Sally Gregory Kohlstedt

Winner of the 2018 Sarton Medal for lifetime scholarly achievement

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (University of Minnesota)

The Sarton Medal honors a lifetime of scholarly achievement, and through decades of scholarship, leadership, mentoring, service, and teaching, Prof. Kohlstedt has in fact generated and supported many lifetimes of scholarly activity. Her thoughtful and creative scholarly contributions in the many books and articles she has written, co-written, and edited; her leadership in disciplinary organizations; and her support of our colleagues and students make Prof. Kohlstedt richly deserving of this honor.

Prof. Kohlstedt’s scholarship revealed unexplored and forgotten aspects of the past that have shaped science in ways we are only now beginning to understand. In doing so, her work has helped create and advance three different research fields in the history of science: the history of American science, the history of natural history museums, and the history of science education. In each, she has made significant and lasting contributions by opening new fields of study into which others have followed. Through her original and exhaustively researched syntheses, she draws intellectually and socially diverse audiences to our field. A central theme in all of her scholarly contributions is the inclusion of new and varied voices and perspectives. From the history of American science to the history of biology, through the investigation of gender and science to the study of the role of previously unrecognized figures and influences in the development of science, Prof. Kohlstedt has instigated new lines of inquiry and encouraged her colleagues and students to do the same. She did not merely wander into these fields and make some contributions. She was instrumental in inventing them and fighting for their place in the discipline when they were too frequently seen as unimportant. In doing so, she helped reinvent and expand the discipline of the history of science.

Prof. Kohlstedt’s first major scholarly contribution to the history of science helped create what has become a major subfield in the discipline: the history of American science. Today we take for granted the importance of this subfield and its powerful influence on the discipline generally, but it was founded less than forty years ago. Her first book, The Formation of the American Scientific Community, examined the first twelve years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by drawing from eighty-two different manuscript collections. It exposed the tensions evident then – as today – in American science between the need to popularize science to generate public support on the one hand, and on the other the pressure to advance basic research so as to distinguish American researchers on the international stage. In his review in Isis, David Hollinger called the book a “prodigiously detailed and documented study . . . of the political behaviors and attitudes of the subjects.” Robert Bruce reviewed the book in the American Historical Review and concluded, “Her sources are impressively numerous and varied. She draws on sociological,  economic, philosophical, and psychological studies for background. She seizes on the possibilities opened by a well-defined and well-recorded community for an elaborate statistical analysis. Above all, she makes explicit the manifold implications of her data. In substance, this study is definitive on a historical subject of first importance.”

Together with Margaret Rossiter, Prof. Kohlstedt co-edited the first volume of the new series for Osiris, titled Historical Writing on American Science. It was readily apparent to reviewers that her scholarly contributions to the history of science would open new and exciting topics for inquiry. In his review for Science, Louis Galambos wrote, “Judging by the several essays in this first volume of the revived Osiris, the history of science in this country is a vibrant, complex field of scholarship that is generating ideas that should interest a very broad range of readers.” Combined with her leadership role in the Forum for the History of American Science and her mentorship of the first full generation of historians of American science, Prof. Kohlstedt is rightly recognized as one of the founders of the field.

A dozen years after she co-edited the Osiris volume on American science, Prof. Kohlstedt returned as co-editor with Helen Longino of an Osiris volume on women, gender, and science, a theme she would return to again and again in her scholarship. The volume grew out of an international conference held at the University of Minnesota that drew a broad range of science studies and gender scholars to campus and helped frame a new generation’s approach to the study of gender and science. In her review for History of Science, Katharina Rowold praised the volume, writing that its “interdisciplinary approach makes it rich in perspectives and subject matter.” Similarly, Rima Apple explained in Isis that the volume “joyously offers a multiplicity of analytical tools and perspectives and invites us to engage in additional research and continued debate. Books such as this one ensure an exciting and significant future for the feminist humanistic studies of science.” At about the same time, Prof. Kohlstedt co-edited with Evelynn Hammonds and Helen Longino Gender and Scientific Authority, which was a collection of fifteen seminal papers from the journal Signs. Naomi Oreskes’s review of it in Isis concluded that each of these essays “suggests clear routes to a deeper analysis of gender issues in the history of science. This is a volume that every  historian should have on her – or his – shelf.” As with Prof. Kohlstedt’s work in helping build a community of scholarship and scholars to study the history of American science, her contributions to the study of science and gender opened new pathways to future scholars for investigation, while her leadership in the HSS Women’s Caucus ensured that other women were recruited and retained in the discipline.

