July 2020 Newsletter
Pages from July 2020 Newsletter

We hope that all our members continue to keep safe and sane as our trying times continue. Certainly this longer-than-usual issue provides good evidence that our community has been busy and active.  We have a few treats in store, with two meaty interviews of distinguished, prizewinning scholars from our ranks, and we have more than one contribution attesting to the creativity of educators in times of crisis. Our regular sections are brimming over, as well, with more news than ever of individual members, the community, and the Society as a whole. Keep safe everyone.

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History of Science Society Awards Sarton Medal to James Bennett
2020 Sarton Medalist, James A. Bennett

Prof. James (Jim) A. Bennett’s work as a historian of scientific instruments, curator of world-class collections, museum leader, and teacher has had a remarkable impact in the field of history of science and beyond. Jim was one the earliest historians of science to foster the “material turn,” i.e., to argue that historical scientific instruments and apparatus not only serve as historical sources, but also provide insights not gained from paper documents. The relevance of scientific instruments and material culture is now almost undisputed, and Jim’s work was crucial for this shift of attention from ideas and paradigms to everyday practice and artisanal cultures.

His fundamental 1986 article on “The mechanics’ philosophy and mechanical philosophy” (History of Science 24, 1-28) made it clear that major changes associated with the Scientific Revolution emerged from the domain of instrument-making and practical mathematics. This article lifted the veil on the 16th-century practitioners who, by engaging with the practical problems posed by artillery, navigation, and surveying, had recorded and addressed several inconsistencies of Aristotelian physics. This lesson has been so deeply absorbed in the decades following the publication of Jim’s seminal article that it is now easy to forget where it originated.

The Divided Circle: A History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation and Surveying (Phaidon-Christie’s, 1987)

His early book The Divided Circle: A History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation and Surveying (Phaidon-Christie’s, 1987), which surveys European instruments for measuring angles made from the 16th through the 19th centuries, showed the profound importance of the circle and its measure for the history of science, highlighting how instruments provide valuable and unique insights into the worlds of theory and practice.

Jim’s sharp historiographical approach to science and its material culture was aptly summarized and illustrated in his influential 2002 presidential address to the British Society of the History of Science (BSHS), “Knowing and doing in the sixteenth century: What were instruments for?” (BJHS 36, 129-150). The latter remains a compelling invitation to use instruments as resources for research, constituting an obligatory passage point to all those who engage with this line of inquiry.

As the curator of world-class collections such as those at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, the Whipple Museum of the University of Cambridge, and the History of Science Museum in Oxford, Jim cultivated innovative dynamics of object-based teaching and research, while seeking to mediate among the worlds of the museum, the instrument collector, and the professional historian of science/technology. He has overseen and supported a substantial number of carefully curated and thought-provoking exhibitions such as “Empires of Physics” (1993, Whipple Museum, Cambridge), “Geometry of War, 1500-1750” (1996, History of Science Museum, Oxford) and “Steampunk” (2010, idem), just to mention a few examples. These exhibits have inspired students, researchers, curators, and the general public alike, bringing fresh perspectives from artifact-based research into the public sphere while setting a benchmark for other exhibit projects and permanent displays in institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Throughout his career, Jim has always stood out as an active, influential, and generous member of the museum and scholarly communities. He has held many distinguished leadership positions, including those of President of the BSHS, President of the Scientific Instrument Commission of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Vice-President of the International Academy of the History of Science, and more recently, President of the Hakluyt Society. He has also acted as an associate editor of leading academic journals and served on the advisory boards of the Nobel Museum and the Science Museum.

For his pioneering scholarship and curation in the field of instrument studies, his leadership in the history of science on an international stage, and his attention to the needs of faculty, students, and the public, the HSS is pleased to bestow its most distinguished award, the Sarton Medal, on Prof. Jim Bennett. 

