The European Society for History of Science’s (ESHS) Recent Meeting: Reflections and Lessons for HSS Members

Dr. Pnina G. Abir-Am, Resident Scholar, WSRC, Brandeis University.

The 8th biennial ESHS meeting was held in London on 14-17 September 2018, with the Institute of Education at University College, London serving as its main venue. Half a dozen members of the History of Science Society (HSS) benefitted from a “Group Travel Grant” awarded by the NSF-STS Program (Note 1), in line with its prior sponsorship of similar groups of scholars to ESHS-2016 in Prague, among other international conferences (Note 2). These grants are particularly useful for US-based HSS members who work on European or transatlantic topics, and who thus depend on interaction with European colleagues and on archival resources. At the same time, the “Group Travel Grant” requires a PI (principal investigator) who cares enough for the public good to assume its administration. As someone who almost missed a crucial conference in Tokyo(Note 3), precisely because such a PI was not available, I wish to emphasize the key role played by those who graciously agreed to serve as PIs of these “Group Travel Grants” for ESHS-2018 & ESHS-2016, namely Marsha Richmond and Donald Opitz, respectively (see their details in Note 1). Various scholarly and professional benefits deriving from participation at the ESHS-2018 Meeting (Note 4), will also be mentioned below, before concluding with some suggestions for improving the use of the “Group Travel Grant” instrument.

ESHS-2018’s theme of “Unity and Disunity,” was selected to resonate with Brexit, which continues to plague both the hosting country of UK and the European Union, (EU) –the parent supranational framework of ESHS. The theme inspired many participants to rethink their theoretical perspectives on the history of science, and though such a theme is not new for historians of science who had addressed it in the early 1990s, the impact of Brexit on historians of science, especially those whose careers stretch across the UK & EU, (for example, ESHS’s general Secretary is an Italian national who is employed in the UK) was often discussed and alluded to at this meeting. Since ESHS-2018 included over 60 Symposia and stand-alone sessions, only a few of them will be highlighted here, with a focus on transatlantic history of science (Note 5).

One of the most comprehensive and insightful symposia was “Continuity and Discontinuity of University Education and Research Activities of Central European Scholars during WW2” (#21 in the ESHS Program, for those seeking its abstracts). This was a triple session symposium with over a dozen speakers from the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Slovenia, including pioneers of new perspectives into the history of science in Central Europe before, during, and after WW2, such as Mitchell Ash, Adela Junova Mackova, Michal Kokowski, Milada Sekyrkova, and Annette Vogt. The symposium focused on the balance of continuity and discontinuity in research interests, institutions, and disciplines during WW2, while including “highly complex situations such as exile, resistance, war effort, or survival in a totalitarian regime (Note 6).” Though this symposium’s topic is rather far from my own scholarship, I learned a great deal from its illuminating juxtaposition of complementary perspectives on science in both occupied and occupier countries. The symposium highlighted the need to explore the complexities of the history of science in WW2 from multiple inter/national perspectives, while focusing on many grey areas. This contrasted with prior historiography which had focused on the polarized experiences of those who were forced to leave (e.g. as in The Muses Flee Hitler, Smithsonian, 1983) versus those who benefitted from staying under unsavory regimes.

Another symposium that provided new perspectives but also stirred nostalgia was “When Science Diplomacy Divides” (#43). This was a five-session symposium with about 30 speakers, commentators, and chairs. Its variety of fascinating case studies included co-organizer Simone Turchetti’s (University of Manchester, UK) embrace of environmentalism by NATO (Note 3); among other exciting case-studies presented by (in alphabetical order) Matthew Adamson, (Central European University in Budapest) Roberto Cantoni, (University of Strasbourg) Ronald Doel, (Florida State University) Doubravka Olsakova, (Masarik University, Prague) Maria Rentetzi, (Technical University of Athens) Ana Simões, (University of Lisbon) and Geert Somsen. (Columbia University, USA) I use “nostalgia” because this symposium had a predecessor at ESHS- 2016 in Prague, which included the above-mentioned Turchetti & Olsakova, (as co-organizers) and which I was excited to take part in with a talk on US science attachés in London and Paris, in the 1950s (Note 3).

