‘Nature’ & Scientific Community, 1869-1939

A review of Nature and the Making of a Scientific Community, 1869-1939, by Melinda Baldwin.

Melinda Baldwin’s dissertation provides a fascinating history of the early years of the scientific journal Nature, beginning with its creation in 1869 by Sir Norman Lockyer and ending with the retirement of its second editor Sir Richard Arman Gregory in 1939. Challenging our awareness of Nature’s prominent place in the sciences today, Baldwin historicizes the complicated process by which the publication developed its reputation. More than that, Baldwin uses Nature as case study to ask important questions about the changing practice of scientific publishing and the extent to which journals like Nature arbitrated national disputes about scientific authority.

Drawing on his previous experiences as an astronomer and science writer, the founding editor of Nature Norman Lockyer intended for the new journal to reach two distinct audiences: the British public and British men of science. Baldwin shows how this dual readership was reflected in Nature’s organization. While first-person journalistic accounts assuming little scientific background were featured at the beginning of each volume, abstracts of scientific papers, reports from scientific societies, and technical articles were grouped at the end. Over time despite Lockyer’s optimism, as Baldwin writes, “Nature’s contributors proved more interested in corresponding and debating with each other than they were in writing articles for a lay audience” (p. 47). By the early 1870s, Nature’s readership and content stabilized, maintaining the short article format and rapid publishing schedule characteristic of a weekly, but re-envisioning its audience as men of science who would also pay close attention to journals like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Between 1872 and 1895, Nature gained its reputation as one of the preferred outlets for scientific communication among British men of science. Contributing to recent debates about the role of the X Club in promoting science in Victorian Britain, Baldwin convincingly demonstrates that the X Club played a more circumscribed role in Nature’s evolution than traditionally believed. While the X Club used Nature to argue about controversial scientific issues, its members continued to publish their original research in long form quarterlies. Moreover, as Baldwin shows, it was the generation of men of science born in the 1840s and 1850s – e.g., E. Ray Lankester, George J. Romanes, W.T. Thiselton-Dyer, Raphael Mendola, Oliver Lodge, and John Perry – who established Nature’s centrality to the British scientific community. Vital to this younger generation’s interest was the journal’s publishing speed. Letters to the Editor usually were printed in the same week as they were received, making it more likely to guarantee a young researcher priority in the event of a dispute.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Nature played an increasingly important role in arbitrating boundary disputes about who counted as a man of science. As Baldwin explains, Nature’s ‘litmus test’ for treating an author as a man of science was whether “he devoted his time to original scientific research” (p. 134). Patrolling their borders in print, Nature’s contributors expressed skepticism about the abilities of literary men and politicians to fully engage in scientific discussions. Along with excluding particular individuals from the conversation –– such as the politician-scientist George Douglas Campbell, the eighth Duke of Argyll –– the journal’s men of science questioned the scientific credibility of fields like psychical research and engineering. Baldwin complicates this analysis with an examination of Nature’s second editor, Richard Arman Gregory, who was not a typical man of science. Lockyer’s assistant and a noted science writer, Gregory was more of a spokesman for science who, only after many years, was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Baldwin uses the disciplinary examples of radioactivity research and Mendelian genetics to maintain that while Nature became an international journal for new research in some fields, it remained a publication for and by the British scientific community in others. For instance, the British trained physicist Ernest Rutherford “used Letters to the Editor as an end in themselves” between 1895 and 1908 (p. 176). He generated major international discussions about radioactivity by sending his findings to Nature and trained his protégés, men like Niels Bohr and Bertram Borden Boltwood, to do the same. To Rutherford, Nature had several appeals: intellectually isolated in his appointment in Montreal, Canada, he wanted to maintain ties with the British community of physicists; more importantly, the journal’s rapid publication schedule reduced the possibility of being scooped by physicists in Europe. By contrast, as Baldwin shows, while William Bateson and the British biometricians used the pages of Nature to debate the limits of Mendelian inheritance at the same time, they refrained from using the Letters to the Editor to publish their original research.

After World War I, under Sir Richard Arman Gregory’s leadership Nature’s focus turned outward. Increasingly, the journal became “a vehicle through which the British scientific community spoke to scientific colleagues from other nations” (p. 200).A number of contemporary events merited comments from Nature’s authors, from the scientific stakes of the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee to the threats to intellectual freedom evinced by Trofim Lysenko’s experimental genetics program in Soviet Russia. Most visible in this regard were critiques of the academic policies and racial theories of the National Socialist government in Germany in the 1930s. In many ways confirming Nature’s international reputation, in 1937 Bernhard Rust, the German Minister of Science, Education and National Culture, ordered that all copies of Nature be removed from German universities.

Baldwin’s dissertation ends in 1939 with Nature established as an international English-language journal for the publication of original research in the natural sciences. Using the editors’ correspondence, personal papers, and the content of Nature’s first seventy years, Baldwin has written an innovative microhistory of the changing publishing practices and scientific content of Nature.

Jenna Tonn
Department of the History of Science
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Nature 1-144 (1869-1939)
University of Reading Library
University of Exeter Library
University of Sussex Library
British Library

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2010. 280pp. Primary advisor: Michael Gordin.

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