George Sarton, often regarded as the founder of the discipline of the history of science, appears to have first seen Notes and Records of the Royal Society in 1942. His letter of acknowledgement to A. V. Hill conveys both his pleasure at the publication (which the Royal Society had launched in 1938) and his frustration in trying to persuade scientists and ‘humanists’ of the value of his work. The letter also records Sarton's sadness at the death of his Harvard colleague L. J. Henderson, a fellow-worker in his campaign to ‘humanize science’.
The arrival at Harvard of an early copy or set of early copies of Notes and Records of the Royal Society gave George Sarton great pleasure. The source of the gift was A. V. Hill, professor of physiology at University College London, and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society. Writing to thank Hill on 24 February 1942, Sarton expressed his particular satisfaction at the publication of such a journal by a scientific academy. He wrote with the satisfaction of someone who had battled tirelessly to promote the history of science as an academic discipline in the face of attitudes ranging from indifference to disdain on the part of most scientists and of those he contemptuously described as ‘so-called humanists’. His campaign had begun before World War I, when in his late twenties he had founded the journal Isis in Ghent in 1912.1 Leaving his native Belgium amid the turmoil of the German invasion of 1914, he arrived in the USA and took American citizenship in the following year. After lecturing for two years at Harvard, he became a research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, with a base from 1920 in Harvard's Widener Library. Although he taught at Harvard and worked in Cambridge until his death in 1956, it was not until 1940 that he was appointed professor of the history of science.
The letter to Hill, a typewritten copy of which came to light recently in the archives of the Royal Society, expresses a characteristic Sartonian mixture of undimmed commitment and frustration.2 The letter, written from ‘Harvard Library 185, Cambridge, Mass., USA’, reads:
Dear Dr Hill,
This letter is being mailed to you in two copies, one of them by air mail. I thank you very much for the ‘Notes and Records’ containing valuable materials for the historian of science which will be mentioned regularly in Isis. As you probably know, I have been fighting for the last twenty five years to obtain from the scientists a better recognition of the humanities in general and of the humanities of their own science in particular—and to obtain at the same time a better understanding of science from the so-called humanists. The best way if not the only way to humanize science is to study its history, but that history must be studied earnestly, scientifically, or else it is nothing but humbug. Therefore, the interest taken by the Royal Society in the history of science gives me very great pleasure.
Unfortunately, the great majority of the scientists either despise the history of science, or think that it may be studied anyhow without any of the precautions which they use in their investigations. That is, they either despise it or make it despicable by their own conception and treatment of it. The new president of the Carnegie Institution told me that the studies to which I have devoted my life were ‘irrelevant’. I believe that they are ‘relevant’ in peace time, and even more so in war time.
You have probably heard of the sudden death on February 10th of our friend, L. J. Henderson. He had been subjected to a surgical operation and after a couple of weeks he seemed to be all right. My wife had sent him a little azalea tree to brighten his hospital room, he wrote her a very gracious letter of thanks and the next day we heard of his death. In recent years our friendship had been somewhat cooled, because I could not share his enthusiasm for Pareto. He used to call me a sentimentalist and liked to tease me. My point of view is that inasmuch as we have emotions and feelings which color our opinions and even our scientific conclusions, it is on the whole more honest to acknowledge those feelings (as such and quietly) than to hide them. A discussion between rational men should not be like a game of poker. In any case, I am anxious to give my adversary all the facts I know of including my feelings; should he take undue advantage of my candor so much the worse for him. Such views irritated Henderson but we remained good friends and I miss him very much. He seemed to be built for old age (he was only 64); his mother survives him, she is 90 years old but her mind is still very active and her son's death has been a great shock to her. Henderson's wife has been in a private sanatorium for many years; at present she is no longer able to recognize even her own sister (Mrs Theodore Richards); hence she cannot be aware of his death or suffer from it as we do.
