2. Intellectual biography
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Sarton, who was born in 1884 in Belgium, came to the United States in 1915. He gave a few lectures and courses during his first years in America, and in 1918 he became associated with the Carnegie institution of Washington. He had already founded Isis in 1912, while in Belgium, and although its publication was interrupted during the four years of World War I, it began to reappear in the post-war years when Sarton established himself in the United States. Following a meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston, in December 1923, David Eugene Smith, Lynn Thorndike, and a group of other members organized the American History of Science Society, incorporating it in January 1924. The History of Science Society was created for the specific purpose of furthering the study of the history of science, and to support Sarton's work and especially his journal Isis .
The first years in the United States were not easy for Sarton, but when in 1918 he was appointed research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, things started to rapidly change for the better. For this enabled him to devote himself to his studies without financial anxiety. After a short time he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was given a suite of rooms in the Widener Library, where he continued to work almost to the end of his life .
A French article by Sarton, bearing the title "Une Encyclopedic Leonardesque", published in 1919 in Raccolta Vinciana, clearly shows the great importance Sarton attached to his association with the Carnegie Institution. There he writes:
"Institution Carnegie, jeune comme elle est, a déjà accompli sa haute oeuvre civilisatrice dans des directions nombreuses et avec beaucoup de succès… L'an dernier elle a pris une initiative nouvelle qui lui fait le plus grand honneur; les Trustees ont décide 1'organisation de recherches systématiques sur l'histoire des sciences et m'ont nommé associé de l'institut (research associate) dans ce but précis. C'est là un commencement modeste, mais dont 1'importance ne saurait être exagérée; qu'il me suffise de dire que la position qui a été créée pour moi par la Carnegie Institution et qui me permet de consacrer tout mon temps a l'étude désintéressée de l'histoire des sciences est autant que je sache unique au monde."
Here Sarton appends the following footnote: "II existe une ou deux positions semblables en Allemagne pour l'histoire de la médecine et des mathématiques, mais non pour l'histoire des sciences ."
Sarton then broadly outlines his projected work. There are two major items listed here: 1) A substantial work on Leonardo and the science of his time, and, 2) The history of 19th century physics and its applications .
Then he continues with the following words:
"Et d'abord, pourquoi Leonardo a-t-il été choisi comme le sujet de notre première entreprise? C'est que la portée des études historiques, auxquelles j'ai consacré ma vie, dépasse de beaucoup leurs résultats immédiats. Le but n'est pas seulement de connaitre l'histoire des sciences, mais d'humaniser la science, c'est-à-dire de la rendre plus aimable et plus vivante, de la montrer en voie d'évolution et de progrès, de mettre en évidence à la fois son unité profonde et ses relations innombrables avec toutes les autres activités de notre vie. Or, comment ce but serait-il mieux atteint, comment serait-il possible de mieux faire comprendre à la fois aux savants et aux artistes cette synthèse et cette harmonie idéale, que de la leur montrer déjà réalisée dans la personnalité unique et grandiose de Leonardo, à la fois le plus grand artiste, le plus grand savant et peut-être le meilleur homme de son siècle?" .
Two pages later the text reads thus:
"D'ailleurs, je ne me propose pas seulement d'exposer les idées de Leonardo et de ses contemporains, mais je m'efforcerai de plus d'expliquer aussi complètement que possible leur genèse et leur évolution. Cela m'oblige à étudier plus profondément que je ne le désirerais, la philosophique médiévale chrétienne, arabe et juive, mais la récompense est grande. De même que Leonardo me permettra de démontrer d'une manière concrète l'unité la science, il me permettra aussi de montrer sa continuité. Car, si original que soit son singulier génie, il n'en est pas moins profondément enraciné dans le passé. Leonardo n'est pas un accident isolé, un miracle, mais le fruit soudain et rare d'une longue évolution, jamais entièrement interrompue et qui, pour être en grande partie secrète, n'en est pas moins réelle ."
Speaking of Sarton, Dorothy Stimson writes:
"Thus his first scholarly love, Leonardo da Vinci, could not properly be studied until he knew what had gone before. Out of that search grew his many-volumes Introduction to the History of Science which after twenty years' labour he had to end fifty years before he had reached da Vinci ."
Two mutually related ideas on which Sarton insisted throughout his career were the ideas of "the unity of mankind" and "the unity of science" or "the unity of knowledge". He must have felt entitled to a verdict on these points also because of his wide coverage of so many groups of people from all over the world in his Introduction volumes. And he dealt there with periods during which there was comparatively little cultural contact between those widely different geographical regions. Early in his career, Sarton says:
"For one thing, science -at least that part of it which has already become classical- is the common thought of the whole world; it is the organized body of all the facts and theories from which almost all arbitrariness has been excluded, upon which enlightened people are unanimously agreed and which is placed temporarily beyond the range of discussion. The domain of classical science in the privileged domain of internationalism, for it is already the common patrimony of all men. Moreover, science constitutes the very axis of human advance and furnishes the very principle and the fundamental methods of social organization… ."
We also hear him speak in the following words:
"The history of science establishes the unity of science in at least two different ways. First, the progress of each science is dependent upon the progress of the others; this implies of course that the sciences are not independent, but interrelated in a number of ways, and that the interrelations are not accidental but organic. Second, the simultaneity of scientific discoveries made in different places and sometimes by means of different methods implies also an internal congruency… ."
