Off to a Bad Start

The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876

by Robert V. Bruce
Knopf, 446 pp., $30.00

Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology

by Philip J. Pauly
Oxford University Press, 252 pp., $24.95

Enlightenment should be possible anywhere, and sometimes is. Benjamin Franklin in colonial Philadelphia created theories of electricity that excited admiration and fruitful argument in the intellectual centers of Europe. But somehow in the century after Franklin a self-limiting provincialism stifled creative science in America. The exception that appears at the end of the century, Willard Gibbs, accentuates the prevailing dullness. In the late 1870s, when European scientists acclaimed Gibbs’s foundational work in physical chemistry, his colleagues at the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, who published the work, could not understand it. They were provincials in mentality, separated from the creative centers of scientific thought not by the Atlantic Ocean but by their unwillingness to learn the mathematical physics that Gibbs had mastered.

Nineteenth-century Americans were interested in science, of a sort. They filled lecture halls to hear a transplanted European savant disclose the great design in nature’s order, and numerous collectors packed the Smithsonian Institution with dried plants, stuffed animals, rocks, bones, Indian artifacts—to show the abundance designed by God for exploitation by energetic white men. The first centenary of American independence was celebrated in Philadelphia by a great exhibition of engines and implements, which the public supposed to be generated by science, never mind exactly how. And even at that level, where “the mystique of Yankee ingenuity” was commonly accepted, the provincial pattern appeared: the American press paid almost no attention to the exhibit of Bell’s newly invented telephone until a distinguished English visitor celebrated it back in his own country.

I am picking out one theme in Robert Bruce’s magisterial history of “the great scientific awakening,” as a contemporary called it—a more apt title, in my opinion, than The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876. To be sure, Bruce’s abundant account of universities, museums, scientific associations, and other institutions founded or rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century lends itself to the metaphor of shipyards and launchings, but all that busyness is hardly the most interesting theme of his book. It is the most fully developed, with so many little heaps of biographical detail concerning so many forgettable people that the reader must struggle to keep his mind alert for the intermittent passages that connect the institutions and people to Bruce’s more significant concern: the American awakening, from the 1840s through the 1870s, to the authentic spirit of modern science.

That entangles him in fascinating questions about the American mentality: What explains its protracted torpor? What caused its belated awakening—or reawakening if we consider Franklin representative of an original American enlightenment that somehow died out? Underlying those historical, narrowly American issues, is a large philosophical question: What right do we have to make invidious distinctions between creative science and the superficial imitations that prevailed for so long in America? When we locate Franklin and Gibbs at the luminous center of scientific discovery and place the intervening collectors of rocks and bones in provincial dullness, is our account anything more than an indulgence in snobbism? In recent years historians…

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