In Memoriam, John L. Heilbron, 1934–2023

Professor John L. Heilbron, a colleague and friend to many within the Institute, passed away on November 5, 2023. His legacy is celebrated and cherished by the University of California, Berkeley, where he held the distinguished titles of Professor Emeritus of History of Science and former Vice Chancellor. In recognition of his enduring partnership with our Institute, we pay tribute to his memory by reissuing the inaugural speech he delivered during our opening ceremony on March 31, 1995.

Lecture of Prof. John L. Heilbron

In the early autumn of 1946, the Royal Society of London belatedly celebrated the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton, which had been postponed because of the world war. The Society invited participants from all the major science-producing countries except the former axis powers. Just before the event, however, it decided that a celebration of international science without some representative of Germany would be a travesty. But whom to invite? The organizers could think of only one person acceptable to the British for his character and eminence and plausible to the Germans for his leadership and patriotism. That was Max Planck, then 88 years of age, weak in body and spirit, but willing to undertake the difficult journey on behalf of German science and to play the hard part of representing a defeated foe in the victor’s capital.

At the opening session, a page announced the participants as they entered the lecture hall. In each case he gave the name, affiliation, and the country. Planck was the last to enter. His name had not been printed on the official list of delegates. The page was nonplussed. He announced, “Professor Planck, from no country.” The old man shuffled into the hall. The foreign guests, who were as surprised as the page, gave Planck an ovation. When the applause ceased, the president of the Society announced, “Max Planck from the world of science.”

Planck’s world of science encompassed much more than the Royal Society’s. He counted all respectable branches of disinterested knowledge, objectively pursued, as Wissenschaften, or, better, as parts of a single unified Wissenschaft. He explicitly included history in science and placed it on the same footing as physics. Like physics, history aims at an objective account and explanation of causally connected events. 

Planck’s wide world of science did not include its applications. In 1922, as secretary of the Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften, he rejected a request from the Reichsverband deutscher Technik to add a technical class within the academy. His reason: its members would constitute a foreign body, disrupt the academy’s bond of pure, disinterested scientific research, and blunt its “tireless struggle for the steady increase of pure knowledge.” That of course did not prevent him from furthering the cause of applied science as president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft.

I shall develop Planck’s theme of parallels between history and physics far enough to show the place of the history of science. I then describe a precedent for an institute for the history of science proposed, but never established, by the patron saint of my field, George Sarton; continue with unfinished business of Sarton’s virtual institute; and end with a plan for an institute for the history of science appropriate to our time. The discussion is biased by, among other things, my belief that history of science is neither a branch of natural science nor an interdisciplinary subject but an integral part of general history.

1. History as Wissenschaft

History shares with physics, as with other natural sciences, the ambition to explain the causes of things objectively, without recourse to divine plans or invisible hands. Indeed, history may have remained truer to this ideal than physics. Further to their similarity, history done properly pursues its goal in accordance with high standards of accuracy and self-criticism. Again like science, it uses a diversified and powerful apparatus, the modern research library with its collections, computers, technicians, and frustrations. And there is another parallel as well, which to me is the most persuasive of all: modern history and modern physics grew up together; they responded similarly to the same impulses; they are linked genetically.

Until the end of the 17th century, physics taken inclusively meant the study of the entire natural world, from cosmology through psychology, as in Aristotle’s libri naturales. History taken inclusively meant a set of particular facts untied to general theory, for example, a description of the contents of a region or era. Physics and history therefore had an area in common, with the apparently oxymoronic name of natural history.

The widening of the European consciousness following the discovery of the New World expanded the already overstuffed categories of physics and history. Physics had to accommodate newly discovered lands, seas, flora, and fauna, and, with the recovery of ancient philosophies eclipsed by Aristotle’s and the elaboration of a cosmology alternative to Ptolemy’s, a cornucopia of learned novelties as well. History had to swallow the existence of peoples unknown to the Greeks or to the Christian dispensation. A period of confusion ensued that lasted until the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. During that extended revolution, both disciplines underwent a transformation that left them looking almost like the modern subjects that bear their names.

