and Popular Treatises on Science Written During the Middle Ages (the only two publications produced under the auspices of the Society)? Possibly so, especially as Halliwell’s antiquarian approach did not suit key figures who might have supported his enterprise: Whewell was interested in grand synthesis, not archival minutiae; De Morgan felt there was insufficient rigour and knowledge brought to the analysis.

However, the kiss of death was the scandal that hit its founder, James Orchard Halliwell. Better known now as a Shakespeare scholar, Halliwell had risen to notice at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Whewell was Master and Peacock his mathematics tutor. He was something of a prodigy, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839, before he was even 19.

Halliwell’s precipitous climb to the upper tiers of the British scientific elite was ended when he was accused of stealing manuscripts from Trinity College and, as a result, was banned from entering the Reading Room of the British Museum (later the British Library). The episode was described in the 1890 Dictionary of National Biography:

Several manuscripts from his Cambridge collection were purchased about 1843 by the trustees of the British Museum from Rodd, the bookseller, to whom Halliwell had sold them in 1840. In 1844 it was discovered that many of these manuscripts had previously belonged to the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, and had been missing from that library for five or six years. That the manuscripts were abstracted from Trinity College admitted of no doubt, and Whewell, the master of Trinity College, demanded their restoration at the hands of the trustees of the British Museum. Sir Henry Ellis, the chief librarian of the Museum, began an investigation, and on 10 Feb. 1845 issued an order forbidding Halliwell to enter the Museum until the suspicions attaching to him were removed. After many threats of actions at law on the part of all the persons interested, the matter dropped; the manuscripts remained at the Museum; but the order excluding Halliwell from the Museum was not rescinded. Halliwell asserted in a privately printed pamphlet (1845) that he had bought the suspected manuscripts at a shop in London, and his defence proved satisfactory to his friends.

De Morgan was one of those who forgave him, but it seems unlikely that Whewell or Ellis, both of whom had supported his admittance to the Royal Society, did. While Halliwell continued a career in the study and publication of manuscripts, this venture in historical scientific publication was doomed to failure.

It is eminently likely that Halliwell did “release” the manuscripts from Trinity. It is interesting how, very occasionally, those with a passion for such rarities have a sense of possession that slips over the line of legality. Another such case of this period, and within the same circles, was Guglielmo Libri – a mathematician named “books” who turned to history and, in the course of inspecting libraries and researching his History of Mathematical Sciences in Italy, stole thousands of unique items.

Security, cataloguing and digitisation all make theft much more difficult, and identification much easier, than in the early 19th century. It is unlikely that these genuinely gifted scholars would have been so tempted had they been sitting in Trinity College Library or the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana today. Although, as with plagiarising or faking results in science, such things do occasionally – still – happen.

Scientific histories: debates among Victorian historians

In my last post, which mused on different kinds of veracity in history, I mentioned the book that I am reviewing today: Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak, published by Pickering Chatto last year in the same series as my own book. It focuses on British historiography of the second half of the 19th century, in particular the claims made about possible scientific approaches to history, contrasted with more literary forms, in the process of its professionalisation.

The debates were about the form that historical research and writing should take, who it should be written for, where credibility might be found, how a profession could be built, how professional standards might be met and recognised, and how approaches that did not meet the newly-defined standards should be dealt with. It is about status, boundary work, the claim that history can be written objectively, and, fascinatingly, the suggestion that good – and, indeed, morally commendable – history can never satisfy the untrained reader.

Claiming application of a scientific method to history is, naturally, far from straightforward. There were, for a start, two competing models for what scientific history might look like. One was inspired by the idea that generally applicable laws might be found to explain apparently disparate phenomena; the other was nearer to Baconian induction, where historians would focus on the methodical collection and (as far as possible) unmediated presentation of data. While it might be hoped that the latter would lead to the former, in Victorian history these ideas led to two widely divergent approaches, both in competition with a more traditional narrative approach.

Under Hesketh’s guidance, and after a very clear and useful introductory chapter, we are first introduced to the ambitious ‘natural law’ approach to history, embodied by Henry Thomas Buckle. In 1858 “everybody in London” was, according to William Whewell, “talking about Mr Buckle’s lecture” at the Royal Institution (p. 13). His was ‘big picture’ history, a History of Civilisation in England no less, which Buckle hoped would be “equivalent” or “analogous” to science in revealing natural laws in which providence and morality played no part (p. 17). Demonstrating the influence of Comte among others, Buckle saw history as a series of progressive stages of civilisation, using geography and statistics as well as written sources to tell a story of mankind rather than great men.

