Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Historians of Science and the “Real World”

By Jeffrey L. Sturchio, Merck & Company

(Note: This Article first appeared in the History of Science Society Newsletter, October 1988, pp. 1, 16-17. Some information, such as author affiliation and various contacts, has been updated when this article was posted on the web.)

When Richard French and Michael Gross conducted a survey of North American graduate students in the history of science in 1970-1971, they found that two thirds of their respondents planned to teach at a college or university. As French and Gross observed, “Whatever the original motives which brought individuals into the field, after a period in graduate school they show very strong identification with the intellectual interests and career patterns of their faculty,” a situation they described elsewhere as a “triumph of socialization to existing role models.” Alluding to the parlous state of the academic job market as they wrote, they concluded that their information on career plans of history of science graduate students “indicated a pattern of aspirations which must, under present economic and institutional pressures, be largely frustrated.”

When I began graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1973 (the year the French and Gross survey appeared in Science Studies), there were six aspiring historians of science, technology, and medicine in my class. Two who eventually returned to medical school or practice. Of the remaining four not one has pursued a traditional academic career. Collectively we have worked in a wide range of jobs in government, industry, and other arenas, including the AT&T Archives, the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, the U. S. Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Museum of American History, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Science Museum in London, and as independent consultants.

Although the aspirations of most graduate students in the field are still primarily academic, the prospects for a tenured position at a first-rank university will always be limited, despite the much-touted demographic shift predicted for college faculty openings in the 1990s. On the other hand, opportunities for professional historians of science, technology, and medicine in government, industry, museums, archives and records management, consulting, and other areas have increased dramatically in the last decade. Practicing history of science in the “real world” not only offers benefits, through new career options, but also has potential for enriching our sense of the contexts of modern scientific and technological practice. The remainder of this note will briefly sketch some opportunities in “public history,” as this genre has come to be known, and indicate where interested HSS members can go for further information.

What is public history? One useful suggestion, from Donald A. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office (in Public History, listed below), is to think of it as the practice of history with a public audience in mind. That audience may be as broad as the millions of individuals who view the exhibits created by historians of science and technology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington each year, or as focused as the chief executive officer of a corporation who underwrites an historical study of his company’s R&D activities to help him better understand the current technological challenges facing his organization. As Gerald George, director of the American Association for State and Local History, observed (also in Public History), “there are no captive audiences off-campus.” Unlike the academic historian whose students and colleagues have set expectations, the public historian must re-invent his or her subject for each new constituency. Public history thus requires the research, writing, and analytical skills that are the sine qua non of any well-trained historian of science, but also the additional talents of the entrepeneur, cheerleader, manager, team player, consultant, or policy analyst.

The opportunities in public history are clear simply from enumerating the variety of activities in which members of the History of Science Society are engaged. (I would like to thank Mary Ellen Bowden, who compiled this information for the HSS Committee on Research and the Profession by surveying the 1986 Guide to the History of Science.) More than 125 are employed in the non-academic positions. Federal historians are the largest single group, with HSS members coming from agencies as diverse as the Departments of Energy, State, and the Interior, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Archives, National Bureau of Standards, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Federation of State Humanities Councils, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, National Parks Service, National Science Foundation, Naval Research Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution (e.g., National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the Joseph Henry Papers), U.S. Army, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Naval Observatory, and U.S. Navy.

Historians of science are also employed as historians, archivists, writers, and managers of various sorts by a growing number of corporations including Amdahl, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Corning, First Interstate Bank of Denver, General Electric, General Foods, IBM, Millipor, Monsanto, Spinco, and United Technologies. Scientific societies employing historians of science include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute of Physics, California Academy of Science, and New York Academy of Sciences. Museums, science centers, and independent research institutes are also represented, including such organizations as the American Philosophical Society Library, Bradbury Science Museum (in Los Alamos, New Mexico), College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Educational Testing Service, Hagley Museum and Library, Maryland Science Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Science journalism (e.g., Science, Science News, Scientific American), publishing (e.g., Charles Scribner’s Sons, Harper & Row, Institute for Scientific Information, McGraw-Hill, Princeton University Press, Rutgers University Press, Springer-Verlag), and antiquarian bookselling are also among the non-academic occupations of HSS members.

There is persuasive evidence that opportunities for historians of science to practice their craft in the “real world” will continue to grow in the years ahead. Since the HSS Women’s Committee began its annual survey of job opportunities a decade ago, an average of 12 new non-academic positions for historians of science. This is undoubtedly a lower bound, since many corporate and government jobs for which historians of science are qualified do not find their way into HSS statistics. An increasing number of corporations are turning to historians of science and technology for advice on history and archives, as evidenced by recent articles in the New York Times (29 May 1988) and the Wall Street Journal (27 May 1988) and the busy practices of such consulting firms as History Associates, Inc., and The Winthrop Group. On the federal level, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History is monitoring new legislation which will call for the establishment of history offices in all federal departments and independent agencies; since this will include such agencies as the Environmental Protection Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, there are likely to be new jobs for historians of science, technology, and medicine in these areas, too.

The prospect of developing new audiences for the history of science promises to strengthen the work of HSS by attracting new membership in the long run. We should be prepared to accept the challenges of interpreting history of science to audiences in secondary education, the general public, and policy-making bodies, or others will do the job for us. John Heilbron’s call for an “applied history of science” in his 1986 History of Science Society Lecture is an important step in this direction. By adopting a broader interpretation of our professional identity we can show more people why history of science matters.

For Further Information about Public History


Barbara J. Howe; Emory L. Kemp (eds.): Public History: An Introduction (Malabar, Fla: Krieger, 1986). The place to start: a thorough survey of the principles and practice of public history, including a bibliographic guide and directory of public history resources and organizations.

David F. Trask and Robert W. Pomeroy III (eds.): The Craft of Public History: An Annotated Select Bibliography (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1986). Another indispensable book.

Carol Gronemen; Robert N. Lear, Corporate Ph.D.: Making the Grade in Business (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Terry W. McAdam, Doing Well By Doing Good: The First Complete Guide to Careers in the Nonprofit Sector (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).

Richard E. Neustadt; Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986). Information on the policy environment.

Key Organizations

(Note: these addresses were updated and hyperlinks added in March of 2002.)

American Association for State and Local History, 1717 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37203-2991; Phone: (615) 320-3203; Fax: (615) 327-9013; E-Mail: history@aaslh.org. In additional to publishing History News (a useful source of information on job openings and trends in museums and historical agencies), the AASLH has produced a wide range of books and pamphlets of public history, museum and archival practices, historic preservation, and related areas.

National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, 400 A Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003; (202) 544-2422. Directed by Page Putnam Miller, the NCCPH is a consortium of nearly fifty national historical and archival organizations (including the History of Science Society) and state coordinating committees. The NCCPH monitors legislation and Washington activities of concern to historians and serves as a clearinghouse for information on all aspects of public history.

National Council on Public History, 327 Cavanaugh Hall – IUPUI, 425 University Boulevard, Indianapolis, IN 46202; Phone: 317-274-2716; Fax: 317-278-5230; Email: ncph@iupui.edu. The NCPH sponsors The Public Historian (published by the University of California Press), publishes Public History News, and provides a forum for the application of historical scholarship outside academe in government, business, historical agencies, archives, libraries, professional associations, and public interest groups.

Society for History in the Federal Government. The SHFG publishes The Federalists, a newsletter containing information on federal history and the activities of federal historians. Also available are a 1987 Directory of Federal Historical Programs and Activities and a set of guidelines on history programs for heads of government agencies. The president of the SHFG for 1986-88 is HSS member David K. Allison of the National Museum of American History.