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Paul Lucier on “Professionals” and “Scientists” in 19th-Century America June 14, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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John Shaw Billings (1838-1913): critic of the term "scientist" and the dudes who used it.

Indepenent historian Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America,” Isis 100 (2009): 699-732, presents an excellent overview of the place of different scientific activities in that milieu, the conceptual vocabulary and nomenclature with which those activities were routinely described, and how those descriptions changed with time.  The article engages actively with other portrayals in the historiographical literature from the past century, and presents new materials and arguments.  Stylistically, it is an exemplary work of scholarship.

As an intellectual contribution, Lucier’s piece comes up very strong as well.  His most immediately valuable contribution here is a clarification of the 19th-century lexicon.  Throughout the century, Americans followed their British counterparts in routinely referring to “men of science” as a generic term for geologists, chemists, and so forth.  While the Americans also followed closely on the British in founding new institutions of science, notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, est. 1848) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, est. 1863), these and other organizations’ role in organizing American science ought not, under any circumstances, be referred to as “professionalization”.

As Lucier explains, the “professional” in 19th-century America was someone who earned a living through their educated services, especially physicians, lawyers, and clergymen.  Men of science could be professionals, because they were frequently employed on a fee-for-service basis: as geological surveyors, as chemical analysts, as tutors, etc.  But being a man of science was not in itself a “profession”.

(Side note: speaking as an American, classifying clergy as money-making “professionals” struck me as counter-intuitive, but ultimately understandable given the prominent role of the independent “preacher” in American history.  This should be distinguished from someone, like a theologian, who might be thought of as a “professional”, but more because they had a learned command over a specialist body of knowledge, and less because they made money through their work.  This is especially important to bear in mind so as not to confuse this issue with the idea of scientific figures’ work as “natural philosophers” giving them an otherworldly reputation akin to that of theologians; the whole point here is that professionals like clergy were worldly.  Also, in the 19th-century American context, in referring to someone with a specialist’s knowledge, we further cannot readily refer to “experts”, because experts were understood at the time to be someone with a practical knowledge of an art who had no need for knowledge of higher principles, a carpenter, for instance.)

Lucier has good reasons for insisting on proper nomenclature: the relationship between “men of science” and the professions was a fairly contentious issue beginning around the 1830s.  For instance, men of science Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867, Pennsylvania professor, then superintendent of the U. S. Coast Survey), Joseph Henry (1797-1878, Princeton professor and first Secretary, i.e. director, of the Smithsonian Institution, from 1846), and friends gathered in a group called the Lazzaroni to emphasize the unprofessional character of their preferred pursuits and desire to see science grounded in deep theory and not as the conduct of lower-level tasks.  The name “Lazzaroni” (from Lazarus, Gospel beggar and patron saint of lepers—not the Lazarus risen from the dead) was chosen to signify their status as scientific beggars.

Bache, Henry, and others associated with the creation of the AAAS and the NAS held the furtherance of this vision of science to be their main goal.  Accordingly, these organizations, unlike, for instance, the American Medical Association (est. 1847), made the self-conscious decision not to establish a code of ethics.  The object of these new institutions was to provide a means for coordinating the activities of like-minded individuals rather than to police the conduct of members.

Despite scientific institutions’ lack of interest in enforcing a professional ethics, ethics was a central concern for men of science, because of the constant threat of “quackery” (elevating oneself by professing general nonsense) and, more seriously, “humbugging” (swindling).  Questions arose as to what an appropriate fee for a scientific service rendered would be, so as to avoid the threat of corruption—a particular danger where there was a possibility of swindling investors in an era when stock markets were seen as rife with corruption.  This was a source of major controversy when in 1860 Josiah Whitney (1819-1896), the state geologist of California, accused Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr. (1816-1885) of taking bribes for predicting, on commission from eastern capitalists, that oil would be discovered in the state.  (It was.)

A related issue was to what degree professional work detracted from the pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake.  There was always the possibility that one’s own work would be distorted by lucre, but also, more importantly, that professional work would prove so great a  distraction that it would derail progress in higher science.