Yet, another rich and interesting symposium focused on “Circulating Gender in Contemporary Science: Women Scientists in the 20th Century” (#25). The emphasis was on the permanent movement and travels of women and gendered objects in the history of 20th century science. The session featured about a dozen speakers, commentators, and chairpersons, among them well-known colleagues with superb case studies, such as (in alphabetical order) Ana Barahona of UNAM in Mexico City; Patricia Fara of Cambridge University, UK; Donald Opitz & Marsha Richmond of USA, (see note 1); Maria Rentetzi of the Technical University of Athens, Greece; Ana Romero de Pablos, Maria Santesmases, and Marta Velasco Martin, all of U. Madrid, Spain; Ida Stamhuis of the Free University of Amsterdam; and Anna Tunlid of the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

A related symposium “Shadows Illuminated: Invisibilities of Science and its Dis/unities” (#52) focused on the challenging topic of the “invisibility of actors, spaces, and projects” while calling attention to the type of sources required to retrieve what has been ignored, forgotten, or kept away from the historiography. The session alluded to lab assistants, museum staff, tourist guides, publishers, among other categories which remain obfuscated or missing from papers, end notes, and bibliographies. The session aimed to understand the reasons of such obfuscation, while advocating new combinations of primary and secondary sources, social theories such as actor network theory and social network analysis, as well as comparative and cross-disciplinary methods. For example, organizers Ana Cristina Martins (New University of Lisbon) and Joao Carlos de Sena-Martinez (University of Lisbon) interrogated the role played by foreign researchers in the rise of archeology in Portugal, while unearthing the role of women, both local and foreign. Speaker Anne-Sophie Godfroy of the University of Paris, explored the reasons for the different visibility of scientists versus humanists, as well as women versus men, among the elite ENS university’s (Ecole Normale Superieure) famous alumni and alumnae. She also charted new ground into the impact of co-education and institution merging on such in/visibility, both in France and cross-nationally. The session raised the key issue of epistemic in/justice for certain categories of scientists, such as foreigners and women. This is a key issue with which I also grapple in my current research on epistemic injustice for women, junior, and foreign scientists involved in the discovery of RNA splicing (Note 9).

A stand-alone session, which not only tackled the key topic of “Science Criticism from Within: What’s the Price of Self-reflexivity?” (#54) but also served as a reunion of veteran colleagues and friends, featured Helga Satzinger, a pioneer of gendered work in German genetics, recently retired from University College, London and relocated to her native Berlin; Jonathan Harwood, recently retired from the University of Manchester, UK and relocated to the University of Sussex, who did a great job as commentator; and Alexander Schwerin of the University of Berlin. The session deftly addressed the impact of self-reflexivity in science on the scientific culture in general, on the careers of the science critics, and on the parallel issue of scientific responsibility.

Another notable session was “The Fabulous 1930s in the History of Science & Technology” (#57), whose seven participants included Kathryn Olesko of Georgetown University, USA and Ana Simões. The session explored how thinkers of the 1930s, such as Boris Hessen, Robert Merton, Michael Polanyi, Edgar Zilsel, Ludwick Fleck, and Antonio Gramsci, among others, anticipated many of the main historiographical trends shaping the field of science and technology since the 1980s, such as historicism, social constructivism, and cultural studies of science. The session advocated a fresh look at their forgotten contributions. As a speaker at the 75th anniversary of the 2nd Congress for the History of Science of 1931, which was held in London under combined BJHS & HSS auspices at the Science Museum where the 1931 Congress was also held, I regretted not being involved with this “fabulous” flashback on the 1930s. That unique decade featured repeatedly in papers from my early days, so it was gratifying to see that the charm of this decade persists.

Last but not least, a few words about our session, (#37) “Uniting and Disuniting Research Threads: The Collaborative Relationships between Giuseppe Levi, Viktor Hamburger, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Joseph Needham,” which was organized by Ariane Droscher of the University of Verona, Italy. The session focused on the relationships between these scientists and their respective contributions to the rise of neuroembryology. Ariane Droscher examined Giuseppe Levi’s interest in phenomena of life and death, senescence and immortality, at the University of Turin in the inter-war period. Lijing Jiang of Colby College, Maine, USA (paper read by Marsha Richmond, see Note 1, who also served as this session’s resourceful commentator) focused on Viktor Hamburger’s pursuit of the concept of the “organizer” at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1930s and beyond. In my turn, I focused on Rita Levi-Montalcini, (1909-2012) a mentee of Giuseppe Levi and Viktor Hamburger, best known as co-discoverer of the nerve growth factor (NGF) for which she shared the 1986 Nobel Prize. (Two other students of Giuseppe Levi also became Nobel co-laureates, Salvador Luria in 1969 and Renato Dulbecco in 1975). Entitled “Marie Curie or Maria Callas: Rita Levi-Montalcini’s Most Remarkable Career in the US and Europe,” my talk focused on her integration of her two famed mentors’ legacies, as well as her rise as a cultural icon in Europe, after she retired from her scientific career in the US. We were very fortunate that our session, which also included Alessandra Passarielo of the Universities of Rome and Ben Gurion, who focused on Joseph Needham’s contributions to chemical embryology, included a lively Q&A, because its level of attendance was likely affected by the ESHS organizers shifting its time slot twice.

