HSS News – January 2021

The Society Coordinator’s Greatest Hits

by Ryan Feigenbaum

Editor’s note: As readers know from our previous issue, we have had to bid farewell to Ryan, who ably filled the role of Society Coordinator for the past three years. We asked him to offer a round-up as a parting gift and here ’tis, in a list of what he called his greatest hits.

I was HSS Coordinator for just over three years, seeing the Society through three in-person meetings in three different countries (Toronto, Canada; Seattle, United States; Utrecht, The Netherlands) and one Virtual Forum. During my time, I was often behind the scenes, ensuring that the website didn’t succumb to hackers, that bills were paid, and that the printed program got to the publisher on time. In these endeavors, I improved and economized the day-to-day operations of HSS as much as possible by cutting costs, updating infrastructure, and ensuring the Society followed best practices in its administrative responsibilities.

These changes were essential to improving the health of the HSS (and will continue to contribute to it for the foreseeable future); however, as they were generally internal, they lacked the fanfare associated with more visible changes, made before the discerning eye of the history-of-science public. Here, too, however, I staked my claim, introducing innovations to improve the experience of HSS members. It is some of these innovations that I’d like to share now.

Isis Books Received List

Each quarter, the Isis Editorial Office provides a list of the books it has received for review. The HSS publishes this list to inform members about the latest titles in the history of science, technology, and medicine.

Initially, the list was published as just that: a list. Though it seems simple, its creation actually required a great deal of time and labor. In its stead, I developed a visual gallery of books, which allows visitors to browse titles by cover, as if they were in a bookstore or exhibit hall. I also created an app that automatically generated the gallery based on the data provided by the Editorial Office.

The tradeoff here is a loss of information (e.g., publication year), and some visitors may have preferred access to this information over access to a visual gallery. The solution was to offer both views (gallery and list) as an option, which was on the development roadmap, along with the grander idea of creating a recommendation engine for resources in the history of science. This engine would provide visitors the ability to find books, podcasts, and other resources on various topics in the history of science, as well as submit their own. While development on these projects has now ceased with my departure, I hope someone will resume developing them in the future.


The HSS Twitterdex, a portmanteau of “Twitter” and “index” (like “Rolodex”), is a crowd-sourced directory of historians of science active on Twitter. Each day, I generate a randomly ordered gallery of these Twitterstorians that contains their profile image, name, and Twitter handle. Clicking on any historian will show their affiliation, bio, and latest Tweet, and provide a link to follow them. All of this information is filterable via search. Querying “biology,” e.g., yields 24 results. This project is looking for a maintainer.

The source code for the Twitterdex is freely available on the HSS GitHub page, so, with some minor modifications, you could create your own!

HSS Prize Book Gallery

Each year, the HSS bestows prizes on the best books and articles in the history of science. While these works were all listed on the HSS website under their respective prize pages, no archive existed that listed these works together, in one place.

I designed the HSS Prize Book Gallery to showcase the prize books of the HSS. It presents a sortable, searchable gallery of all 127 prize books, dating back to 1958. The mobile friendly, simple page has become one of hssonline.org’s most frequently visited, earning praises from members who enjoy the opportunity to review these prize-winning books in such an engaging format.

State of the Meeting Report: A Data-Driven Record

The History of Science Society’s main event is its annual conference, which draws scholars and enthusiasts from around the world. Yet, the meeting’s once-a-year occurrence means that engagement sharply decreases once the event is over. This inspired me to create the State of the Meeting Report as a way for the HSS to continue its meeting engagement even after the conclusion of the event.

The site uses data from surveys to represent highlights from the meeting as well as areas that need improvement. It also shares memories from main events, recognizes prize winners, and presents another opportunity for the HSS to recognize its supporters and sponsors.

The State of the Meeting Report has fulfilled its goal of being a touchpoint for present and future attendees, as well as contributing to the Society’s mission of fostering interest in the history of science.

HSS 2020: Book Gallery & Authors’ Pitch

For 2020, the HSS conference went virtual. Along with the challenges of organizing the unprecedented event, I faced the difficulty of how to bring central aspects of the meeting—like the book exhibit—online and how to create engaging spaces in the Virtual Forum. For the latter, the HSS program chairs, Christine von Oertzen and Soraya de Chadarevian, had the clever idea of Authors’ Book Pitches. These pitches invited authors to submit short videos to promote their recent titles, which attendees could watch to “learn about the newest releases, directly from the source!”