The History of Science Society (est. 1924) is the world’s largest society devoted to the study of the history of science. The HSS’s mission is to foster interest in the history of science, promote discussion of science’s social and cultural relations, and bring this understanding to others worldwide. For further information, please contact Robert J Malone at jay@hssonline.org.

Coronavirus Update

Because of COVID-19, we are unable to meet in New Orleans in 2020. We are currently exploring options for a virtual meeting in 2020. The program that would have been is now available for perusal.

Featured article: Andrew Evans on photography, beauty contests, and race science

Andrew Evans’ article, “‘Most Unusual’ Beauty Contests: Nordic Photographic Competitions and the Construction of a Public for German Race Science, 1926-1935,” appears in the June issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

Alex Cagle, the Isis manuscript assistant, interviewed Dr. Evans about his research.

CAGLE: Your essay highlights how both German scientists and the German public helped create and shape the new field of race science or Rassenkunde in part through these beauty contests. How do you think your article might contribute to the global conversation happening right now in the wake of protests speaking out about racialized violence?

Dr. Andrew Evans
Dr. Andrew Evans

EVANS: The current protests denounce systemic racism, the maintenance of social and institutional structures that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. The protests have drawn much-needed attention to how the structures of racism were built. We need to bring science into that conversation, because it played a key role in creating and maintaining systemic racism.

The essay gives us a chance to consider how scientific institutions and everyday people interacted to create racial categories and racist iconography. I analyze a series of mail-in photographic contests in the 1920s and 1930s designed to select the most representative examples of the so-called Nordic race. Prominent German anthropologists and race scientists, including Eugen Fischer, Hans F.K. Günther, and Otto Reche, served as the judges for these competitions. In the interwar period, these men were central figures in the creation of Rassenkunde or “race science,” a new scientific field dedicated to the racist proposition that race and culture, biology and ability, were linked. Entrants mailed in photographs of themselves, and these experts picked and analyzed the winners, which were then published as archetypal faces of the Nordic race. The audience and the judges, in other words, collaborated in the production of racial imagery and in drawing the boundaries of “us” vs. “them.” It should perhaps come as no surprise that they created racial knowledge that benefitted themselves. The contests produced an image of Nordic racial belonging that was overwhelmingly male and upper and middle class, the very groups to which the judges and entrants belonged. The contests also presented the superior Nordic race as the most important racial element in the German people, thus infusing the nation itself with racial meaning.

One thing that strikes me about the current moment is the role of photography. The essay analyzes the ways in which entrants and judges alike used photography to create Nordic racial imagery. In the contests, the camera functioned as a tool of racial definition and exclusion. In the current protests, however, photography has become a tool for social justice that documents and reveals racial violence. Cell phones have democratized photography and video; today you don’t need a fancy camera or access to a traditional media outlet to disseminate an image. The camera was used to create racial categories, but it can also be used to combat racial injustice.

The German public competing to be the most Nordic certainly was a most unusual contest. How did you come across these episodes in your research, and when did you realize you had something unique on your hands?

I was researching a book on German anthropology during World War I when I came across the first contest. I was doing something basic: tracking down published pieces by prominent anthropologists in the 1920s for a chapter on the postwar period. The first article I found was the announcement of the winners of the 1926 contest for the “best male and female heads of the Nordic race” in the popular race science journal, Volk und Rasse. The material was just so bizarre: a mail-in photographic racial beauty contest with cash prizes? It seemed like an anomaly. But the article was written by Eugen Fischer, perhaps the most prominent anthropologist of the interwar period in Germany, and the other judge in the contest was Hans F. K. Günther, the author of the best-selling book, Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (Racial Science of the German People). These were big names in interwar German race science. But still, it was one contest. I realized I had something unique on my hands when I discovered two other such contests in the same journal: the competition for the “Best Nordic Family Tree” in 1927 and one for the “Best Racial Heads of the Most Important Races Represented in Germany” in 1934. These also involved professional anthropologists. This gave me three racial beauty contests in which participants collaborated with scientists by creating racial portraits, selecting what they considered the most representative photographs, suppling and even analyzing data, and serving as consumer for the results. Taken together, the contests offered the opportunity to analyze a process of knowledge co-production in science that involved both scientists and their audience.