Suchlike assertions by Sarton, of which he was sparing, have created quite widely the impression that he was much given to philosophizing. Such a generalization would be quite misleading, however, particularly with respect to certain aspects of his ideas. With respect to his words in his last quoted passage, e.g., I feel that Sarton never appreciably underscored the idea of unity of knowledge in the sense of close interrelations between various fields of knowledge; he perhaps referred to it partly for the sake of completeness. It is my impression that his references to it were only sporadic and that they were often superficial rather than substantial. But, in contrast to this, he did emphasize the idea that science oversteps national, linguistic, and religious boundaries, which occurs in the passage quoted from him to which footnote 8 has been appended.
Sarton, as we have seen, had planned to prepare a history of 19th century physics for the Carnegie Institution. At Harvard he gave a history of mathematics course which was called Mathematics 7 and was listed among mathematics courses, if I remember correctly. Moreover, James B. Conant writes: "And the scholarly training which Professor Sarton considered essential for a real scholar included 'A knowledge of the European languages, palaeography, scholastic philosophy, political history, ecclesiastic history' as well as a basic training in one of the natural sciences ."
All this indicates that Sarton did not hesitate to take up different sciences separately. We also see that he considered it quite natural for historians of science to cultivate only one scientific field as that of their major interest. Yet he did not believe that the juxtaposition of courses on the histories of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology in different departments of a university could constitute instruction in the history of science anywhere close to an ideal state of affairs.
Conant says, "From Professor Sarton I learned, while I was a graduate student in chemistry, the difference between the history of a science (as exemplified by Chemistry 8) and the history of science ."
It is well known that Sarton had pet ideas such as the claim that the history of science should be accorded a place of major importance in history in general and that it should constitute a bridge between science and the humanities, or between science and humanism. He might dwell briefly on such ideas at the very beginnings of his courses, but then he would rarely refer to them again as the courses proceeded. More frequently he would call attention to unintentional and accidental cooperation between scientists working in different countries whenever, as in the case of science in modern Europe, the subject matter dealt with served to throw light on many clear and interesting examples of such nature. But even then his remarks would be of the nature of brief asides.
At any rate, as far as I know, Sarton practically never took up these notions in purely conceptual lines in a systematic manner, he never wrote substantial monographs on these ideas or on the concepts they involved with a formal philosophical approach. For him the unity of man and the unity of scientific knowledge were practically obvious on a factual basis, on the basis of copious data pervading all parts of the history of science. Over and above such notions and such pet ideas he was interested in promoting and establishing on a firm footing the cultivation of the history of science. His main concern or objective was to establish the history of science as an independent academic discipline.
In 1930 he wrote, "The intellectual elite are at present divided into two hostile groups, -which we might call for short the literary and the scientific, - who do not speak the same language nor think in the same way. If nothing is done, the gap separating them must necessarily increase, together with the steady and irresistible progress of science (…).
"I believe that the gap can be reduced considerably if there be enough good will on both sides, and that it will eventually be possible to bridge it. The main purpose of the movement which I initiated so many years ago and to which my life has ever since been devoted, is precisely to build that bridge and to educate men who will become the natural intermediaries between the two sides. Such men would be very few to begin with but they would slowly increase in number (…).
"However humanism may be defined, at least we shall agree I am sure that it should not harbour intolerance.
"Personally I would much prefer not to speak of humanism any more but to work quietly in my little corner preparing materials for the bridge to be built (…) ."
I believe that the statement in the last sentence above is truly descriptive of Sarton's attitude and behaviour in the years that followed.
 Isis, vol. 6. 1924, pp. 4-8; his, vol. 7, 1925, p. 371; Isis, vol. 16,1931, pp. 125-126; James B. Conant, "George Sarton and Harvard University", Isis, vol. 48,1957, p. 302; Dorothy Stimson, Sarton on the History of Science, Essays by George Sarton, Selected and Edited by Dorothy Stimson, Harvard University Press, 1962, Preface, p. VI.
 E. M. S., "Bibliographical Data on George Sarton", Studies and Essays in the History of Science and Learning Offered in Homage to George Sarton, ed. M. F. Ashley Montagu, Henry Schuman 1944, p. XII-XIII.
 George Sarton, "Une Encyclopedic Leonardesque", Raccolta Vinciana, fascicule 10, Milano 1919, pp. 235-236.
 Ibid., p. 236. See also, "A Summing up" (Report to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1949), Sarton ore the History of Science, ed. Dorothy Stimson, pp. 367-370.
 Ibid., p. 236.
 Ibid., p. 238.
 Dorothy Stimson, Sarton on the History of Science, Preface, p. IX.
 George Sarton, "The New Humanism", Isis, vol. 6, 1924, p. 24.
 Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1, p. 31.
 James B. Conant, "George Sarton and Harvard University", Isis, vol. 48, 1957, p. 305.
 James B. Conant, "History in the Education of Scientists", Harvard Library Bulletin, vol. 14, 1960, p. 317.
 George Sarton, the History of Science and the New Humanism, 1931, pp. 8-10.
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by: FSTC, Mon 04 August, 2008