The transformation narrowed the coverages of history and physics and refashioned their aims and methods. The instruments of the transformation were just that— instruments. During the 18th century, physics became all but synonymous with experimental physics. It admitted only subject matter that could be explored and demonstrated with pullies, levers, pumps, electrical machines, magnets, balances, and the like. It shed biology and chemistry. At the same time, primarily to defend the Catholic church against Protestant notions of history, a group of Benedictines and another of Jesuits worked out the basic critical apparatus for authenticating texts. By the early 18th century, they had founded diplomatics, or external textual analysis, paleography, and exact comparative chronology. History became largely the study and authentication of documents concerning political, military, and religious matters. 

The 19th century saw an intensification of the critical approach to history to include evaluation of the content of documents—the so-called internal criticism—in addition to refinement of the methods of authentication introduced by the Benedictines and Jesuits. To this expanded criticism, Ranke and his school contributed the principle of relativity: the past should be reconstructed how it was, on its own terms, and not judged by the distance of its moral values from the historian’s. Physicists eventually came in their turn to drop the idea of the privileged observer.

History paralleled physics in the 19th century in one other respect—practical training for doctorands. Ranke established his seminar, or, as he sometimes called it, his laboratory, in 1835. About the same time, physicists, consciously copying the methods of Geisteswissenschaften, began to use the seminar method. The physics institutes that began to appear around 1870 were descendants of the seminars inspired by the example of philology, history, and other unnatural sciences.

At the end of the 19th century, influential historians and physicists regarded their respective disciplines with the same justified contentment. Here are two fin-de-siècle texts, one by an historian, the other by a physicist. Can you tell which is which? The first text:

It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles [of history or physics] have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of those principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice.

Here is the second text:

Ultimate [physics or] history we cannot have in this generation; but ... all information is [now] within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.

The answer: the second quotation comes from Lord Acton’s report of 1896 on the status of the Cambridge modern history, of which he was editor; the first comes from A. A. Michelson’s speech of 1894 at the dedication of the physical laboratories at the University of Chicago.

The American historian Harry Elmer Barnes wrote in 1937, in the standard English text on the history of history, that “the most important historical writing of all time has been done in the last fifty years.” Barnes based his flattering assessment on the expansion of the scope of history beginning with Marx. In that fertile half century, historians had come to include economics, art, literature, law, social institutions, and general culture in their descriptions, and the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, and psychology in their analyses. The simultaneous parallel in physics was the broadening of its objective beyond the reduction of all physical phenomena to mechanical description. By1900 it had accepted, as appropriate and irreducible alternative descriptions, thermodynamics and electromagnetism. Twenty-five years later, after a series of advances as dramatic as history’s, it had also accepted the non-mechanical descriptions descended from Planck’s quantum theory.

Among the new subjects Barnes included as evidence of the broadening scope of history was science. To be sure, he wrote, historians had not yet given the history of science “favorable or fruitful attention.” In his opinion, they no longer could afford to ignore it. “A generation hence [he wrote], it may well occupy as much of their attention as the history of constitution-making.” This prognostication has proved true, in part because historians’ interest in the making of constitutions is not what it used to be.

While Barnes was putting the finishing touches on his history of history, Sarton published the definitive version of his plan for an institute for history of science.

2. Sarton’s Institute

Sarton had emigrated from Belgium to the United States in 1915 in the hope of pursuing his absurd program of writing a universal history of science. The program was absurd, not only because Sarton’s definition of science was as inclusive as Planck’s and because its fulfillment required a command of all current sciences and of all languages, living and dead, of Europe and Asia; it was also absurd because very few people had the least interest 80 years ago in an exact and exacting history of science.

