George Sarton’s Appeal to Andrew D. White

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Belgian historian of science, founder of the review journal Isis, and secular humanist George Sarton (1884-1956), emigrated to the United States. One of his earliest publications on the discipline of history of science appeared in the philosophical journal Monist, which was an English translation of his opening article in Isis. Sarton openly admitted that his work adhered to the positivist school of Auguste Comte. Indeed, he considered Comte to be the “founder of the history of science.” Unsurprisingly, then, he argued that “the interaction between science and religion have often had an aggressive character,” and that “most of the time a real warfare” had existed between them. Sarton found much heuristic value in his conception of the historical relationship between science and religion. The history of science, he argued, revealed not only the “progress” of the human mind, but also its “regressions,” “sudden halts,” “mishaps,” and “superstitions,” thus providing us with a “history of errors.” The “progress of mankind,” Sarton asserted, was an “intellectual unfolding.”[1]

In the English translation of this article, Sarton recommends to his readers Andrew Dickson White’s (1832-1918) two-volume masterpiece, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1894). White, who Sarton called a “very godly man,” was indeed an important source for his understanding of science and religion. Sarton would later recommend White to his students at Harvard University.

In 16 January, 1918, White wrote Sarton to praise him for his work in the history of science. Sarton replied on 31 March, telling White that his word of praise “is as precious to me as an honorary degree!” He also informed him that he was giving two courses at Harvard on the “History of Physics” and on “Science and Civilization in the XVth and XVIth Centuries,” and that for both of these courses “I have been repeatedly obliged to refer to your admirable ‘Warfare between Science and Theology.’” But in addition to thanking White for his work, Sarton reported to him his difficulty in finding a professorship in the history of science. It is an interesting and curious exchange of letters, from a young historian pleading his case to an older, established scholar. It reveals something of the hardships of emigrant scholars during the war, and the early formative beginnings of what is still a much contested scholarly discipline. The remainder of the letter follows thus:

But I do not write this letter simply to thank you,—rather to appeal to you, being now—for no fault of mine, in the most critical position. I was appointed “lecturer on the history and philosophy of science” at Harvard in 1916 for two years. I have done well and worked considerably but war conditions make it impossible to appoint me (This appointment was an artificial one anyhow—the necessary funds having been provided by a special subscription. I did not wish such a subscription to be started again in these times). As all the universities are now husbanding their resources to the limit, and as there is not a single university president having a genuine interest in the history of science. I have absolutely no chance of being appointed anywhere.

Now you likely know my position: I have but, at best temporarily, all my belongings through the German invasion of Belgium. When I came to this country in April 1915, I had—all counted—a hundred dollars. During the last two years, I have worked every day from 9 A.M. to 10 P.M., often on Sundays as well. I have not taken a real holiday since 1914. I have prepared and delivered more than 250 different lectures on all possible topics in my own field—from Babylonia to Henri Poincaré, and from the history of medicine to the history of calculus. I lecture are the Lowell Institute in Boston, and gave five long courses on the history of mathematics, physics, general science…in Harvard, Columbia, Illinois… (No wonder I could not publish much!)—Besides, my Harvard salary being only a nominal one, I lectured in about twenty other universities. You perhaps remember that I once lectured at Cornell University; I then had the honour and pleasure of being your guest.

I have set in foot a very intense movement towards the recognition of the history of science as an essential part of higher education, and but for the war, it is likely that something would have been started in at least one university. Of course, now it is out of question until the war is over.

I have tried to show that the history of science—i.e. the history of the real foundations of human progress—is not simply of immense interest in itself, but is even of greater importance in that it affords the best means of humanizing science and reconciling positive knowledge and idealism. I firmly believe that there is no other way to solve the great education problem: “science vs. the humanities” than to introduce a little of the disinterested and historical spirit of the humanities into the scientific studies. Moreover, I have shown that to be true, the history of civilization should be focused on the history of science. As a result of my work since 1911, I now am a recognized leader and authority in the history of science not simply in America, but abroad.

