Why Study the History of Science, Medicine and Technology?

Andrew Mendelsohn outlines the attractions of a fast-growing an popular field of study.

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885
Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885
Imagine holding in your hands the manuscripts of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, the laboratory instruments of Louis Pasteur or Marie Curie, and deciphering science in the making – what peculiar combinations of conceptual, cultural and technical resources allowed them to be able to think thoughts that hadn’t been thought before?

Or imagine building a replica of the paddle-wheel apparatus James Joule used to determine the mechanical equivalent of heat and recreating his experiment in order to reveal the role of particular skills in a great discovery – in this case the exquisite temperature-measuring skills of a 19th-century Manchester brewer. 

Or imagine decoding the bizarre symbolism of alchemical treatises, and finding how it describes workable chemical processes, thus illuminating the origins of the science of chemistry. 

Or, finally, imagine having been able to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer about what it was like to work on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, to study the increasingly collective and large-scale character of science in the 20th century.

These are just a few of the things historians do when they study the past of science, technology and medicine.

Beyond such detective work is also the intellectual and creative work of figuring out how to select, interpret, and synthesise vast amounts of information – from archives, books, scientific journals, newspapers, museum artefacts, literary works, government documents, institutional records, correspondence, art objects, economic statistics – into a coherent picture. Historians of science draw on the tools of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, and influence those disciplines in turn, while working at the heart of a relatively new effort, often called social studies of science, or science and technology studies. The history and social study of science, technology and medicine is a vibrant, fast-growing area, with degree programmes and departments being set up over the past 10-15 years at universities in the UK, the USA, and Europe.

But what good is it? First, there is the fun, the challenge to your intellect and imagination, and the almost limitless intellectual horizons you have in doing history. But history is also massively relevant to understanding today’s world. It is a true cliché that the modern world is a preeminently scientific and technological one.  Billions are spent each year on R&D. Biomedicine stamps our most intimate experiences, even as we ask how we can afford to pay for it and whether it adequately addresses our human needs. Automation and information technologies change the nature of everyday work and its wider economic and social relations even as you read these lines. 

Yet how many of us know much about how this world came to be? The lesson of history is always that things have been otherwise in different times and places and thus could now be otherwise as well. In this sense, knowing the past does not distract from the present, but opens up its possibilities.  Studying history gives you knowledge and critical perspective and analytical tools, whether you intend to continue studying in the sciences or engineering or medicine, or whether to go on into education, the media, business, government, museum work or academic history itself.

Public interest in both history and in understanding science has rarely been as high as it is today. If our era is profoundly technological and scientific and future-oriented, so too it is captivated by the past. Science journalism is a growth area and often has a historical component. Books on the making of the atomic bomb, or the solution to the problem of longitude,  command wide audiences. Likewise, it is a time when scientists face increasing demand that they be publicly accountable. Public debate swirls over the purpose and goals of science. In one recent case of government investigation into ‘misconduct’ in research, notebooks from the laboratory of an eminent scientist were confiscated for analysis by the US Secret Service acting on behalf of Congress. In such a climate, there is more need than ever for historical inquiry into the nature and workings of science.

This is no easy task, but a good taste of the craft can be acquired even through an introductory degree programme. There are abundant opportunities for research: some could involve your language skills; others might involve oral history; there is much work to be done on the role of Western science and technology in the colonial and postcolonial world; on science, medicine and technology in Islamic and Asian civilisations, in both modern and pre-modern times; and generally on the 20th century.

What sorts of question do historians of science, medicine and technology ask?  Most familiar among these, perhaps, is the impact of science and technology on society. Less familiar, but often more challenging, is the other way round: the impact of society on science, technology and medicine, the ways it shapes them. What factors, for example, account for why in Paris, in a few short years around 1800, the 2000-year-old Western medical tradition gave rise to an entirely new conception of the body and way of practising medicine? Other historians have attempted to account for the fact that those older medical practices – bloodletting, for example – seem misguided to us yet made perfect sense to minds that were as good as ours.

The methods and institutions and ethos of science that arose in the West at the time of the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries have proved to be the most exportable and universally adoptable product of civilisation hitherto. Thus historians ask what is special about those methods and institutions, and why the scientific and industrial revolutions took place in the West and what the relation was between them. Other, perhaps more basic aspects of science are usually held to originate in antiquity, but debate flourishes on the relative roles of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, debate which thereby also forces questions about the very definition of science. Closer to the present, other historians ask what factors caused science and medicine after the Second World War to take a quantum leap in scale and interconnection with government and business, becoming massive enterprises of research and development, requiring large bureaucratic organisation, and absorbing immense amounts of society’s resources.

These are all questions that historians of science, medicine and technology are actively exploring – perhaps you have a contribution to make?

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