Sarton scratched for grants in an almost barren intellectual soil; he practiced his own preaching by learning Arabic and writing about science in every clime and time; and he created the first serious scholarly instruments for the historian of science. These were his Introduction to the history of science, which reached the 14th century and 4334 pages in 1948, and his journal Isis, which offered (and still offers) an annual critical bibliography of publications about science, its history, and its culture. In 1936 Sarton gained the haven and heaven of a professorship at Harvard, and gave an inaugural lecture, which he published in Isis to serve as a milestone, as he said in his modest way, against which progress in the field could be measured at later inaugurations.

The main ingredients in this milestone were the rocks Sarton threw at scientists who wrote incompetently on the history of their disciplines. He insisted that historians must meet standards of accuracy and objectivity, and deploy research techniques, no less demanding than those typical of the natural sciences. Scientists who write history (this is Sarton’s assertion, not mine) abandon their standards and relax their rigor from the first word. The result is worse than useless, since it diminishes the history of science for everyone, including the relaxed authors. 

To drive out the amateurs and establish his field as Wissenschaft, Sarton proposed the creation of an institute for the history of science and civilization. (For him the title was redundant, since he equated science with civilization.) He first described his vision in 1917, in Science, a general journal for scientists, and so was uncharacteristically conciliatory. He offered cooperation. “The fundamental idea of the institute is to organize --for the first time--a systematic collaboration between scientist, historian, and philosopher.” Their interests are complementary: the historian studies history of science “to give a true picture of the development of civilization;” the scientist, to understand the interconnections of the various branches of science; and the philosopher, to synthesize the foundations, in the manner of an Aristotle or a Comte. Owing to the growth and complexity of science since Comte’s time, however, all these jobs now required team work.

The leaders in the work must be trained equally as scientists and historians. They must have an institute, equipped with all the critical apparatus they require and generate, and with a collection of books, prints, and instruments. They must have technicians, bibliographers, photographers, and editors (for they would publish two journals, one professional, one popular). But above all, the institute would serve the history of science “by relentlessly insisting upon the necessity of raising the standard of scholarship as high as possible.”

No one came forward to endow Sarton’s institute. He took the occasion of his inauguration at Harvard to circulate an updated version of his plan. Now the institute was to take the preparation of massive and authoritative accounts of “the whole of objective and verifiable knowledge” as its primary task. Its members, distributed hierarchically into administrators, senior members, junior scholars, and apprentices, must all be humanists, dedicated not only to the study of “the most precious common good of mankind,” but also to the integration, and hence the humanization, of science in general education. All this was the work not of a transient institute, but of an establishment, where generations of scholars could pursue their investigations in peace, productivity, and prosperity. He gave the example of the Benedictines and the Jesuits, whose projects were (indeed, are) still alive after 300 years. Yet, in 1936 as in 1917, Sarton saw the immediate objectives of the establishment as the production of a few standard works that would raise “the level of historiography throughout the world”, and the silencing of dilettante scientists who write their histories “with a complete lack of scholarly integrity.”

In Sarton’s austere vision, history of science produces history in Ranke’s and Acton’s style—positive facts, exact bibliographical data, authoritative editions of monographs, reliable biographies, and finished accounts of discoveries. We have come far since 1936 in creating standard-raising exemplars in these essential categories. Among much evidence that could be offered, I give the Dictionary of scientific biography, an uneven work published in 16 volumes between 1960 and 1970; the meticulous, some might say, compulsive, editions of the papers of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Henry; the correspondence of Oldenburg, Bohr, Boscovich, Lavoisier, Pauli, and many others; the work of Neugebauer’s and Clagett’s schools on the exact sciences of antiquity and the middle ages; the compendia of Needham and his associates on Chinese science; and, no doubt, much more.

These works have established standards now taken for granted in the better graduate schools. They are propagated further by more journals in the history of science than Sarton could have foreseen in his wildest imaginings. Almost all these books and articles were written at universities by individual scholars laboring alone or with a graduate student or two. The work continues, producing monographs, bibliographies, and biographies that reach the same or higher standards. There is now no need for an institute to multiply this sort of product or to try to improve upon it.

