Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009)

Laura Otis - Literature and Science in the Nineteenth CenturyIt is perhaps fitting that my 100th post on this blog should be Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009). My research began in September with historiographies of the Scientific Revolution, only to converge in recent months on nineteenth-century narratologies of “conflict” between religion and science, which, I believe, depended crucially on literature and the stories nineteenth-century figures told about what counted as “religion” or what counted as “science.” To this end, Otis’ collection of excerpts from novels, plays, poetry, essays, scientific articles, lectures, treatises, and textbooks written throughout the course of the nineteenth century offers a solid starting place.

At the 1833 meeting of the BAAS, William Whewell proposed the neologism “scientist” for investigators who until then had been known as natural philosophers. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to signify the study of the natural physical world. According to Otis, “the notion of a split between literature and science, of a gap to be bridged between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon.” Indeed, “the two commingled and were assessable to all readers.” Like Sleigh, Otis notes that “scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers…explored the implications of scientific theories.” “As a growing system of knowledge expressed in familiar words, science was in effect a variety of literature.” In nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, “articles on scientific issues were set side-by-side with fiction, poetry and literary criticism.”

At the same time, however, “as Western economies became more industrial and agricultural, educational reformers protested that the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin literature…failed to prepare the new professional classes for modern life.” T.H. Huxley, for example, “claimed provocatively that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.” This insistence on the cultural centrality of science disturbed English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who protested that Huxley was defining literature much too narrowly. According to Arnold, “all knowledge that reaches us through books is literature.”

Otis intends this anthology “to illustrate both common and divergent patterns in the techniques of nineteenth-century authors.” Even a cursory reading of successful scientists in the nineteenth century shows that “most good scientists were also imaginative writers. The ability to express oneself articulately was essential for the communication and progress of science.”

Because scientific knowledge was spread most effectively through the printed word, “to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.” And by doing so, they declared an affinity with respected authors and, implicitly, with their readers. According to James Secord, for example, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) “won a wide readership not just because he provided convincing evidence for gradual geological change but because he used literary references to Milton, Scott, and Wordsworth to present geology as a respectable, gentlemanly pursuit.”

At its most fundamental level, Otis argues, “scientific explanation of the world is akin to processes of reading and writing.” Whether studying skull structures, geological layers, or bird populations, scientists were deciphering sign systems and interpreting texts.

Images render vague ideas more clearly. Indeed, to complement his factual evidence for evolution in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered readers a series of “imaginary illustrations,” scenes which encourage them to picture natural selection at work. “When Darwin presented his theory of natural selection, he knew that readers were used to such voyages [imaginary voyages and imaginary travelers were very popular in nineteenth-century periodicals], and he drew on their capabilities to re-create the evolutionary process. Like novelists who took readers into imaginary worlds, Darwin appealed to his readers to imagine the development of life as he described it.”

But “it would be inaccurate,” Otis warns us, “to depict nineteenth-century literature as a realm in which the imagination had comparatively free reign. As we have seen with Sleigh, novelists of the period greatly concerned themselves with the latest scientific “facts.”

Similarly, “nineteenth-century scientists found they could be more persuasive by using the storytelling techniques of fiction writers.” Darwin, who took a volume of Milton’s poems with him on his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, described the struggle for life through references to Milton’s poetic images. “Milton’s poems allowed Darwin to imagine the creation as a long, continuous process, nurturing his developing concept of evolution.”

For most of the nineteenth century, scientists and literary writers shared a common vocabulary and common literary techniques. But as Otis argues, “it is also crucial to recognize that the same subjects occupied both scientific and literary writers.” The quest for origins developed simultaneously in studies of language, geology, zoology, and numerous other fields. Questions of individuality also preoccupied both scientist and writer. And more narrowly questions about what it meant to be human disturbed both nineteenth-century writers and scientists. “The rapid development of industrialization, physiology, evolutionary theory, and the mental and social sciences challenge the traditional view of people as uniquely privileged beings created in the divine image.”

Otis’ anthology ultimately “invites readers to explore the fertile exchange of images, metaphors, and narrative techniques among writers who today—though not in their own day—are regarded as members of very different disciplines.” It aims to “reveal dialogues and confluences.”

The selected bibliography following the introduction is indispensable, including sources on mathematics, physical science, and technology; sciences of the body; evolution; sciences of the mind; and the social sciences, which are all presented as major themes in the text. Also follows is a helpful chronology of events and publications from 1800 to 1900.

Literature and Science

The anthology begins with a prologue on Literature and Science, with excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe’s Sonnet—To Science (1829), who lamented over the dangers of science posed on poetry and creativity: “why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” There follows John Tyndall’s Belfast Address (1874), commanding scientists to “wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory,” yet maintaining that “some of the greatest [scientific] discoveries have been made under the stimulus of a non-scientific ideal.” Indeed, Tyndall called imagination “the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer.” Thus “science desires not isolation, but freely combines with every effort towards the bettering of man’s estate.” Also included in this prologue are excerpts of the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley, from Science and Culture (1880), and Matthew Arnold, from Literature and Science (1882) mentioned earlier in introduction.

Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology

Each collection of essays is guided by a particular theme, and here Otis offers helpful introductory comments. The guiding theme for the first set of writings, for example, is Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology. In Mathematics, Otis argues that both mathematicians and literary writers used analogies, metaphors, and the malleability of language to convey meaning to new scientific discoveries. Here she includes excerpts from Ada Lovelace’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine (1843); Augustus de Morgan’s Formal Logic (1847); George Boole’s An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854); John Venn’s The Logic of Chance (1866); Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and The Game of Logic (1886); George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876); and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895).