You mention that the judges’ ideal of searching for a masculine Nordic essence made it difficult for them to capture the ideal Nordic woman. Did the women who submitted portraits of themselves also find it difficult to envision the perfect Nordic woman? How aware were they that they were in part contributing to a backlash of the “New Woman”?

It’s exceptionally difficult to get at the motivations of the women who participated in the contests. We have the images that they submitted and little else. The venue for the contests, however, can perhaps tell us something. The journal in which the contests appeared, Volk und Rasse, was a mouthpiece of the völkisch movement, a diffuse group of right-wing theorists and critics who reacted to modernity with horror. They believed that industrialization and modern forms of life were destroying German culture; the only antidote was a radical German nationalism based on notions of racial superiority. Chief among the ills of modernity, in their view, was the “New Woman,” the media image of young, independent working women who wore their hair short, smoked cigarettes, and dressed in androgynous clothing. Volk and Rasse favored a traditional view of women associated with the home, family, long hair, conventional dress, and buttoned-down sexuality. The entrants in the contests were either readers or subscribers to the journal, which suggests that they shared this ideological orientation. Moreover, none of the women who submitted photographs of themselves matched the image of the “New Women.” Because of the journal’s ideological emphasis, we can speculate that the women who entered the contests were well aware that they were contributing to a backlash against the “New Woman.” Did they find it difficult to imagine the perfect Nordic woman? If they submitted photographs of themselves, they likely believed that they somehow fit the bill. The male judges, however, disagreed. In the 1926 contests, Fischer and Günther refused to award a first prize to the women and handed out three second-place awards in the female category instead.

How did the judges of the contests, Lehmann, Günther, Reche, Schultz, and others, handle the defeat of the Nazi Regime led by the supposedly superior Nordic Race?

Lehmann died in 1935. The other figures in the article went through the denazification process after World War II, but none suffered severe consequences for their work in racial science or their associations with the Nazi regime. Their defense was that they had been engaged in science, not politics. Fischer retired from his position as the head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics before the war ended, in 1942. He escaped denazification with a fine of 300 marks and continued to publish as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg until his death in 1967. Günther was arrested at the end of the war and interned in the French occupation zone until 1948. At the end of a denazification process, he was declared a “lesser offender” and banned from holding a university position. He refused to renounce his earlier writings, however, and continued to publish on marriage and eugenics until his death in 1968. Denazification barred Otto Reche from teaching in the postwar period, but he was allowed to retire with emeritus status. In 1965, the year before his death, he was awarded Austria’s highest honor for scientific achievement, the Österreichisches Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst. Bruno Schultz found a position at the University of Münster in the Institute for Human Genetics after the war. In general, these scientists expressed no regrets about their work in racial science, and the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945 did not drastically change their views.

Applications open for Osiris editorship (deadline August 1)

The History of Science Society solicits applications and nominations for the editorship of Osiris. Published annually, Osiris compliments its quarterly twin sister Isis and is one of the five publications of the History of Science Society. Each volume of Osiris comprises approximately fifteen essays on a specific theme and is printed on c. 350 pages. (See its website for more information.)

The Editor’s duties include soliciting, reviewing  (with the assistance of the Osiris Editorial Board), and selecting proposals for each volume; working with guest editors to define the scope and content of the volume; overseeing the outside referee process; and working with the University of Chicago Press, a copy editor, proofreader, and graphic designer to coordinate the production of each volume. The total time required may vary, but is expected to be roughly 150-200 hours per year. The appointment is for five years, starting July 1, 2021. 

As a rule, HSS supplies funding for copyediting, proofreading, referees, and an Osiris Board breakfast at the annual meeting. It is hoped that the HSS can help reimburse editor travel to the HSS annual meeting. The Osiris Editor’s home institution is normally expected to provide a dedicated e-mail address and phone, as well as cover (the minimal) costs of secretarial work, postage, and preferably also the costs of hiring a graduate student to take on the role of Managing Editor. Proposals for co-editorships are welcome, but such applications should include a brief outline of the co-Editors’ anticipated workflow.