3. Unfinished Business

Professionals and amateurs

The matter is otherwise with the second of the problems Sarton deemed most pressing, that is, driving the authors of substandard histories from the field of glory. To be sure, the problem now is not what it was in Sarton’s day. Then, historians of science had reason to think that their voices might be drowned in a sea of incompetent historical writings by scientists. Now, however, the tables are turned, or so the American Physical Society has claimed in a recent attack on the Smithsonian Institution of Washington.

Last year, the Smithsonian opened a permanent exhibit entitled “Science in American Life.” (“Permanent” in museum terminology means around 15 years.) Its opening scene, set in a replica of the original chemistry laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, is an argument between two dummies representing the professor of chemistry and a German graduate student. The student had made a marketable discovery in the laboratory, and had marketed it; the professor complained that the student had not credited the laboratory properly. Toward the end of the exhibit, the visitor hears Rachel Carson warning about chemical pollution of the planet and sees reminders of the damage done by pesticides and herbicides. In between, an extensive presentation of the Manhattan Project, statistics about the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a bomb shelter resurrected from the American midwest continue the theme that science can be inimical to your health.

A spokesman for the Physical Society complained to the newspapers that the Smithsonian portrayed science in too dark a light. A meeting was arranged between the Society’s top officers and the Smithsonian’s curators. The result was instructive. The scientists did not regard the curator-historians as fellow workers in the vineyard of truth; the curators assumed that the scientists had come to adulterate the harvest of five-years of labor in the archives and scrap heaps of history. Neither side succeeded in budging the other.

Why this antipathy between historians and the scientists whose work they portray? We might conjecture that, on the one side, there is a true antipathy to science rooted in modern social history and the anti-science movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and, on the other side, a true contempt of the historical enterprise and a worry that public denigration will further erode the funding of science. A rapprochement is urgently needed. It can be assisted by historians more sympathetic to science than the Smithsonian curators and physicists less fidgety than the leadership of the American Physical Society about airing negative aspects of science. An institute for the history of science that brought together influential scientists and concerned historians could be an important instrument in adjusting perspectives.

One possible format for peaceful and productive interaction would reverse the usual objectives of oral history. Typically, an historian asks a scientist for recollections about an episode, institution, or discovery. The outcome frequently is disappointment. The recollections do not fit with the documents or with other reminiscences; or, what is worse, all the recollections agree perfectly among themselves. This apparent collusion happens because scientists suffer not only from the ordinary fallibility of memory, but also from frequent exposure to canonical stories propagated through professional meetings, textbooks, and bull sessions. Unless the scientist takes the same trouble to recapture the past as the historian, their interview can be worthless, and even harmful.

Interviews differ qualitatively from memoirs, in which the reminiscing scientist takes the initiative. In oral histories, interviewers raise questions interviewees may never have considered and encourage commentary on episodes interviewees have forgotten or, what comes to the same thing, never experienced. These interviews, if recorded and preserved, will pollute the historical record; and, by a species of Gresham’s law, will attract more attention than contemporary documents more difficult to find and decipher.

If, however, interviews center on scientists’ current views about the past, present, and future of their disciplines, the problem of faulty recollection disappears. This material would be invaluable for later reconstructions of scientists’ perceptions and attitudes at the time of the interviews. A series of such interviews with the same people at five-year intervals would create a unique archive for historians, sociologists, and policy analysts. An eligible population of interviewees is not far to seek. The Max-Planck institutes for science and technology could furnish instructive material for the Max- Planck-Institut for history of science. And, reciprocally, scientists drawn into the creation of this archive can learn something about the methods, objectives, and standards of those who aim to be their historians.

