What Is History of Science?

A peacock in a crowned alchemical flask; representing the stage in the alchemical process when the substance breaks out into many colours. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC By 4.0A Letter from Professor Angela Creager

When I tell people that I study the history of science, they often don’t know what it is—it is history, or is it science? It is both, I tell them.

Since I study the history of biology, my subject includes many figures that are familiar, such as Carl Linnaeus, Robert Darwin, and Rosalind Franklin. More broadly, historians of biology pay attention to how changes in scientific knowledge reflect the setting and culture of their time—as well as the new objects and organisms that biologists pick up to study (be they frogs, fruit flies, or fluorescent proteins).

To be sure, precursors to modern knowledge are often mentioned in science textbooks—you all know how Gregor Mendel used pea crosses to identify the laws of modern genetics—but historians of science don’t restrict their attention to research that paved the way to the present state of knowledge. We also study the sciences that were valued at the time but have since faded from view, or are not seen as directly connected to contemporary knowledge.

Alchemy is a great example here—and we happen to have one of the world’s leading historians of alchemy at Princeton, Professor Jennifer Rampling. She not only reads about alchemical experiments with her students, but she also reenacts them. Even if alchemists were not transmuting base metals into gold, they developed an impressive mastery of chemical reactions and material transformations, and contributed importantly to medicine.

Kidney cell showing nucleus and mitochondria. Credit: University of Edinburgh. CC BY-NC 4.0Historians of science also often consider how and why new ways of understanding the world have emerged. Professor Erika Milam’s class, which is cross-listed with Environmental Studies, explores the history of ecology and environmentalism. Within the Department of History, there are many such courses on the history of science, technology, and medicine—including ones that focus on other areas of the world, such as China. Some are lecture courses, some are seminars, and this fall 2019 there is even one that is being offered as a science (STN) course, Transformative Questions in Biology (STC/HIS/MOL/HUM 297).

Whether you are a humanities student interested in scrutinizing scientific texts the way you might a Shakespeare play, a social science major interested in considering how medicine or technology have shaped modern society, or a science-leaning student interested in a history course that will connect with what you are studying down the hill, I encourage you to try a class in history of science! I was a biochemistry and English double-major in college, and did not discover history of science until graduate school, but when I did, the field brought my diverse interests together and became my life’s passion.

Angela N. H. Creager, Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science, May 2019


Image credits:

A peacock in a crowned alchemical flask; representing the stage in the alchemical process when the substance breaks out into many colours. Watercolour painting. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0

Kidney cell showing nucleus and mitochondria. Credit: University of Edinburgh. CC BY-NC 4.0.