Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Famous Men of Science by Sarah Knowles Bolton

A tasty sampler platter of biographical appetizers
Famous Men of Science, published in 1889, is a collection of 14 biographical sketches written by American author Sarah Knowles Bolton. In the late 19th century, Bolton published a whole series of such biographical collections, with titles like Poor Boys Who Became Famous, Famous American Statesmen, and Famous European Artists. Although it doesn’t appear to be intended for a young audience, Famous Men of Science is definitely a popular history aimed at the masses. The biographical sketches have the feeling of deliberate simplification, like articles out of Reader’s Digest or something from Chicken Soup for the Scientific Soul. Given this approach, it’s hard to tell how much of the information is reliable, and how much is folklore, but Bolton does quote extensively from the letters and diaries of the figures she profiles.

While relating the events and accomplishments of her subjects’ lives, Bolton makes blatant efforts to draw moral lessons from their examples, often concluding paragraphs with chestnuts like “Those only succeed who have sufficient force of character to make time for what they wish to do,” or “Little can be expected from those who are easily satisfied.” She also goes out of her way to emphasize the Christian piety and spiritual fortitude of these scientific heroes, even the ones who were likely materialists. She has a tendency to digress from the scientific research by focusing on stories of love, friendship, and family. In the chapter on Sir Humphrey Davy, for instance, Bolton concentrates so much on his personal character and relationships that I’m not sure I even understand what his great contributions to science were. Bolton just assumes you already know that, as any good student of the 19th century would.

Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of fascinating details about these individuals, like Galileo’s struggles to support a family of deadbeats, or the fact that Louis Agassiz was so blind he had to feel fossils with his tongue. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had a very successful career as an artist prior to becoming an inventor, and Bolton gives his artistic accomplishments their proper due. I consider myself pretty well-versed in the life of Charles Darwin, but I knew almost nothing about the personal histories of Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, or Alexander von Humboldt. Though Bolton’s sketches are anything but comprehensive, she has provided me with enough information to know that I’d like to look into the works of these great naturalists and seek out more recent and complete biographies on them.

Despite the weaknesses in the writing, and the egregious number of typos in the ebook (no spelling check was ever applied to the scanned text), this really is an enjoyable read. It transports you back to the glory days of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, prior to the era of specialization, when science was like the Wild West: full of opportunities for anyone willing to work hard and stake their claim. You didn’t need rigid credentials to make advances in a given discipline; you just did the work. Almost all of these luminaries excelled in more than one field. Humboldt’s range of interests was truly staggering, stretching across almost the entire breadth of the sciences and humanities. It’s difficult to imagine any scientist today having the freedom to explore the diversity of knowledge that these men did. Famous Men of Science is a fun read for anyone who admires these polymaths of the past. It is no substitute for real biographies of Newton, Herschel, Audubon, etc., but it really does generate enthusiasm for the history of science and whets your appetite for more.

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