Organization of science

Sarton’s institute was to include the organization of science, by which he meant primarily the apparatus of science, both bibliographical and instrumental, and secondarily its institutions. Historians of modern science have come to recognize the importance of the institution in shaping as well as enabling the work of individuals. The recognition does not do them much good, however, because coming to grips with institutions and the large-scale researches they support is impractical for historians working in the traditional craft mode. Single researchers, digging all alone in the bedrock of fact, are supposed to return with their nuggets to their solitary studies, there to fashion the original and artistic gems that will earn them their professorships. The lone researcher cannot cope with science organized in the modern manner, for reasons of quality as well as quantity.

In respect of quality, the single historical investigator is outclassed because science results from the combined skills of many different experts, including engineers and project managers as well as scientists, graduate students, and technicians. What scientists create in groups, historians must study in groups. Barnes understood long ago that the enlargement of the scope of general history entailed a profound reorganization of historical work. “No one person could well hope to master every phase of the history of a single society during even a brief period. The great historical works of the future seem destined to become cooperative products.”

In respect of quantity, the individual historian of modern times is outnumbered and oppressed by the volume of available documentation. Not only must we contend with the usual sorts of material, like correspondence, notebooks, project proposals and reports, published papers, reminiscences, films, and photographs, but now we face outdated computer records, e-mail, and the unlimited information recoverable from computerized databases and optical disks. Historians will need to associate themselves closely with other experts in trying to order and master this material. Sarton foresaw the need for bibliographers and photographers. Now we must have computer programmers and librarians practiced in the new search techniques as well.

In order to blunt a misunderstanding easily conceived, even by historians, I must insist that the sort of team research I have in mind applies to the intellectual as well as to the social and institutional aspects of science. Not only are the intellectual aspects often inseparable from institutional imperatives, they also often demand more than the lone researcher can manage. To expect one and the same individual to control all the relevant details of a major experiment or theory, and also the several significant stages in its genesis and reception, is to expect too much. Historians should make a virtue of this necessity. Scientists might take our technical work more seriously if we admit that, even with all the benefits of hindsight, one of us is not equal to ten of them. 

Perhaps it will be useful to anchor these airy remarks in some examples of subjects now ripe for team research. An obvious choice is a subject that lends itself to cross-national comparisons. One that interests me these days is the Americanization of world science. I have in mind a style that, with only a little exaggeration, is characterized by large machines, large investments, large groups, and little philosophy. Even at its most rarefied, in elementary particle physics, American science exhibits a pragmatism that has no place for the epistemological conundrums that bothered Bohr and Einstein. In a word, I have in mind the intellectual delicacy that, as Burkhardt put it, is common to barbarians and cultivated Americans.

Americanization of European physics began in the 1930s, with the spread of instruments for nuclear physics. The destruction of German science by the Nazis and the interruption of European and Russian science by the war left a vacuum in the Old World, while the pumping of federal money into science in the United States made a plenum in the New. The United States set the tune, tone, and tempo; to compete, Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the so-called developing world had to follow American methods as best they could. The desperation that seized Europe is perhaps best illustrated by the creation of CERN, whose members reluctantly surrendered a measure of national sovereignty and their national scientific styles in order to be able to compete as a group with the United States.

Apart from a detailed history of CERN and shorter accounts of a few other institutions and episodes, historians have neglected the problem of the rebuilding of European (and also Soviet and Japanese) science after the second world war. It would be an excellent project for an institute for the history of science. Americanization, with its prewar antecedents, would be a central theme. So, also, would be beating the United States at its own game. To stick with the example of high-energy physics, the recent cancellation of the super conducting super collider may leave CERN the victor in the competition begun almost half a century ago. Will the loss of American hegemony result in a new world-wide style of science? We will not know unless historians get to work on characterizing the American era.