Buckle aimed to “rescue history from the hands of annalists, chroniclers, and antiquaries” and he, briefly at least, captured the popular imagination – to the extent that ladies were, Leslie Stephen recalled, “panting for wider generalizations” and the ‘thrill’ of an account where lives were governed not by free will or God’s providence, but implacable natural laws (p. 21). Hesketh explains Buckle’s appeal, and the idiosyncracies of his background, as well as placing him in the context of contemporaries reaching for similar generalisations: Comte, John Stuart Mill and Whewell being obvious, though strikingly different examples.[1]

For a number of other historical writers, Buckle’s work was emphatically not what scientific history should look like: he was too ready to generalise, too little grounded in archival detail, and too sensationalist. He had failed to understand that science was based on dogged, careful examination of ‘facts’, and that it was the duty of the historian to reveal these without drama. Thus, on the other side, we meet Edward Freeman, J.R. SeeleyJ.R. Green, Lord Acton and others, who could, broadly, be put in a set of professionalising historians, admirers of Leopold von Ranke and linked together through personal ties, university positions and publications such as the new English Historical Review and the Saturday Review.

Hesketh explores the backgrounds, and the political and religious allegiances, of these individuals. Their identification as a group would appear to come more from attempts to decide who should not be considered a exemplary historical practitioner than from much commonality in context or approach. In other words, as Hesketh nicely shows, an identity was built through the process of criticising the work of others, whether generalisers like Buckle, or literary historians, taking inspiration from Scott, Carlyle and Macaulay. In particular, we are shown how Charles Kingsley and James Anthony Froude were attacked by Freeman and Seeley.

Froude, likewise reacting against Buckle, found the idea of history as science “an abuse of language”, as nonsensical “as if we were to talk of the colour of sound, or the longitude of the rule-of-three” (p. 70). There was no shortage of archival research in Froude’s work, but he embraced the notion that historical facts are subject to interpretation, both mediated by past actors and modern historians. The ‘facts’ of history could not speak for themselves, and nor could ‘scientific’ historical hypotheses be subject to repetition and experiment. Embracing the role of the historian as interpreter of the past, or advocate for a particular interpretation, Froude produced histories that had drive and readability.

Seeley, however, was adamant that “….history only becomes interesting to the general public by being corrupted” (p. 73), and that  Macaulay’s “making history interesting has done a mischief” with “sweet unwholesome stuff”. It was to be a badge of recognisably virtuous and professional history that it “cannot be understood without an effort” (p. 80). Likewise, Freeman felt the historian should “dare to be accurate” and unpopular, eschewing all interest and excitement as, inevitably, the creation of fable (p. 81).

Much of the book focuses on statements of good historiography (for example, in public lectures, introductions and obituaries) and criticisms of bad (generally in reviews), supplemented by similar commentary derived from private correspondence. It has been Hesketh’s aim, despite his acknowledgement of the lack of objectivity of historical knowledge, to let his characters speak for themselves as much as possible. It may be this, therefore, that has led him to quote such commentary rather than presenting the reader with a real analysis of the main body of work that these writers produced. The book is, therefore, missing a sense of the extent to which, or how, 19th-century histories embodied the virtues their authors claimed for them.

Partly as a result of this, it is difficult to grasp what ‘science’ really meant in the practice of these historians. Both they and/or Hesketh, have a tendency to elide ‘scientific’ with, variously, ‘professional’ or ‘trained’ or ‘disciplinary’ or ‘specialist’. It was not clear to what extent science was genuinely and regularly invoked by these writers and, if it was, what this really meant to them and, beyond, to their peers, audiences, the wider public and – indeed – practicing men of science. If, as it appears was the case, a journal like the Saturday Review could become a mouthpiece for the professionalising historians, what did this mean to general readers?

The writings and debates discussed in Hesketh’s book are fascinating ones, both for understanding the context in which some major histories of England were produced in the 19th century and in raising perennial questions about the nature of historical writing. As Hesketh writes in his final paragraph we would now tend to “agree with Froude in saying that history is not a science and that historical knowledge is not objective. And yet we professional historians still clearly fear that history written for the general reader by a non-specialist and continue to find new and disturbing ways to police our professional boundaries” (p. 164).[2] Interpretation of the record is essential if historians are to say anything meaningful about the past, but there are still endless debates to be had about where we draw the line – although I would disagree that these are still couched in terms of whether history is “a science or a form of art”.

