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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 153-155 ( 1 May )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ione.html

Book Review

The Establishment of Science in America: 150 Years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Michael M. Sokal, and Bruce V. Lewenstein.
Rutgers University Press, 1999

Reviewed by Amy Ione, Director, The Diatrope Institute.

Founded in 1848 by 461 men of science, mostly geologists and naturalists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has grown to be a major force in science today. The Establishment of Science in America outlines the association’s first 150 years and effectively demonstrates how the scientific pursuits of those within a young country, far from the scientific centers of Europe, came to assert international influence.

Overall the narrative is amazingly cohesive. Reading through the organization’s history I quickly forgot that the book is a collaborative work. Three authors contributed, each writing a section covering approximately fifty years. Careful cross-references help the sections cohere and allow the association’s story to read seamlessly. Moreover, as a reader, I found the frequent notations to other sections served as an aid, allowing me to better grasp how the organization evolved. The first section, “Creating a Forum for Science: AAAS in the Nineteenth Century” was written by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and speaks of the organization’s beginnings. Michael M. Sokal’s section, “Promoting Science in a New Century: The Middle Years of the AAAS” outlines the role of James McKeen Cattell, editor of Science from the late 1800s until 1944. In the final section, “Shifting Science from People to Programs: AAAS in the Postwar Years”, Bruce V. Lewenstein conveys the dramatic changes to the organization as the United States and America took on a new role worldwide at the end of the twentieth century. This final section was compelling in bringing the organization into the contemporary milieu and explaining how the AAAS came to be the organization those of us who are members know today. Briefly, the first 100 years showed a focus on annual meetings and the development of Science. Since the mid-1950s the history of the AAAS has been involved in developing new structures for the association’s publications, periodic seminars for the mass media and other groups, popular book series, and changes in the structure, content, and operation of the annual meetings. In addition, members and the AAAS staff have developed international initiatives and explored programs related to science education.

While I don’t think this institutional history is a book that will excite generalists, it is definitely a well-done historical narrative that transcended my expectations. It most effectively adds to our understanding of the trends, events, and people who built American science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Moreover, to its credit, The Establishment of Science in America comprehensively delineates the push-and-pull politics as well as administrative debates within this arm of the scientific community. The survey is bolstered by the way the writing within each section turns to themes that recur as the organization develops.

Born in a country that aspired to highlight the democratic ideal, one theme the narrative explores effectively is the theme of democracy as it translated into American science and, more particularly, the development of the association. In summary, we are given a good sense of the degree to which the AAAS was shaped by the democratic ideal and how the striving for an inclusive membership was repeatedly re-defined as the group attempted to balance the notion of an elite body of professional scientists with the democratic ideal. Another notable theme is the tension between fostering scientific discourse among specialists and expanding its agenda to include science education in the public sphere. Similarly, the book documents how the organization’s views changed in response to societal currents, particularly in regard to women, minorities, and the scientific agenda as a whole. For example, while both women and minorities were members in the nineteenth century, it was only at the end of the twentieth century that the organization began to reflect what these groups had to contribute in a significant fashion.

Historical surveys of institutions are often dry. In this case I was pleased to find a spectrum of unexpected details kept the story lively. These unexpected delights also had the most impact on me as I read. For example, it was only late in the nineteenth century that the association was in a position to fund research. One of the first grants went to Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morely for their work on the velocity of light. Michelson would later be the first American to win the Nobel Prize. Similarly we learn a great deal about American culture’s relationship to the scientific organization when Lewenstein turns to the issues surrounding racial segregation and how the broader cultural agenda influenced the AAAS in the 1950s. At that time segregation was much discussed and within the scientific community the debates were as intense as those of the broader community. In response to some of the concerns the AAAS decided to schedule a meeting a Atlanta, Georgia, a largely segregated city, hoping to reach out to Southern scientists. This gesture largely backfired. When it became apparent that black and white members would need to reside in different hotels, many members were enraged. More compelling is the story of how Detlov Bronk, who had been a president of both the AAAS and Johns Hopkins University, was unable to hail a taxi to take him to an AAAS session at a black university in Atlanta, Georgia. The white taxis could not take him to a black neighborhood and the black taxi’s could not pick up a while passenger.

As an avid reader of Science magazine, I found myself most taken by the discussion of this publication’s history. Much to my surprise, I learned the publication was founded by Thomas A. Edison (in 1880) and purchased by Alexander Graham Bell and Gardiner Greene Hubbard (in 1883). The magazine was then sold to James McKeen Cattell in 1894, and his powerful role in the development of both Science and the AAAS is carefully outlined. It seems the decision to link the publication with membership dues (unlike Nature which is independent of BAAS) was a successful idea implemented in order to build the membership base, (although it too backfired to some degree as Cattell became entrenched in the AAAS power structure and as the editor of Science).

The Establishment of Science in America is a well-researched, well-written book that will primarily be of interest to those who study the culture of science. Offering a broad survey of the first 150 years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this study provides an excellent resource for research into the evolution of one of the most powerful organizations in American science. A small selection of photographs and illustrations, inset in the middle of the book, expand the written text. If there is a downside to this study it is the degree to which science itself remains outside of the story. Just as a scientific survey often seems detached from lived experience, historical summaries of the scientific community seem to exist next to the world of science itself.

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© Amy Ione.


Ione, A. (2002). Review of The Establishment of Science in America by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Michael M. Sokal, and Bruce V. Lewenstein. Human Nature Review. 2: 153-155.

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