More detailed information may be obtained from the current Co-Editors of Osiris, Patrick McCray (pmccray@ucsb.edu) and Suman Seth (ss536@cornell.edu). Interested individuals should submit three documents: a curriculum vitae, a letter indicating their reasons and qualifications for applying to the position, and a letter of commitment by the supporting institution. This information should be sent to the Co-Editors of the History of Science Society, Alexandra Hui (ahui@history.msstate.edu) and Matthew Lavine (mlavine@history.msstate.edu). Alternatively, nominations may also be submitted with the permission of the nominated individuals. The deadline for nominations is August 1, 2020.

Statement on the Death of George Floyd and Racism in the United States

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020 has sparked days of protests in every state in the United States and in nations across the world. These protests are not an isolated response but emerge from decades of struggle against the violence of white supremacy. We continue to witness with horror as militarized police forces are deployed against protestors and bystanders across the United States. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and military medical helicopters to intimidate protestors breaks with international codes of humanitarian conduct and undermines the rule of law. The History of Science Society condemns the ongoing racism that structures the American policing, criminal, and legal systems. We unequivocally affirm that Black lives matter. 

We know from our historical work how thoroughly entangled science is with racism. Our histories have demonstrated this across medicine, science, and technology, including, among many others, the use of the bodies of unwilling enslaved women in the creation of gynecology techniques, the collection of blood from indigenous communities in Cold War preservation programs, the development of racist database surveillance practices in policing, or in the deployment of anthropology to legitimate racist public policies. 

We grieve the devastating impact of Euroamerican race science that divided humans into separate and unequal categories. We denounce the historic and ongoing exclusion of Black scientists from professional scientific networks, resources, and credit for their work. And we call out the role that science and medicine have played—and continue to play—in creating and sanctifying racism, particularly in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black, brown, and indigenous communities in the United States.

Acknowledging the ways that science and medicine have been complicit in anti-Blackness, colonial violence, slavery, and white supremacy is only the first step. We must also recognize how racism has shaped our own histories. Thus, our commitment to end white supremacy begins with our research, our teaching, and how we conduct the business of the Society. We pledge to actively elevate the work of Black scholars and dismantle racism in the fabric of our discipline and our institutions. We call ourselves to a harder, better understanding of our Society’s mission that draws on our unique insights into the history of science, medicine, and technology for the urgent and necessary task of combating racism, everywhere.

-The History of Science Society


The Open Conversations section in the June 2020 issue of Isis, the flagship journal of the History of Science Society, examines how diversity in the history of science can be a force for justice. It discusses the need to diversify the profession and to address the causes underlying white-centrism in the historical study of science. We urge you to read the discussion: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/709484

The HSS Graduate and Early Career Caucus have compiled a list of resources and opportunities for donation: https://hssgecc.wordpress.com/

Recent Isis articles on race and racism in science

In an effort to contribute to the ongoing discussion about systemic racism and racist violence in the United States and around the world, the co-editors of Isis have compiled a selection of articles from recent years that examine the role of science in constructing and perpetuating assumptions about race, and the consequences of these practices for society.

The works listed on the page linked here are critical examinations of Western science, and of the discipline of history of science. We especially encourage you to take a look at the newest Isis feature, an “Open Conversation” from our June 2020 issue between nine scholars on the topic of our field’s diversity and how we measure it. This and several other articles listed here are freely available without a subscription.