We much enjoyed the superb keynote lecture (held in the impressive auditorium of the Royal Institution) by Ana Simões and the incoming ESHS President, who brought to life and current significance a relatively obscure but entrepreneurial Portuguese scientist of the 18th and 19th centuries, someone who also anticipated today’s European dream of career mobility across countries. I could not avoid reflecting on ESHS as a forum of opportunity for all Europeans, but especially for scholars from small countries in the European periphery. Colleagues such as Ana Simões and Efthymios Nicolaides from Greece were among the most dedicated and distinguished ESHS members at this conference. Some of them, like Laure Miolo, a historian of astronomy from Paris, even became a friend. Various opportunities created by ESHS, such as the splendid banquet at the Royal Institution, the communal lunches and coffee/tea breaks, enabled endless reunions with colleagues from one’s remote past; it helped, if one already had some European past!

Benefits accruing from participating in ESHS, can be classified into six categories:

  1. Presenting the research of US based scholars in the main European forum for the history of science enabled them to obtain pertinent feedback from European colleagues, who constituted the vast majority of the ESHS-2018 conference attendees. For example, in my talk on Rita Levi-Montalcini’s 2nd career as a cultural icon in Italy and Europe, as a life senator, as a policy adviser, and as a leader in civic engagements, especially after the Nobel Prize, European colleagues posed questions on the significance of her life as an embodiment of 20th century European history. By contrast, a US-based colleague asserted, without offering any justification, that she did not belong in a volume on innovative biologists (Note 10).
  2. Participating in ESHS-2018 offered benefits beyond direct feedback on one’s research. For example, those who attended multi-national symposia, and especially those who served as commentators expanded their horizons through exposure to new national traditions. Becoming acquainted with the hosting institutions, especially the Royal Institution, was an enriching experience because it is the site of a great deal of history of science since the 19th century. It was encouraging to see there not only the portrait of Faraday but also that of Frank James, long time editor of Faraday’s Collected Works, curator of his instruments, and resident historian.
  3. Specific professional benefits related to publication accrued to those who serve as journal co-editors, as they were able to use their presence at ESHS for advertising their journals, recruiting potential authors from among younger scholars, or dealing with actual authors; (e.g. Marsha Richmond for J.Hist. Biol. and Richard Kremer for J. Hist. Astronomy). Similarly, other US scholars were also able to discuss publication options with European press exhibitors at ESHS.
  4. Opportunities for professional networking were numerous, including: a) business meetings with European collaborators and/or actual or potential co-authors or partners in special issues of journals; b) interaction as both a scholar and a delegate of US-based professional organization) with members of a UK-based consortium in digitalizing 19th century correspondence, including the discussion of future plans; (Marsha Richmond) c) advancing the planning of the international meeting of ISHPSB in Oslo in July 2019 with European officers; (Marsha Richmond, as ISHPSB President) d) participating in the local tradition of professional British “clubs” such as the “Equinox Society,” thus getting better acquainted with UK museum curators and benefitting from their tips and experience; (Richard Kremer) and obtaining tips on archives in Sweden from a Swedish colleague I met for the first time at ESHS in London.
  5. Participation in the business meeting of the International Commission on Women in the History of STEM, enabled those of us who were unable to attend ICHST in Brazil in 2017 to receive updates on the Commission’s upcoming activities, most notably its biennial meeting, on 17-20 June 2019 at Tel Aviv University/Open University in Ra’anana.
  6. Spin off activities beyond ESHS, resulting from one’s presence for ESHS in Greater London, such as conducting archival research in nearby repositories, and opportunities for guest lecturing in European Programs for the History of Science.