Prof. Kohlstedt has also made deep and meaningful contributions through her influential body of articles and essays in edited volumes on the history of natural history museums. This work,  grounded as always in meticulous archival and primary source research, documents new forms of institutional and intellectual work in biology that was done at museums, while also connecting this work to the historiography of museum studies and animal display practices. Her work on college natural history museums, published from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, established
the importance of specimen collecting and the international circulation of materials and people to the institutional and professional history of nineteenth-century biology. During this same period, Prof. Kohlstedt focused on connections between museum education and museum display in a series of essays linking the history of biology scholarship to the history of science education and popular science. Her review essays in Journal of the History of Biology (1995) and Isis (2006) are master classes in synthesizing this historiography. Years later, award-winning history of biology books – such as Lynn Nyhart’s Modern Nature (2009), Karen Rader and Victoria Cain’s Life on Display (2014), and Erika Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males (2010) – would pick up and develop various threads from Prof. Kohlstedt’s historiographical tapestry and weave them into their own analyses, a further testimony to her capacity as a scholar to initiate new and productive lines of inquiry that others could help advance.

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In her most recent book, Teaching Children Science, Prof. Kohlstedt uses over thirty archival and manuscript sources to show how the nature study movement, supported primarily by women  teachers and progressive educators, possessed a coherent scientific rationale and civic purpose that had lasting influence beyond its nineteenth-century origins. Her book re-centers the historiography of informal science education, overturning “casual descriptions in histories of science, education, environmentalism, and public culture … [that] … have labeled nature study as naive in outlook, marginal within the school curriculum, or ineffective in educational practice” (TCS, 228). Reviewers from history of science, science education, and environmental history praised the book. In his review in Science, Mark Barrow called it “a meticulously researched, engagingly presented, and wonderfully perceptive history.” Sevan Terzian’s review in History of Education Quarterly called the book “a masterful piece of scholarship that explains the remarkable success of a powerful educational phenomenon while attending to its diverse purposes and manifestation.” Kim Tolley, now president of the History of Education Society, wrote in Isis, “One of the strengths of the book is its attention to local context and to the ways that particular communities shaped the development of nature study within their schools.” Marsha Richmond in Journal of the History of Biology suggested, “Every so often an historian identifies a topic that others have either completely overlooked or else misinterpreted, and in so doing opens up a rich field of study and window into the past that significantly alters our understanding. This is what Sally Gregory Kohlstedt has done…. Teaching Children Science should be seen not only as an important contribution to understanding the past, but also as a guide to future reconfigurations of nature study.” In 2013, Teaching Children Science won HSS’s Margaret Rossiter prize for the best book on women and/or gender in the history of science, an honor that reveals how skillfully Prof. Kohlstedt herself sustains and weaves the various threads of her scholarship together over her career.

Over five decades, Prof. Kohlstedt has helped launch the careers of generations of science studies scholars, powerfully and positively influencing their work and their lives. She has done this work quietly, as is typical for our colleagues who do much of the hidden, often uncompensated, work in academia. She has done the big lifts and has given consistent attention to the small details that advance our discipline’s scholarship. Throughout it, Prof. Kohlstedt has exuded a spirit of collaboration, a zeal for careful and critical scholarly study, and a deep commitment to making the history of science influential both within and beyond the academy.

Books and articles are the most widely acclaimed products of scholarly activity, but they are by no means the only ones and ultimately they may not even be the most influential. While teaching and service are often considered distractions from research and writing, Prof. Kohlstedt has shown us how to successfully integrate research, teaching, and service into a single coherent and profoundly influential professional practice as historians of science. She has been exceptionally active throughout her life in all of these areas. She has served in nine different offices for the AAAS and over a dozen offices for HSS (including as the President), she has organized or co-organized four major conferences, and has served her university by holding every office in the Program in the History of Science and Technology, two different Associate Dean positions, acting Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education, and dozens of administrative and committee appointments in other units on campus. She has been the advisor or co-advisor for nearly three dozen Ph.D. students, many of whom she has helped shape into leaders in our discipline. In serving on many other doctoral committees, she has offered herself in an unofficial capacity as co-advisor, where her exceptional capacity to mentor students through the most difficult phases of writing would go unrecognized except through those students’ testimonies in the acknowledgments in their theses and dissertations. These contributions have the same impact as has her scholarship: They provided entry for a great many scholars into our discipline as well as mentorship and collaboration to advance as scholars, teachers, and colleagues. Collectively, they represent not just one, but many lifetimes of scholarly contributions to the history of science.

Mark Largent, Karen Rader

See Kohlstedt’s profile on the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine page at the University of Minnesota.

See Kohlstedt’s profile in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Check out Kohlstedt’s Wikipedia page here.