What a Scientific Englishman thinks of Scientific Americans (1874)

Things are a little crazy here in the United States right now, so as a pick-me-up of sorts, I thought I would share this charming article that appeared in the January 30, 1874 issue of Scientific American: “What a Scientific Englishman thinks of Scientific Americans.”  It is a lovely reminder of how great we can be, when we put our minds to it!

R.A. Proctor (1837-1888).

The article was written by the English astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor (1837-1888), who is most famous for having produced one of the earliest maps of the surface of Mars in 1867, based off of drawings by the astronomer William Rutter Dawes.  He also was an early and prolific writer of popular science, starting with his 1870 book Other Worlds Than Ours; others include Light Science for Leisure Hours (1871), The Borderland of Science (1873), Flowers of the Sky (1879) and Mysteries of Time and Space (1883).

Proctor’s Map of Mars, from the fourth edition of Other Worlds Than Ours.

Proctor’s article in Scientific American is basically a transcript of a speech he gave to the Lotus Club in New York City while visiting. The Lotos Club, founded in 1870, is a gentleman’s club with a literary and artistic bent; as written in its constitution,

The objectives of this institution shall be to promote and develop literature, art, sculpture, music, architecture, journalism, drama, science, education and the learned professions, and to that end to encourage authors, artists, sculptors, architects, journalists, educators, scientists and members of the musical, dramatic, and learned professions in their work, and for these purposes to provide a place of assembly for them and other persons interested in and sympathetic to them, and their objectives, effort and work.

The Lotos Club still exists today. It took far too long, but in 1977 it extended its membership to women.

Proctor’s musings, clearly intended to be entertaining and non-technical, are short enough to present in full here. I add paragraph breaks which were not present in the original article for readability.

He had known before he had arrived, and had more clearly recognize d since, that American scientists were doing noble work, and that the people of America were in advance of Europe in the general attention given by them to science. He had been amazed by the character of the audiences before whom he had lectured, not solely by their number, though that had surprised him , but by their close attention to the facts presented to them, and by their appreciation of the bearing of those facts.

He had visited also American colleges and other institutions, and had been struck by the great advantages which the methods there employed possessed over those adopted in England. He had strongly felt the hope that one day his own children might receive a portion of their education in America. He proceeded to remark that, to every thinking mind, America presents a deeply interesting subject of study. There are being worked out, in this great country, the great problems which occupy the attention, indeed, of statesmen and politicians on the other side of the Atlantic, but the solution of which there, if solution is to be hoped for, is trammeled by the influences of old traditions, by the effects of class distinction, and by other circumstances not readily classified or analyzed, but operating only too effectually to retard progress.

Even in science the difference was to be recognized. He could venture, indeed, to remark that he might to some degree claim the sympathy and support of American thinkers, because of the efforts which he had made to resist the influences which oppress science in England. One of these is “authority”– not authority in its legitimate sense, but authority unduly allowed to affect the freedom of thought. Here in America men of science recognize
authority as a form of scientific evidence, because the fact that a great thinker has held such and such a view is pro tanto evidence in favor of the justice of the view. But Americans refuse to allow authority to decide scientific questions; and when newly discovered facts show that views firmly held by great authorities should be modified or abandoned, the American student of science is not prevented by undue respect for authority from accepting the new truths thus indicated.

In this respect, he had himself thought and acted as an American would. His so doing had, he feared, proved unpleasing to many in England, who preferred to stand on the old ways. Even more unpleasant to many had been his opposition to the old fashioned notion that only the official astronomer can do effective work, either in observation or in the discussion of observations. He mentioned how the Astronomer Royal of England had embodied this feeling in the opening sentences of a well known work on popular astronomy, where he divided astronomical students into those who are “officially connected with Government observatories, and those who are not.” Mr. Hind had once rebuked him (Mr. Proctor) for quoting an observation made by an amateur astronomer, not that Mr. Hind denied that the particular fact had been noted, but because the gentleman who had made the observation had not made for himself a great scientific name. This, Mr. Proctor remarked, appeared to him a most mischievous mistake; and he believed that science in any country would never make such progress as it might, so
long as considerations such as this were allowed to operate.

He quoted another illustration of the tendencies of the official mind. When Miss Mitchell, the distinguished American astronomer, had discovered a certain comet, the Astronomer
Royal (one of the council who had to determine whether she should receive a gold medal for that achievement) opposed the award because, “although Miss Mitchell had certainly discovered the comet, she had not sent news of the discovery by the first mail.” [Laughter.] Fortunately the Astronomer Royal was overruled by his colleagues and the award was made.

The “Miss Mitchell” mentioned here is Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), born in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Her parents were Quakers, who emphasized the importance of education for girls as well as boys, and Mitchell’s father was a schoolteacher who specialized in mathematics and astronomy and encouraged his daughter’s interest.  She learned astronomy using her father’s telescope at home, and helped her father calculate the exact timing of a solar eclipse — at age 12!  She opened her own school in 1835 (17 years old!) to train girls in math and science. This school was noteworthy in accepting non-white students.

Maria Mitchell, in a painting by H. Dasell, 1852.

A year later, she accepted a job as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum.  She worked there for her days and spent her nights with her father at the observatory he had built at his workplace at the Pacific National Bank. On October 1st, 1847, she was scanning the sky with her father’s two-inch telescope and spotted an object that was not on her astronomical charts. This was a previously unrecognized comet, which became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”  A few years earlier, King Frederick VI of Denmark had offered a gold medal prize for the discovery of unknown comets, and this is the award mentioned in the text above.

An editorial note in Proctor’s speech clarifies: “Miss Mitchell has since explained that the medal was to be awarded, according to the terms prescribed by its donor, the late king of Denmark, only on condition that the news of the discovery be forwarded by the first mail.”

Mr. Proctor proceeded to remark on two points in connection with American scientific work- first, the effective way in which it was carried on, new and important facts being continually added to our knowledge by American scientific workers; and secondly, the small regard paid by Americans to questions of priority. He remarked that, in two special instances, relating to the work of Professors Cooke and Winlock, of Cambridge, Mass., he had been unwittingly guilty of injustice in assigning the credit to others; and the mistake, though noted long since by those gentlemen, had been allowed to remain uncorrected. It appeared to him, in fact, that American students of science were altogether less disposed to controversy than their European fellow workers.

This was the end of Proctor’s remarks, and I have to laugh at the notion that Americans pay small regard to questions of scientific priority! Maybe that was true for some scientists in his time, but is not really true today. Human nature is the same, regardless of what country one hails from.

So this letter gives us a bit of a humorous look at some of the cultural aspects of science in the 1800s, and along the way introduced me to two figures of astronomy that I knew little about before!  This is why I enjoy browsing old scientific journals.


Sources used for this post regarding Maria Mitchell:

National Women’s History Museum

Maria Mitchell Asssociation


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