Suggestions for Improving the Use of the “Group Travel grant”

  1. It might be a good idea to stabilize the “Group Travel Grant” mechanism into a scheme that includes spin off activities, (e.g. such as those in 6 above) especially since travel within Europe is much cheaper than transatlantic travel. Current funding of collaboration follows intra-European science policy schemes inspired by the EU, to the detriment of former bi-lateral agreements between the US and various European countries. It is thus much more difficult for US-based scholars to collaborate in Europe or spend extended, or even a short time there. For example, I was able to spend two academic years in Paris on funds from the French CNRS to work on French or comparative, French & American, subjects (Note 11). New archives have meanwhile opened, but such schemes no longer exist on the French side, where the focus remains on intra-European projects. To sum up, these grants support well documented and significant spin-off activities such as archival research, guest lectures, or participation at a parallel, relevant conference (e.g. the Royal Society conference on the centennial of WW1, held a day prior to ESHS, and should be considered as allowable expenses. Along these lines, such a scheme should strive to cover all allowable expenses for those qualifying to participate in it, while also including clear priorities for consideration.
  2. The timing of applying for the Group Travel Grant can be advanced, so that US-based scholars are better able to plan well in advance for the wider uses of the precious stay in Europe, afforded by such a scheme.

Let’s hope that more US-based scholars will attend ESHS in 2020, when its biennial 9th meeting will be held at the University of Bologna, in Italy.

Note 1
The “Group Travel Grant,” authorized by the NSF-STS Program Director Frederick Kronz, was administered by Professor Marsha Richmond, President of ISHPSSB, via her home institution, Wayne State University. In addition to her and me, those travelling to ESHS-London under this “Group Travel Grant” also included Donald Opitz, Assoc. Dean, DePaul Univ. and Secretary of the Intl. Comm. for the History of Women in STEM; Tina Gianquitto, Colorado School of Mines, Co-Chair, HSS Women’s Caucus; Richard Kremer, Dartmouth College; and Anna Amramina, grad student, Univ. of Minn. It sought to enable the ESHS participation of US-based scholars who cannot count on institutional support for such international travel, most notably graduate students, post-docs, independent scholars, and those affiliated with small institutions. The “Group Travel Grant” mechanism covers all allowable expenses, in contrast with individual travel grants distributed by scientific societies, including HSS, which cover partial expenses only. Back

Note 2
For a description of this Program’s sponsorship of travel by US-based scholars to an international meeting in Prague in 2015 see “Women and Men Making Knowledge: Reflections on the Prague conference of June 2015,”

Note 2
See “IWHC-Tokyo-2015 – An Enchanted Conference I almost Missed”.

Note 4
I wish to thank Marsha Richmond, Richard Kremer, (see Note 1 for both) and Anne-Sophie Godfroy of Republique des Savoirs, joint center of Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) and Centre National pour La Recherche Scientififique, (CNRS) in Paris for sharing many examples of benefits they experienced.

Note 5
On the need to highlight transatlantic history of science and science policy see “What’s in a Session?”

Note 6
Symposium abstract on the ESHS website.

Note 7
His book Greening the Alliance, 2018, was just reviewed in the January 4th, 2019 issue of Science magazine, p. 37. (10.1126/science.aav1863)

Note 8
For the Program and abstracts of ESHS Meetings see the archived section of its website. My extended activities at ESHS-2016-Prague (In addition to speaking in the symposium on the history of science diplomacy at ESHS-2016 in Prague, I also co-organized a session on “History of Science and Theatre” together with Robert Marc Friedman of Oslo University. This symposium format was an organizational feature that provided coherence to the program, while also reflecting prevalent patterns of long term intra-European collaborations.

Note 9
“RNA Splicing at 40: Reflections on Scientific Progress, Policy, and Social Justice”

Note 10
This argument was made in response to my suggestion that Rita Levi-Montalcini was a great example of a biological innovator who experienced outsider status, see ISIS, vol. 106, no. 2, (June 2015) 492-494, or

Note 11
Some of this research was consolidated in the volume La Mise en Memoire de la Science, (Paris: Editions de la Decouverte, 1998) sponsored by the French Ministry of Research via Maison Suger/ Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, as proceedings of a conference in Paris, which included speakers from both the US and several European countries. This French Language volume led to Osiris 14.