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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”.