In Memoriam: A.C. Crombie (1915-1996)

By Gotthelf, Allan | The Review of Metaphysics, December 1996 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: A.C. Crombie (1915-1996)


Gotthelf, Allan, The Review of Metaphysics


Alistair Cameron Crombie, internationally celebrated historian of science, died on February 9, 1996, at 80 years of age. Born in Brisbane, Australia, Crombie took his first degree at the Melbourne University in zoology, then moved to Cambridge University to continue his studies; his doctoral and postdoctoral work on population dynamics was subsequently recognized as having greatly stimulated research on interspecific competition in the late 1940s.

While at Cambridge, Crombie studied philosophy informally with C. D. Broad, and began work in the history and philosophy of science. In 1946 he was appointed to teach and "rude research in these subjects at the University of London; his popular course of lectures there was the basis for his first book, Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science A.D. 400-1650 (1952; rev. ed. 1959). Widely used, this two-volume study has been translated into seven languages, and is still in print.

This early work already reflects an interest--which came to be central to Crombie's professional life--in understanding the interplay of several features or dimensions of the history of science in the West: (1) the different modes, or what he later came to call styles, of scientific thinking characteristic of different periods; (2) the way later modes gradually replaced, or supplemented, earlier ones--that is, the process of change in science; (3) the features of the scientific enterprise that remained essentially constant throughout those changes--that is, the continuity (or continuities) of science; (iv) the influence, on the foregoing features, of the historical and social context in which the science was done; and, underlying all of the preceding, in Crombie's view, (5) the essential character of science as a rational, argument-and-evidence-based human study of an independent reality with a nature of its own. Like his later work, it gives significant attention to the history not only of physics and astronomy but also of optics, geology, chemistry, biology, human physiology, medicine, technology, and the arts, and embodies implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) a celebration of the power of human rationality in these many areas.

Crombie pursued these various interests in a series of original studies focused especially around transitional periods in the history of science. His second book, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100-1700 (1953, also still in print), gave special attention to the Aristotelian influence on late medieval and Renaissance science in Oxford, making a major addition to ground-breaking work that had recently been done on Aristotelian influence for the Italian Renaissance by John Herman Randall, Jr.

Appointed a University Lecturer at Oxford in 1953, Crombie developed that university's first degree and diploma programs in history and philosophy of science. From the beginning of his career in this area he worked extensively on many fronts to establish the history of science as a recognized discipline in Britain and elsewhere. At London he had helped found the British Society for the History of Science; some time after coming to Oxford, he served as its president, and played a role in creating its British Journal for the History of Science. Later again, he was one of the founders of, and edited, History of Science, and was president of the Academie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences. Crombie was instrumental in fostering studies on the philosophical side as well: while at London he helped found The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and was its first editor.

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