This brings us to Johns Hopkins (est. 1876) physics professor Henry Rowland’s (1848-1901) famous 1883 “Plea for Pure Science”.  Rowland was upset with the rapid proliferation of institutions of higher learning in America, such as the land-grant universities of the Midwest.  He denigrated the quality of work done at them, and the predominance of professional work in American science.  His appeal was not made from a desire to protect a traditionally pure science from corruption; it was the latest in a series of attempts to raise a higher idea of science out of a longstanding practical scientific culture.

To advance this vision, Rowland drew on the obscure term “scientist”.  We may recall that the word was originally coined by Cambridge professor William Whewell to distinguish the rote work of scientist members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (est. 1831) from higher philosophy (see here).  We can, properly I think, still think of that as a key moment in the “end of natural philosophy”, but the term “scientist” never actually caught on.  As Lucier notes, American astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896) tried to revive the term mid-century to distinguish scientists from professionals and to urge independence from wealthy benefactors.  In the late-19th-century, both Americans and British assumed “scientist” was an American neologism.

Rowland specifically connected the term to the pursuit of that work he delineated as “pure science”, which could only be done by professors working for their own interests (not even as teachers) in high-quality universities.  (Lucier doesn’t mention it, but it sounds as though Rowland was drawing on the German idea of the university and the exalted role of the professor within it.)

Rowland’s vision had its critics, among them John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), medical officer during the Civil War, director of the library of the Surgeon General’s Office (which later became the National Library of Medicine), and eventually first director of New York Public Libraries.  In an 1886 address to the Philosophical Society of Washington DC he described a man of science as someone “whose chief object in life is scientific investigation, whose thoughts and hopes and desires are mainly concentrated upon his search for new knowledge,” but this did not preclude a concern for money.  He viewed the new term “scientist”—“a coinage of the newspaper reporter”—to connote someone who removed themselves altogether from remunerative and practical concerns.  Billings, a government employee, understood it to be incumbent on men of science to commit themselves to the  public good, and described self-proclaimed scientists’ posturing to be a form of self-indulgent “dudeism” practiced by “a certain class of eulogists of pure science”.  It posed a threat to continued federal support for scientific activities, which he saw as valuable.

Although the term “scientist” would soon become ubiquitous, Rowland’s idea of  what a scientist was supposed to be never reflected what most science in America was actually like.  Lucier notes that many historians would take the rise of Rowland’s “pure” science in universities to equate with the rise of science in America.  In fact, most science would continue to reflect Billings’ more grounded vision.  The historiographical notion that federal involvement in science awaited World War II can only be sustained by privileging the history of the kind of work for which Rowland advocated.  Lucier also makes an excellent case that Victorian concerns about “amateurs” versus “professionals” failed to reflect the language and reality of 19th-century American science, as influential as Victorian scientific culture was.  The “professional scientist” would remain a contradiction in terms until the 20th century.


1. Thony C. - June 15, 2010

As Lucier explains, the “professional” in 19th-century America was someone who earned a living through their educated services, especially physicians, lawyers, and clergymen. Men of science could be professionals, because they were frequently employed on a fee-for-service basis: as geological surveyors, as chemical analysts, as tutors, etc. But being a man of science was not in itself a “profession”.

(Side note: speaking as an American, classifying clergy as a money-making “professional” struck me as counter-intuitive, but ultimately understandable given the prominent role of the independent “preacher” in American history.

It should be remembered that professor, profession and professional all come from the same root in the High Middle Ages and refer to somebody who professes, i.e. claims. to have knowledge. I assume the original professions reflect the higher faculties at the mediaeval university, law, medicine and theology. I find it fascinating that someone in the 19th century wanted to distance scientists from professionals. One should also not forget that in English professional has been a synonym for prostitute since the early 17th century.

2. Will Thomas - June 15, 2010

Yes, the medieval/European high church theologian is sort of what I had in mind with the point about specialist knowledge just after where your excerpt leaves off. The Americans clearly have long had a different connotation. Lucier’s article should serve as ample evidence that we need to work out social organizations and conceptual vocabularies for all different cultures — even ones that are only separated by a common language.

Actually, I’m going to make a related point about “physics” in Chris’ new post on Bagehot, so: to be continued under that post!

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