Since our virtual meeting software did not offer any solution to display authors’ pitches or publishers’ books, I needed to invent one. I created an app that would take data (like the publisher name, video URL, book title, etc.) and render a web page that could be easily incorporated into the meeting platform. The results are the Authors’ Pitch and Book Gallery pages. The source code is freely available for anyone looking to build their own. 

The Future of HSS

The work I highlighted above is all digital. I did this in part because my expertise lies in web design and development (for non-HSS examples, see my digital exhibit, Poetic Botany, and title capitalization tool), but I also did it because I believe the future of HSS is digital. The HSS website will increasingly be the first introduction interested scholars have to the history of science and the Society. Treating the organization’s website(s) as its keystone will not only improve the experience of HSS members by expanding access to resources, but will also be essential for the continuation of the Society as such.

Find me on Twitter (@theroyalfig), GitHub, or via my website, https://ryanfeigenbaum.com.

Harold Burstyn: Nine Decades of Life, Scholarship, Law, and Woods Hole

An HSS@Work Career Profile by Jamie Brannon

Harold Burstyn didn’t have to travel far from his 1930 Boston birthplace to find two locations that would play outsize influence on his career: Harvard and Woods Hole. He came to the former in 1947 expecting to “concentrate” (aka, major) in chemistry, yet the subject’s rigid focus left him wishing for a tutorial-based education—“the best feature of a Harvard education”—that he found in History and Science. The familiar History of Science department had yet to materialize in 1940s Cambridge. So taking classes from I. B. Cohen in a post-George Sarton era, Harold graduated A.B magna cum laude in 1951. Upon graduation he spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Municipal University of Amsterdam. After fulfilling a three-year commitment to the Navy (his Harvard “patron”), Harold was in La Jolla, CA, for a two-year Master’s program in Oceanography at the Scripps Institution, where he can still remember “Friday afternoons drinking beer on the hill above the Scripps Pier while looking for the ‘green flash’ at sunset.”

Harold moved to England in 1957 intending to pursue a PhD at University College London, but a conflict between the Veterans Administration funding source and University requirements foiled that plan. But while in London, he met Joan Jacobs and they were married in 1958.

Harold then returned to Harvard for his PhD in the History of Science. He received his degree under I. B. Cohen and John Murdoch in 1964 with a dissertation on “the history of the earth’s rotation on meteorology and oceanography.” He thus became the first person with both undergraduate and PhD degrees from Harvard in the History of Science, and only the sixteenth PhD at Harvard in that subject area (Aydin Sayili was number one in 1941, I. B. Cohen was second in 1947; both under Sarton). In addition to receiving NSF money during his graduate years, Harold supported himself as an instructor in the History Department at the neighboring Brandeis University.

Yet the sea still beckoned, enticing him to travel south from Cambridge. In the summer of 1961 Harold arrived at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, MA, a beloved village where he and Joan would live every summer for the next fifty-eight years. At WHOI, with the assistance of Columbus Iselin, a past director, he set to work on the history of physical oceanography. During his second summer there, “fed up with talking to myself… I put up a sign announcing a seminar in the history of science.” That informal event garnered attention, attracting speakers both local, such as James Franck, and visiting, such as Ed Manier and Silvan Schweber. That informal seminar lasted into the mid-1980s.

In 1965, after receiving his PhD, Harold returned to London for an NSF postdoc at Imperial College. The British historian of science A. R. Hall “was nominally my supervisor… I recall seeing almost nothing of him, spending most of my time at the British Museum, where the British Library was before it got its own quarters.”

The years 1966 to 1976 were Harold’s full-time professional academic years, with faculty positions first at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie-Mellon U.) in Pittsburgh. He then was professor and Dean of the Graduate School at William Paterson College (now University) in New Jersey. In 1976 as the United States Geological Survey was approaching its Centennial (1979), Harold was recruited as USGS Historian and served until that position was abolished in 1982. While there Burstyn wrote an influential report on Grove Karl Gilbert, the famed explorer and scientist who was the USGS’s first Chief Geologist in the late 1880s as well as confidant to the equally famous John Wesley Powell. Harold remained in the Place Names Group in the National Mapping Division at USGS until 1984.

At that point, finding that the historical databases of place names lacked dates, Harold saw no future for historical research. What to do? Attempt to return to academia, or pursue another field? He entered Rutgers Law School in Newark, and after obtaining his JD in 1987, and passing bar exams in New York and Florida, spent 30 years practicing, mostly patent and trademark law.

In the mid-1990s, living in Syracuse, NY, where his wife was Dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University, Harold became Adjunct Professor, teaching the history of science and technology briefly, and law to engineering students (1995-2017). In 1996 Harold took his last full-time job as Patent Attorney at the US Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, NY, “the best job I ever had because of the people I worked with.”