Yet all this labour is in danger of being lost. I have been paid so little for all that I have done—that I now am just at the same point as I was when I landed here in 1915. As soon as my appointment in Harvard ceases I will have to choose between stopping my life’s work or starving. Both alternatives are equally miserable.

My only hope is in the “Carnegie Institution,” whose very purpose is to make disinterested studies possible. I have just written to Dr. [Richard Simpson] Woodward, explaining the whole case and asking him to intervene. The “Carnegie Institution” could help me either directly by paying me a salary for the work I am doing or indirectly by giving a subsidy to a university to employ me.

I do not forget that this is war-time, but the war will not last for ever [Sarton includes a footnote: “The University of Berlin was founded in the year 1809—the year of Prussia’s greatest misery—after the defeat of Wagram. Should we have less faith than the Germans?…”], and it would be a stupid waste—to now make me lose all the benefits of my propaganda and stop studies for which I have gathered more material than anybody else.

There are thousands of people in this country earning this living by studying and teaching general history, or the history of philosophy, in fact the history of everything except the history of science. Would it be an extravagance to give one man the possibility of earning his by such research work?…There is not a single college that has not at least a professorship for the history of philosophy or the history of education…Is it believable that there is not in America a single chair devoted to the history of science? This in the XXth century?

I appeal to you as to one who did pioneer work in the same field long time ago. I think that if you would have the kindness to write a word in my behalf to Dr. R. S. Woodward, or to Mr. Andrew Carnegie, or to both—it would do a great deal of good. No man can speak to them with more authority than you, and in this case your recommendation would carry the more weight in that you would be speaking for a fellow-worker in your own line.

From all that I know of him, I am convinced that Mr. Carnegie himself would have been deeply interested in the history of science, and would have approved my way of understanding the history of civilization, if it had been possible to place the matter before him. He might even have been interested to the extent of endeavoring the “Institute for the history of science and civilization” which I planned and which was in endorsed by the elite of the American philosophers, scientists and historians,—or at least of funding a chair devoted to the these studies.

I beg to apologize, my dear Dr. White, for intruding upon you and interrupting the peace which you have so richly deserved, with the recital of my sad plight. I will only say for my defense that I would not have disturbed you if I had not been actually driven to it—this being almost my last step and last hope.

If I do not succeed now, I will simply have to give up these studies and to try to make a living for my wife and daughter by struggle in another field. This would mean an enormous waste of human energy, of course.

If you would help me by writing to Dr. Wooward and Mr. Carnegie in my behalf or in any other way, I would be grateful to you, and you would have rendered a new service to the history of science.

Believe me, my dear Dr. White,

Yours faithfully

George Sarton

P.S. It is necessary to add, that if I had been given any opportunity of military service, I would have been only too glad to take it? I even tried to be employed by the U.S. government, being personally recommended by Mr. Woodrow Wilson.[2]

While White’s reply is missing, we do now that he tried to offer Sarton some aid.[3] Sarton subsequently reported to White that he was able to secure a meeting with the Executive Committee of the Carnegie Institution on 18 April.[4] In 15 May, Sarton told White that his “troubles are at an end,” for he was appointed “Research associate of the Carnegie Institution” for two years to pursue his own studies. “This is splendid,” he wrote, “I feel as a free man again as before the war.”[5]


[1] George Sarton, “The History of Science,” Monist, vol. 26, no. 3 (1916): 321-65; George Sarton, “L’Histoire de la Science,” Isis, vol. 1, no. 1 (1913): 3-46.

[2] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Mar 31, 1918, Andrew Dickson White Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library (hereafter cited as: White Collection, and reel number), reel 124.

[3] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 5, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.

[4] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 10, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.

[5] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, May 15, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.


One Comment on “George Sarton’s Appeal to Andrew D. White”

  1. […] jamesungureanu: Georg Sarton’s Appeal to Andrew D. White […]

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