There are some fascinating episodes in this book and its careful studies of individual historians are rewarding. Particularly successful was Chapter 4, on discipline-developing boundary work contra Froude, and it was also fascinating to trace the trajectory of individual careers, considering early – and sometimes radically different – works, and attempts to reach broader or juvenile markets (revealing the desire to spread the gospel of good history, despite claims of its inaccessibility to the uninitiated), alongside their more ambitious and programmatic publications. I am fascinated too by the opposing claims of where real merit and morality might lie, whether in the presence of an authoritative voice and learned judgement or in the careful removal of self from the text. But, certainly, there remains more to be said about just what place the words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ had in these debates.


[1] I would have liked to see some mention of where Marx and Engles might fit into this mix, even if only to dismiss their relevance to the particular debates under discussion.

[2] I found this sentence rather awkwardly formed, like a number of others in the book, which leads to a minor quibble about the lack of editorial and proof-reading work that is too common in (high-priced) academic books. There is some rather informal phrasing, and repetition, including a lot of ‘quites’ (two appearing in one sentence) as well as some errors. In the first two sentences we find Maria Grey referred to as Grey and Gray, while on p. 48 we have “Green” and “Greene”, again in neighbouring sentences.

Another review available online and worth reading is on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science.

Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

A few days ago, there was an article in The Nation, by Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen on ‘Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims‘. It presents the evidence against Figes regarding claims of inaccuracy and invention in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, revealed largely as a result of checking against archived interviews by the publishers of a planned Russian edition.

Because these sources and/or their relatives are still living, the question of fidelity to the sources is particularly charged. In addition, the politics of Russia and opponents of the regime make much of the content a live issue. There is, therefore, an interesting question of whether anyone would have cared, or checked, had this in fact been a book about the longer-distant past.

That said, the question of Figes’s reputation for truth-telling has also been a matter for scrutiny, above all because of the revelation that he had written negative reviews of the works of rivals and a positive review of his own book on Amazon. Thus Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern was described as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”, and The Whisperers was declared “beautiful and necessary”, written by an author with “superb story-telling skills”.

There is something incredibly fascinating about such tales of ambition, pride, fraud and revelation. However, laying that aside (and suggesting you read the article linked above for more), I was particularly struck by an undertone in the claims of Figes and charges of his accusers that relates to views of what history can or should be, and struck a direct chord with the debates of the 19th century that I am in the middle of reading about in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (which I hope to finish and review here very shortly).

It is, above all, a question of the relationship between history and storytelling, or, to put it in 19th-century terms, whether it is scientific or literary. Figes’s own anonymous and hugely positive comments about “story-telling skills” and the ‘beauty’ of the book  contrast very clearly with the accusations of Reddaway and Cohen: “mistakes”, “invention”, “misrepresenting”, “for dramatic purpose”, “cannot be fully trusted”. These defects are contrasted with what they call the “meticulous transcription” of interviews that were done on Figes’s behalf by the Memorial Society – their equivalent of Leopold von Ranke‘s archives revealing “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, what really happened.

It is all thoroughly reminiscent of the accusations thrown at one 19th-century historian, James Anthony Froude, by another, Edward Freeman. As Ian Hesketh shows, Freeman was incensed by Froude’s literary approach to history, claiming that his imagination led him to interpret all the (very real) archival work he had done in light of his desired narrative. Freeman wrote of Froude’s “Constant inaccuracy of reference”, blaming the “vagaries of narrative and judgement” on of “an inborn and incurable twist, which makes it impossible for him to make an accurate statement about any matter”. He made history fiction, and his account of Thomas Becket “the life of an imaginary being in an imaginary age”.

It was a vice that became known as “Froude’s disease” and, although the term is no longer recalled, the accusation can still be recognised. Froude, of course, was the more popular writer, but the newly-professionalising, discipline-defining historians like Freeman made a virtue of studies that were of interest only to other trained specialists. While readers may have sensed a past world brought to life, encouraged by the presence of references and original sources, “what passes for history in the hands of Mr. Froude is a writing in which the things which really happened find no place”.

I suspect Freeman was a little unfair. However he, Reddaway and Cohen similarly accuse their targets of having been led astray from the true path of history by desire to capture readers with a clear story. It is the strong belief in the validity of their view of the past that has led them to reinterpret the evidence, very possibly with the positive aim of creating a truer, more believable picture, rather than wishing to falsify the past or simply trying to write a best-seller.

The two sides put ‘truth’ in a different place. For these reviewers it is within the unadorned, uninterpreted archives; for the writers it is within the picture conjured up by the combination of their archival research, historical imagination and literary skill. There is merit in both views. Certainly, the kind of objective, disinterested history that Freeman advocated today seems unrealistic, and probably undesirable, but we do most certainly expect things in quotation marks to be accurate, and that references should point adequately to real physical, written or oral evidence.

Beware, all ye writers of popular history and literary non-fiction, of “Froude’s disease”, although it may yet be preferable to “Figes’s disease”.