Recent Isis articles on race and racism in science

Nathan Reingold Prize in the History of Science
The History of Science Society has extended its deadline from 1 June to 26 June in recognition that students may need some more time to finish their essays following an eventful semester.  The prize recognizes an original and unpublished article (articles that have been accepted for publication are ineligible) on the history of science and its cultural influences written by a graduate student enrolled at any college, university, or institute of technology. Essays in the history of medicine are not eligible for the prize; however, papers dealing with the relations between medicine and the non-medical sciences are welcome. Further information, including instructions for submission, may be found here: https://hssonline.org/about/honors/nathan-reingold-prize/
New Books Received: Jan – March 2020

Check out the latest titles in the history of science. See the full list of books.


Previous Isis Books Received Lists

This site contains affiliate links to books. HSS may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.
HSS Publications during the Pandemic

To our friends and colleagues in the history of science community:

Like all of you over the last several weeks, we at the HSS Editorial office have resigned ourselves to the fact that we do indeed live in interesting times. We are reasonably certain that, as you adjusted to the new realities of teaching, working, and living through this pandemic, you did not devote much time wondering when you would hear from us. Nevertheless, we’d like to take a moment to address how these extraordinary circumstances will affect the Society’s publications and those of you who make them possible, through your writing, editing, reviewing, and patronage.

As historians, we naturally look to our present circumstances with an eye towards what elements of them will survive into subsequent generations’ retelling of them. Will the articles in Volume 211, Issue 3 of Isis—which we note for the benefit of our distant successors should be reserved for the centennial of these events—be able to appreciate the emotional range many of us are now experiencing on a daily basis? The absurdities of ten teleconference neophytes on a Zoom call coexist from moment to moment with desperate fears for our loved ones and our students and our professional futures. We are lonely, and then we are grateful, and then we are cynical, and then we are bored. We grant ourselves imaginary degrees in epidemiology. We cautiously revise our estimates of when it might all be behind us.

But we don’t, for the most part, rush to finish our book reviews.

Perhaps, like us, you very briefly entertained the idea that working from home—away from the distractions of your normal routine, whether it be in a classroom or a library or an administrative setting—would be invigorating in some way. Perhaps under other circumstances it might have been. Suffice it to say that most of us are finding no such silver lining. To that end, we’d like to be clear about a few points.

First and foremost—and this is true in all times—our publications exist solely because of a thousand acts of individual generosity on the part of you, our colleagues. This is, of course, not a secret, but it is a debt that we freely acknowledge. A career’s worth of person-hours, very few of them ours, go into every issue of Isis. We will continue to publish, and we have no reason to think any of our publications will be delayed. But if you are one of our anonymous referees, or Advisory Editors, or contributors, or book reviewers, or if you play any of the other contributory roles that our publications rely on, we recognize that your ability to perform those tasks may be affected. 

As usual, we will send e-mail reminders when those tasks are due. If you know that you will no longer be able to fulfill an assignment you’d previously accepted, we understand, and ask only that you let us know that as soon as possible. Similarly, if you need more time than you otherwise would, please let us know. If you can identify a point in the future when you expect you’ll be able to complete it, that too is useful. We may reassign reviews based on that information. Please be assured that no judgment is implied if we do. Our obligation is to our authors and readers, but your own well-being, and that of your communities, must always come first for you.

That said, we would be professionally remiss as editors if we did not use this space to beg other favors. First of all, if ever there were a time when volunteers to serve as article referees, or book review authors, or contributors to our Newsletter were especially wanted, it’s now. We’re not particularly worried that scholarship in the history of science will somehow grind to a halt and leave us with nothing to publish (though we have noticed a sudden downtick in article submissions for Isis) but we are keenly aware of how many people besides an author it takes to turn a submission into a finished article. We are careful always to match articles and books with qualified reviewers, a standard we are confident we can continue to uphold. But we’re always looking for volunteers who are eager to be a part of the process. It’s work, but it’s the work we’ve collectively chosen. Please reach out, if you can.

We are genuinely grateful to be a part of such a generous and collegial community of scholars. Until we can express our gratitude for your work in a less socially distant fashion, please accept our best wishes for your health. Stay in touch.


Matthew Lavine
Editor, History of Science Society

Alexandra Hui
Editor, History of Science Society