Vol. 43, No. 2, April 2014
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Sarton Medal Acceptance Speech
Dr. Simon Schaffer, Boston, MA, 23 November 2013
(Editor’s Note: Due to numerous requests, we have reproduced Simon Schaffer’s comments at the 2013 annual meeting. We transcribed a recording of the speech and Dr. Schaffer kindly reviewed it. The only significant change was to remove his reference to the fire alarm that had sounded at the beginning of the ceremony.)
For obvious reasons, my initial emotions on learning of the award of the Sarton Medal have involved extreme gratitude and a sense of honor, combined with the embarrassed sense that one has been misrecognized, rather like William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’sScoop. I might imagine that someone of the same name has perhaps been awarded this prize, but presumably not me. In all seriousness, let me thank the HSS Executive Director Jay Malone, the HSS President Lynn Nyhart, and all the HSS members present and absent for this extraordinary generosity.
I’m exactly the same age as the Sarton Medal. It was the eminent Yale librarian Frederick Kilgour who then chaired the committee that persuaded Pfizer, to whom gratitude may also be expressed, to donate the $1500 that funded the medal, and organized the award ceremony at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. in December 1955. Kilgour also went on, significantly, to found the organization that led to WorldCat and many of the key institutions of scholarship’s current information order. Looking back through the astonishing list of previous Sarton Medalists, and at a great deal of the work that’s been celebrated here at the 2013 HSS ceremonies, these themes of information and scholarship have stayed consistently salient.
However, for those now aware of the identity of this year’s Sarton Medalist, the first question that will have occurred to you is: Who is this person? And those of you who know the answer will ask: Why? In 1955 Sarton explained in his acceptance speech why he’d won the medal. “Scholars of a later age reviewing my life will sometimes wonder whether I was crazy. I was not crazy, but seemed to be.” And that seems to me to be a key to the riddle. George Sarton loved medals. In May 1926, he announced the inauguration of a new series within Isis: “Each number of Isis will contain, as far as space permits,” and there’s the authentic Sartonian tone, “reproductions of a few medals of scientific interest. We hope, in this way, to constitute gradually a collection of medals which will gratify at once and the same time the scientific curiosity and the artistic cravings of our readers.” The nouns are eloquent. To be scientific, is to be curious. To be artistic, is to crave. It is perhaps the combination of those two affects that has dominated Isis and its triumphs over the last century.
What particularly attracts me about Sarton’s passion for medals is exactly this link with curiosity, with open-endedness. As Krzysztof Pomian reminds us in his magnificent 1976 essay “Medals/Shells = Erudition/Philosophy,” medals’ fate entirely involved the fate of curiosity and its role in knowledge. Pomian’s admirer Paul Ricœur developed these reflexions in the case of medals’ honorific function. Medals “assure the potentially universal exemplarity of the virtues engraved in gold. Praise comes to the name by the way of its exploits and its virtues.” I won’t continue the quote from Ricoeur, because he refers to the fall of absolute monarchy and the fact that the award of medals represents “a sacramental host of the power of the state.” I’m probably wrong, but I don’t think that’s what’s at stake in this particular medal and its award.
Rather, I assume that the award of the medal resonates rather more with another tradition of medalists and medal production, which is precisely their materiality, their capacity to embody skill, artfulness, and craft. As I’ve learned from a whole series of magnificent talks and sessions at this conference, the theme of materiality happily occupies renewed centrality in the concerns and the debate of our profession. In 1706, Isaac Newton, not known for cheerful relations with artisans, nevertheless licensed the coiners within the Tower of London to make their own medals. “It would very much contribute to the perfecting themselves in the Art and Mystery of graving, lest for want of exercise they should lose that skill they have.” Newton agreed that “good graving is the best security of the coin, and is best acquired by the graving of medals.” That’s perhaps an uncharacteristic Newtonian apothegm. Yet it reminds how for a long time, since classical ages and certainly since the Renaissance, such honorific medals embodied at least some of that labor that, as shown by the studies of materiality and skill honored this evening, is all about the central tasks of the sciences.
Like others who’ve already spoken on this platform, I have a great debt of gratitude to the people with whom I have worked with in the past four decades. In the house is the first person that taught me history of science in Cambridge, David Wilson, and I’d like to honor him. He was my first supervisor in 1974 and he’s here with us. Thank you, David. And the most recent people to whom I’m indebted are also here, some of the PhD students I’m working with at the moment. It’s from people of similar age and skill that I’ve learnt so much. If the history of science teaches us anything, it teaches us the enormous importance of teaching-led research. We hear a great deal about research-led teaching, but here I want to emphasize, partly because in my country this is in crisis, the importance of preserving that entanglement between inquiry and pedagogy which is at stake for the future of the work of this Society and the work of the university institution which still puts me up and puts up with me.
There’s a passage that I’ve come back to a great deal in my recent work that proves to be astonishingly relevant for this evening. I’ll close by reading it. It comes from a universal history published in 1730 in Paris by the great Jansenist scholar, Charles Rollin, a cutler’s son who became rector of the University of Paris. Here, he lectured young Parisians on why medals matter. “I content my self with informing young persons, who are desirous to study history in all its extent, that the knowledge of medals is absolutely necessary to that kind of learning. For history is not to be learnt in books only, which do not always tell the whole, or the truth of things. Recourse must therefore be had to pieces, which support it; and which neither malice nor ignorance can injure or vary, and such are the monuments we call medals.” Thank you very much.