Harold and Joan continued their annual summers in Woods Hole. With Harold’s retirement, they moved in 2018 to Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, this year’s pandemic has kept them from traveling. Yet The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in previous years had made Harold a Corporation (now Society) member, and issued an educational video in which Harold recounts his years at MBL and Woods Hole.

When I asked Harold what gave him the largest sense of accomplishment in his lifelong pursuit of the history of science, he named three publications that came to mind. The first was his HSS Schuman (now Reingold) Prize-winning paper as a graduate student: “Galileo’s Attempt to Prove That the Earth Moves,” which appeared in Isis in 1962. The second was his 1975 paper, “If Darwin wasn’t the Beagle’s naturalist, why was he on board?” This paper provided an answer to the obvious question raised in an earlier paper “Who was the Beagle’s Naturalist?,” in which the anthropologist Jacob Gruber had argued that Robert McCormick, not Darwin, was the appointed natural historian. Third, Harold mentioned his response to the “Two Cultures” controversy started by C. P. Snow, which was published as “Tradition and Understanding,” in School and Society in 1969. Snow cited Harold in an article titled “The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case,” which was Snow’s rebuttal to F. R. Leavis, with whom he was embroiled in a bitter fight over the “Two Cultures” in the 1960s.

One of my last questions to Harold is relevant for today: What advice can you provide to young scholars facing a challenging job market? He said for the academically inclined, “pick a mentor who has good contacts and knows how to leverage those contacts.” In the job-finding game, who you know is just as important as what you know. For others not pursuing the ivory tower, “find something to do that supports you adequately, if you can’t continue getting support for the history of science. It can always be an avocation if you can’t find support for it as a vocation.”

Forum for the History of Health, Medicine, and the Life Sciences Awards 2020 Graduate Prize

The Forum for the History of Health, Medicine, and the Life Sciences is pleased to announce Elizabeth Evens as the winner of their 2020 Graduate Prize for her essay, ‘‘‘Footprint all Babies, Fingerprint all Mothers.’ Policewoman Mary Hamilton’s Campaign for Universal Fingerprinting in the Maternity Suite in the Early-twentieth-century United States.”

Evens is a final year doctoral student at the Institute of the Americas at University College London. Her PhD thesis, “Regulating Women” investigates how women entered the professions of medicine and law enforcement in the United States. central for the professional advancement of these women, her research shows, was their increased policing, surveillance and control of other women, in particular, their reproduction and sexuality.

This dynamic forms the basis of the essay submission, which analyses the career of Mary Hamilton, who introduced fingerprinting of mothers and newborn babies as an innovation in reproductive surveillance. The committee was impressed with the careful research, grounded argumentation, and communicative writing style. The author demonstrated excellent command of the historiographical literature and the originality of this contribution emerges clearly. We found this to be a fascinating exploration of forensic science and technology tied to medical innovation and viewed through the lens of gender. We heartily congratulate Lizzie Evens for the outstanding essay and what is certain to be an excellent dissertation.

The FHHMLS thanks all graduate students who submitted essays to the competition. We are delighted to have had such a strong pool of submissions and are impressed by the high quality of the work being done by graduate students in the histories of science, technology and medicine.

We also thank the Cambridge University Press for their continuing sponsorship of our award.

Invitation from Committee on Education and Engagement

The Committee on Education and Engagement (CoEE) invites HSS members to share information to be included in a proposed website intended to serve as a general guide and resource to help middle and high school students for their National History Day (NHD) projects. The theme for the 2020-2021 cycle is Communication in History—the Key to Understanding.

Our aim in creating this website is to encourage students to make the material culture of science an integral type of primary source in their projects. The history of science has changed tremendously over the past 20 years and we want to make sure our website illustrates this important transformation, going beyond the conventional Plato to NATO narrative to emphasize diversity and inclusivity.

The website would do two things:

  1. gather and organize what is already easily available on the web, curated by scholars in the field (podcasts, open source documents; videos; films, exhibitions, etc.);
  2. engage with new source materials by inviting individual scholars and institution to share documents and short videos about their material collections (books, objects, archives, etc.).

Complete guidelines on how and what to submit, including NHD recommendations and examples may be found online on the HSS website. Please e-mail your completed form, references and video projects to Jean-François Gauvin (jean-francois.gauvin@hst.ulaval.ca) and/or Marissa Petrou (marissa.petrou@louisiana.edu). While the plan is to maintain this website over the long term, we request that you submit materials pertaining to this cycle’s theme by March 10, 2021.

More From Our January 2021 Newsletter