A second sort of project that the institute might undertake is of the form “Science and X,” where X may be technology, literature, religion, government, the military, and so on. As an example, take science and law. For almost two centuries now, the courts have had to find ways to accommodate the increasing obtrusiveness of science. Scientific discoveries have brought new sorts of evidence into the courtroom: evidence from photography, ballistics, fingerprints, polygraphs, x rays, and so on, down to DNA typing. With the evidence have come experts, whose testimony must be evaluated by judges and juries almost uniformly ignorant of the science on which the evidence is based.

More demanding even than the increasingly complicated instrumentation of forensic science has been the rapid multiplication of cases concerning technical questions. At the beginning of the last century, courts faced the brand-new problem of assigning responsibility for exploding steam engines; at the end of our century, they must decide intricate cases involving high-tech products and processes on the basis of expert testimony they are incompetent to evaluate. The situation is particularly unsatisfactory in the United States, where jurors are carefully chosen to know nothing at all.

A comparative history of the interaction of science and the law, and of experts and the courts, would be an excellent project for an institute for the history of science and a timely contribution to the understanding, if not to the solution, of a pressing contemporary problem. The project will need a legal historian and perhaps also a lawyer.

You will have noticed that these examples are drawn from modern history. Older subjects also qualify for the team approach, for example, the professional lives of members of the Paris Academy of science in Napoleon’s time, or the transitory dominance of small centers of scientific excellence like Geneva, Leyden, and Edinburgh. But the modern era particularly demands and rewards team research, both because the interesting problems of modern history usually exceed the powers of an individual, and because the 20th century urgently needs the attention of historians. We could profitably declare a moratorium on the study of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, and devote the resources saved to investigation of, say, the histories of the Kaiser-Wilhelm and Max-Planck institutes.

You may have noticed that I have not placed a philosopher of science on the team. The omission is not a matter of principle but of experience. The experience is an experiment run for many years in the United States. In the early 1950s, the National Science Foundation agreed to support history and philosophy of science on Sarton’s old theory that the philosophers, by generalizing and systematizing the results of the historians, would arrive at the true principles of scientific advance—or, if not the true ones, approximations close enough to enable the Foundation to invest wisely among the projects submitted to it. In order to operate efficiently, the philosophers and historians joined together to form departments of history and philosophy of science.

The experiment was a failure. Most of the departments fell apart into non-interacting halves, some of which continued a shaky independent existence and some of which were absorbed into departments of history or philosophy. Although the National Science Foundation still has a program in history and philosophy of science, in practice the evaluating panels meet separately, one for history and one for philosophy. Investment in the collaboration between historians and philosophers has not been profitable. Of course, it may become profitable when conducted by scholars like the regretted Lorenz Krüger, but, for the moment, the institute would do well to be bearish.

4. An Institute for the History of Science

The large professional and flexible support staff required by a modern institute for the history of science should include a clever travel agent. Every senior member ought to be on the road for many weeks each year. Most of this travel will be necessary for the same reason that an institute is no longer needed to raise the standards of ordinary business of historians of science. The universities have the business well in hand.

At this stage of development of the field, an institute for history of science should not collect permanent members. No doubt, it would be easier to create a prestigious scholarly body by tenuring established academics than in any other way. With plentiful staff and resources, and without imposing teaching obligations, the institute would not find it difficult to attract good scholars into permanent or even temporary sinecures; most professors are always ready for a respite from teaching and eager for a place to advance their individual projects with adequate secretarial help. An institute so conducted can support and even abet much distinguished work; but it will not be a unique force in its field. Nor, obviously, can it be unique if organized like a university department consisting of a permanent faculty and diverse student body.

If, however, it had a small number of permanent senior members willing to travel, something might be done. To fix ideas, let there be five such members, each responsible for developing a major research project once every three to five years. The project would be supported by the institute’s excellent staff and engage as researchers a mix of graduate students, postdocs, and established scholars, who would come to the institute for stays of varying lengths. The junior members might have overlapping terms of two or three years, the senior ones might come for no more than a few weeks at a time; but everyone on the project would be associated with it for its duration. To give an overly rigid framework, a new quinquennial project would begin every year in the steady state and five projects would be running simultaneously.

