The Lazzaroni: Science and Scientists in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

The Lazzaroni: Science and Scientists in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

The Lazzaroni: Science and Scientists in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

The Lazzaroni: Science and Scientists in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

Excerpt

If the quest for the establishment of standards of excellence for the American scientific community was the chief goal of those men who banded together as the Lazzaroni, their definition as to what constituted that excellence--"pure" as opposed to "practical" or "applied" science--excluded from their number some men whose accomplishments were often as great as theirs. Unfortunately, the Lazzaroni were not able to keep their personal relationships and their politics as "pure" as they proclaimed to keep their scientific inquiries. In addition, it might be pointed out that excellence in any field is an ideal that defies too narrow a definition. And any Establishment devoted to institutionalizing excellence must be open to question, whether it be an American National Academy of Sciences, when it excludes a Maury, or a French Academy of Fine Arts, when it rejects a Cézanne.

The study that follows would have been incomplete had it not included certain key personalities who were outside the pale of the Lazzaroni, such as Matthew Maury, Asa Gray, and Joseph Leidy. Leidy, who was one of the first fifty members of the National Academy of Sciences, which the Lazzaroni were instrumental in founding and whose Council they dominated, wrote to F. V. Hayden: "It appears to me to be nothing more than the formation of an illiberal clique, based on Plymouth Rock . . . . A society of the kind that leaves out such men as Baird, Draper, Hammond, Lea, Cassin, and yourself . . . certainly can't be of much value . . ." Leidy furthermore found the Academy's cloak of patriotism, as evidenced in the loyalty oath it exacted from all members, repugnant. The Lazzaroni's avowed goal of centralizing scientific activity in order to insure quality both in education and in government services, however, can only be commended.

Joseph Henry, a Lazzaroni and an Academician, who was not only a great scientist but a wise man, summed up the situation dealt with . . .

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