Mr Punch does transits, constellations and coiffures

Punch, or the London Charivari is a wonderful source for history of science. It is impossible to think of a popular magazine today including jokes that span politics, science, the arts, classical reference and what we might call observational comedy. As with the image posted on the Ptak Science Books blog the other day, the editors of Punch had high expectations of their readers’ ability to recognise not just a handful of scientific celebrities but a while range of figures from the scientific community. Those of us who have commented on John’s post are struggling to be sure of the identities of some of those represented, or to explain just what the mathematician is doing with a fish that has so shocked a zero (have a look – and let me know if you can explain!).

In the comments, I pointed to the existence of the SciPer Index, created at the HPS department in Leeds between 1999 and 2007. This indexed short runs of sixteen 19th-century periodicals, creating a online resource and three important books.[1] While the project suffered from being at the head of the game – being superseded in many ways by mass digitisation projects, which cover much longer runs of periodicals with full images – it remains immensely impressive in terms of the added value created by the project members. This is not just a word-searchable set of texts, but a real index, explication and glossary.

For something as visual and complex as Punch, this is exactly what is required. The image on John Ptak’s site is nothing to a search engine until it is described in words. And the SciPer Index not only describes, but identifies and connects. It is not, of course, infallible: the dedicated scholar-indexers occasionally missed or misidentified references, and had to make complicated choices about just what we, or 19th-century writers, define as ‘science’, but it is the only thing I know that really spells out just how prevalent, and how intricate, such references were at this period.

I often come back to Punch, especially as I was lucky enough to inherit a set of bound 19th-century volumes. Because I have recently been thinking about the historic transits of Venus, I was looking today at the 1874 and 1882 volumes, knowing from Jessica Ratcliffe’s The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain (2008), that there are some great illustrations, revealing popular interest and the imperial and nationalistic agendas bound up with the transit expeditions. More of those another time – one will certainly be making its way into the exhibition at the Royal Observatory this spring. What struck me today, leafing through these volumes, is just how many references to science are there each year. Take a look at the SciPer Index for earlier volumes to see what I mean.

I will share just a couple of 1874 astronomical examples (a year that saw a comet and a transit of Venus), otherwise I could be here all night….


I hold, whatever PROCTOR writes,
Out-door observing, these chill nights,
A snare to the unwary

Long though you gaze into the sky
(Not quite, I hope, cigarless),
What chance of seeing meteors fly
Through a heaven that hangs starless?

A blazing fire in bright steel bars
Best observe, after dining;
And study – if you must have stars –
Those ‘neath arched eyebrows shining.

Transit of Venus snugly watch.
With comforts that enhance it:
There is no place like home to catch
Your Venus in her transit.

Let who will, ‘mid Kerguelen’s snows,
Seek freezing-post and thawing-room,
My Venus one short transit knows –
From dining-room to drawing-room.

Let me observe her, by lamp-light,
In chaise longue, soft and lazy,
Her witch-face framed in hair-wreaths bright,
Enough to drive one crazy.

Sweet star of eve, whose beauties blend
With foam of vaporous laces,
That like a cloudy setting lend
A mystery to thy graces,

Heightening the charms they half enwrap –
Sweet star too of the morning,
In muslins fresh, and pretty cap
A prettier head adorning!

Yes, “Vive l’Astronomie,” say I –
But what I add between us is –
While our Home-Heavens can still supply
Observers with their Venuses!

Not the best poetry – though kudos for rhyming “Venuses” with “between us is” – and rather sickly sweet than funny, perhaps. There is little to hint at the strides that women were beginning to make in education and public life at this date. However, this image ‘Constellations and Coiffures’ does something distinctly different:

The joke, of course, is about the fashionable new hairstyle, but it takes its range of astronomical references for granted. A telescopic chignon was, of course, apt for a comet, ‘long-haired’ being the literal meaning, though please note too the telescope earrings. Ether, nebulae and cluster are also thrown into the accompanying poem. At the end, “Berenice’s hair” refers to Coma Berenices, formerly part of Leo and now a constellation in its own right. It was named after Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who swore to sacrifice her long, blond hair to Aphrodite if her husband Ptolemy III Euergetes returned safely from war. He did, and she placed her hair in the temple. It disappeared and, the story goes, the court astronomer, Conon of Samos, appeased the angry king by claiming that the gods were so pleased by the hair that they had taken it and placed it in the heavens.

A source of early feminism Punch is not, but as a source for developing an understanding of the role, meaning and cultural baggage of science among the Victorian middles classes it is, undoubtedly, essential reading.



[1] These were Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (CUP, 2004), Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004) and Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2004).