The products of the projects would be part of their design. In traditional research projects, books, monographs, and bibliographies; in archival projects, finding aids, authoritative editions, and CD-romsful of source material; in interactive multimedia, like the Yale Greek corpus, computer programs, texts, and optical images; in museology, guide books and exhibits; in general education, textbooks, lesson plans, and curricula. Any or all of these projects might issue newsletters, sponsor public lectures, contribute articles to the learned press, and otherwise popularize their results. And, of course, all projects would have as output the PhD’s and postdocs trained in them.

I’m coming to the travel. The design of successful projects will require not only sustained and careful thought about their substance, but also the availability of energetic and qualified personnel. In practice, the substance and the personnel will be identified together. To discover subjects mature and appropriate for a quinquennial project, as well as junior and senior scholars able and willing to participate fully in it, the project’s designer will need to keep informed about work under way in the leading centers for history of science and technology; and also about work in other social sciences, humanities, and law that might be incorporated fruitfully into the institute’s activities. The designer will also want to meet with advanced graduate students engaged in research that would fit into the project. Even in this era of e-mail and the internet, there is no substitute for knowledge obtainable on site. Hence the institute’s need for a travel agent.

I have adopted the model just outlined from the practices of what may probably have been the single most effective private supporter of natural science of all time. I have in mind the Rockefeller philanthropies between the world wars. They sent their agents around Europe and the United States looking for the best people and the most advanced projects within a few general areas—like quantum physics or molecular biology—that seemed to them intrinsically important and also likely to benefit from the level of funding they could offer. Fellowships made possible long-term exchanges of postdocs and shorter visits of senior scholars among the leading centers. Judicious infusions of capital helped the centers to grow and to purchase expensive apparatus. 

The unique importance of the Rockefeller philanthropies in building up the physical sciences and their applications to biology in the interwar years has been documented recently by several historians, who have drawn on the extensive material preserved in the Rockefeller archives. Among this material are the diaries and notebooks of the Rockefeller agents in the field. These agents became very well informed about the areas and researchers they supported and often themselves made useful suggestions for follow-on investigations. Among their wise investments were the transfer of cyclotrons to Europe, the development of the ultra-centrifuge, the method of radioactive tracers, and the support of Bohr, Joliot, Svedberg, Lawrence, and many others.

An institute for the history of science run on the principle I have just outlined would not be an agency for funding research at other centers. Of course, it might give some support to its senior collaborators at their home bases, for example, a stipend for a research assistant to work on the quinquennial project with which the senior scholar is associated. But, in general, the institute would differ from the Rockefeller philanthropies in spending most of its resources on work done within its walls.

One of the chief merits of this model—which no doubt also has many flaws—is that it addresses realistically two major long-term problems of small research institutions. The problems are how to engage strong, productive, and imaginative leaders and to keep them vital and innovative. The obligation to devise big, important, practicable, and up-to-date research projects and to hunt out promising young collaborators will help postpone the advent of academic sclerosis. Still, burn out will set in. Its consequences can be mitigated by exchanges of positions between senior members and university professors. A professor might well wish to spend two or three years at the institute not teaching and working out an idea for a collaborative project while the senior member participating in the exchange might regain vigor by teaching in a major research university.

One additional guideline might profitably be laid down: the projects operating at any time should not all be of the same type. All must have strong scholarly content and meet international scholarly standards; but some should reach out beyond professional historians of science to scientists, other scholars, administrators, educators, and the wider society. The long-term and short-term visitors chosen to collaborate on the projects will therefore represent a range of expertise and constituencies. The institute will be lively and diverse. It will quickly create a body of alumni who can spread its peculiar method and special point of view. It will be a unique force in history of science and a model for general history. Let us wish the directors good luck and godspeed in seizing their extraordinary opportunity. 


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From the MPIWG Annual Report 1995