The letter's underlying melancholy owed much to the renewed occupation of Belgium by German troops in 1940. But it also drew on the declared hostility of the president of the Carnegie Institution towards the history of science as to all the humanities and social sciences. That president (referred to in the letter but unnamed) was the engineer and administrator Vannevar Bush, soon destined to become a leading coordinator of the USA's scientific and technological war effort. The appointment of Bush in 1938 had unhappy consequences for Sarton, who had to endure not only the personal jibe that his studies were ‘irrelevant’ but also a halving of the Institution's funding for Isis.3
Another blow to which Sarton refers is the recent death of his, and Hill's, friend Lawrence Joseph Henderson.4 Six years Sarton's senior, Henderson occupied a prominent position at Harvard, as an established professor of chemistry and chairman of the Harvard Society of Fellows. His exceptionally broad intellectual profile made him a natural ally in Sarton's attempts to ‘humanize science’. A serious engagement with philosophy drew him to the seminars of the philosophy department at Harvard, while his teaching of sociology, chiefly through the course Sociology 23 that he launched in 1938, left its mark on a rising generation of professional sociologists with interests in the systems approach to social analysis, including George C. Homans, Bernard Barber, William F. Whyte, Crane Brinton and Talcott Parsons.5
Sarton and Henderson were united in their belief that studies in the humanities and social sciences must be pursued with the rigour of a true scientific enquiry if they were to advance beyond ‘humbug’. Despite their enduring friendship, however, Henderson's admiration for the Italian-born sociologist and polymath Vilfredo Pareto had opened the divide that Sarton regrets in his letter.6 The divide was a revealing one. It was of a piece with the relentlessly bibliographical style of Sarton's great but never-to-be-finished Introduction to the history of science.7 But the essential difference between Henderson and Sarton grew from the contrasting ways in which their perspectives had evolved from a shared immersion in the positivism that had prevailed in western intellectual life during their formative years. Whereas Henderson, ‘vigorously conservative’ in politics and a critic of the New Deal, went on to reject the positivistic interpretation of human behaviour, with what he saw as its attendant disregard for values and emotions, Sarton remained broadly loyal to positivism's founding principles.8 He was ready to admit the limits of objectivity and to acknowledge the influence of feelings on the judgements of even the most detached rationalist. Yet his belief in the progressive nature of human understanding and the power of reason to carry the process forward bore the stamp of a true, if by now temporally distant, disciple of Auguste Comte.
In the 70 years since the letter to Hill, a growing recognition of the diversity and interrelatedness of our explanatory tools for writing the history of science has caused Sarton's progressivist interpretation to fade. Sarton is certainly less read than he once was. But the very fact that, even at the height of World War II, Hill saw him as a natural recipient for Notes and Records conveys the respect he enjoyed in the discipline. At a time when Vannevar Bush's dismissive comments had so manifestly hurt Sarton, the arrival of the still young British journal, with its Royal Society imprimatur, must have reassured him that, despite all the setbacks, the battle for approval within the scientific community was still worth fighting. And so, happily though with much remaining to be done even in our own day, it has proved to be.
↵1 The first issue of Isis appeared in March 1913, with the subtitle ‘Revue consacrée à l'histoire de la science, publiée par George Sarton, DSc.’, and the place of publication given as Wondelgem-lez-Gand, the part of Ghent where Sarton had his home. For detailed appreciations of Sarton's life and work, see the ‘George Sarton memorial issue’ of Isis, volume 48, issue 3, dated September 1957. Also important, in a now extensive literature, is Arnold Thackray and Robert K. Merton, ‘On discipline building: the paradoxes of George Sarton’, Isis 63, 473–495 (1972).
↵2 I am grateful to the Librarian of the Royal Society, Keith Moore, for drawing Sarton's letter (HD/6/8/6/5/90) to my attention. An annotation in Hill's hand indicates that he had prepared the copy for transmission to Sir Henry Dale PRS.
↵3 G. Pascal Zachary, Endless frontier. Vannevar Bush, engineer of the American century (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999), p. 94. A later comment by Bush conveyed his low opinion of the humanities and social sciences with particular frankness: ‘I have a great reservation about these studies where somebody goes out and interviews a bunch of people and reads a lot of stuff and writes a book and puts it on a shelf and nobody ever reads it’ (quoted in Zachary, ibid.).
↵4 Henderson's friendship with Hill rested on their shared research interests in biochemistry and physiology and on personal contacts going back to the 1920s. See, for example, the series of lectures (including three by Henderson and two by Hill) delivered in the University of London in 1925, published as H. H. Dale, J. C. Drummond, L. J. Henderson and A. V. Hill, Lectures on certain aspects of biochemistry (University of London Press, 1926).
↵5 Henderson's contribution to sociology was recognized by the inclusion of a selection of his writings in the book series ‘Heritage of sociology’. See L. J. Henderson on the social system. Selected writings edited with an introduction by Bernard Barber (University of Chicago Press, 1970). Barber's introduction (pp. 1–53) presents an excellent survey of Henderson's life and work as a sociologist.
↵6 The seriousness of Henderson's engagement with Pareto is encapsulated in his Pareto's general sociology. A physiologist's interpretation (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1935).
↵7 George Sarton, Introduction to the history of science (3 volumes in 5 parts) (Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD, 1927–48).
↵8 The quoted characterization of Henderson's political views is ascribed to his good friends George C. Hornans and Orville T. Bailey in Barber's introduction to L. J. Henderson on the social system, op. cit. (note 5), p. 26.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.