Nineteenth-Century American Science: A Reappraisal

Nineteenth-Century American Science: A Reappraisal

Nineteenth-Century American Science: A Reappraisal

Nineteenth-Century American Science: A Reappraisal

Excerpt

Until quite recently, it has been customary for historians to assume that American science is a product of the twentieth century. Historians have considered America's first Nobel laureate in 1907, the mobilization for World War I, or even, in some accounts, the immigration of distinguished refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s as the beginning of American science. Pre- twentieth-century developments have been summarized with passing mention of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Henry, and Willard Gibbs. Only a decade ago, a student who wished to study science in America in the nineteenth century (at that time one had to use the circumlocution--"American science" was not permitted) was advised that there was nothing to study and that he should turn to science in France, Germany, or England for a subject.

Historians' distorted views of nineteenth-century American science are in large measure the result of their acceptance of the cries of neglect that came from the scientific community. As Howard Miller points out in his essay, nineteenth-century scientists constantly bemoaned America's inferior position in the scientific world in the hope that they could convince potential patrons that the cause of science was the cause of social progress and national prestige, and that it was therefore worthy of their support. Unfortunately, the scientists' letters and articles, while convincing an impressive number of public and private patrons, also convinced several twentieth- century scholars who have examined nineteenth-century science solely through the eyes of nineteenth-century scientists. There never . . .

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