ArticlesHistorical Perspective

The Sciences in America, Circa 1880

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Science  04 Jul 1980:
Vol. 209, Issue 4452, pp. 27-32
DOI: 10.1126/science.209.4452.27


For many years American science in the late 19th century was regarded as an intellectual backwater. This view derived from the assumption that the health of American science at the time was equivalent to the condition of pure science, especially pure physics. However, a closer look reveals that there was considerable vitality in American scientific research, especially in the earth and life sciences. This vitality is explainable in part by the natural scientific resources of the American continent but also in part by the energy given science from religious impulses, social reformism, and practicality. Furthermore, contrary to recent assumptions, the federal government was a significant patron of American science. The portrait of American science circa 1880 advanced in this article suggests that the nation's scientific enterprise was characterized by pluralism of institutional support and motive and that such pluralism has historically been the normal mode.