In the Physical Science, Otis claims that “both physicists and literary writers challenged the notion that humankind could anticipate a more civilized, prosperous future.” In introducing theories of gradual energy loss, some asked readers to “conceive of a being” who selectively opens portals between two compartments. Vision also became “a key metaphorical vehicle in nineteenth-century writing.” Imaginative journeys among the stars and within electrical and magnetic forces, invisible phenomena such as X-rays and literary allusions were all used to explain advances in the physical sciences. Otis includes excerpts from Sir William Herschel’s One the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes (1800); Thomas Carlye’s Past and Present (1843); Sir John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy (1849); Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839-55) (1852); William Thomson, Lord Kelvin’s On the Age of the Sun’s Heat (1862) and The Sorting Demon of Maxwell (1879); John Tyndall’s On Chemical Rays, and the Light of the Sky (1869) and On the Scientific Use of the Imagination (1870); James Clerk Maxwell’s Theory of Heat (1871), To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode (1874), Professor Tait, Loquitur and Answer to Tait (1877), and To Hermann Stoffkraft (1878); Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882); Richard A. Proctor’s The Photographic Eyes of Science (1883); and Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s On a New Kind of Rays (1895).

In Technology (or Telecommunications?), Otis relates how Samuel F.B. Morse’s Letter to Hon. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the US Treasury, 27 September 1837 presented his electromagnetic telegraph as “a national nervous system.” An anonymous reviewer from Westminster Review (1878) on The Telephone also utilized analogies of the human body. According to Otis, “for nineteenth-century inventors the resemblance between sensory organs and technical devices was more than an informative metaphor; it inspired the design of communications devices.” Also included in this section is Mark Twain’s satire, Mental Telegraphy (1891), “in which a narrator argues that thoughts can be transmitted from mind to mind.” Otis also includes excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s The Deep-Sea Cables (1896) and Henry James’ In the Cage (1898), the latter arguing with prescience that “the telegraph fails to deliver the knowledge or relationships it promises, and the feeling of connectedness offered by technological communications proves illusory.”

In the final section, Bodies and Machines, Otis observes that “as mechanized industry developed, writers from all fields compared bodies to machines.” This, of course, is not unique to nineteenth-century thinkers. But unlike previous analogies, nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the rapid development of a great variety of technologies, encouraging “all those who used it to rethink their notions of mind, body, and identity.” Excerpts are drawn from Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832); Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1847-8); Hermann von Helmholtz’ On the Conservation of Force (1847); Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); and Walt Whitman’s To a Locomotive in Winter (1876).

Sciences of the Body

The second theme of writings concerns the Sciences of the Body. “Both the scientific and literary writers represented here,” Otis tells us, “do their utmost to take readers into a scene so that the readers can experience it for themselves.” On Animal Electricity, Luigi Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis (1791) “offers vivid pictures of fluids circulating through tubes” in order to explain the nervous system, identifying “the principle of life” with electricity. Sir Humphry Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802) also uses metaphors to describe the usefulness of chemistry. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) uses the writings of Xavier Bichat and Galvani in her account of the irresponsible scientist Victor Frankenstein. Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric (1855) uses similar language of electromagnetism.

In Cells and Tissues and Their Relation to the Body, Otis brings together writings from Xavier Bichat’s General Anatomy (1801), who, in studying living tissues, ironically proposed “one must investigate death.” Rudolf Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (1858), using a microcosm-macrocosm analogy, compared the relationship between the cell and the body to that of the individual and society. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) likewise viewed “bodies and societies has highly interconnected webs in which one could explain events only by comprehending the relations among individuals.” George Henry Lewes’ The Physical Basis of Mind (1877), although critical of “imaginary anatomy” used by some scientists, nevertheless argues, like Tyndall and Eliot before him, “that imagination played a central role in scientific thinking.”

On Hygiene, Germ Theory, and Infectious Diseases, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), using the metaphor of fire, “presents disease as something that both can and cannot be contained.” Sir Edwin Chadwick’s An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) “demands that readers confront not just the sights but the nauseating smells of the slums…organizing his narrative so that the reader follows eye-witnesses into industrial cities’ forbidding alleys.” But having said this, Chadwick also rejects Shelley’s representation of diseases as an uncontrollable force in nature.  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death (1842) also conveys a growing understanding of individual identity and responsibility in mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), Louis Pasteur’s On the Organized Bodies Which Exist in the Atmosphere (1861) and Sir Joseph Lister’s Illustrations of the Antiseptic System (1867) argue that bacterial infections can be greatly reduced, simply by “covering wounds, sterilizing instruments, and washing one’s hands.” The anonymous author of Dr Koch on the Cholera (1884) in The Lancet, likewise, argued that people are “responsible for their diseases not because they have incurred divine wrath but because they have failed to follow hygienic laws.” And H.G. Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus (1895) invites readers “to look through a microscope with his character so that they can see the cholera bacillus as a bacteriologist sees it.”

The last section in this collection of writings concentrates on Experimental Medicine and Vivisection, calling for greater responsibility and accountability on the part of scientists themselves. Excerpts from Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) and Sir James Paget’s Vivisection: Its Pains and Its Uses (1881) argue that “experiments must be responsibly designed.” Frances Power Cobbe’s Vivisection and Its Two-Faced Advocates (1882) quotes physiologists’ own metaphorical descriptions of a damaged brain “as a ‘lately-hoed potato field’…to alert readers to the ‘real’ nature of their experiments.” More polemically, Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) depict arrogant, sadistic scientists, “those who fail to think ahead and consider the value and consequences of their experiments.”


The third theme of Otis’ anthology focuses on Evolution. “Forced to describe an inaccessible past, scientists and literary writers recreating natural history appealed to their readers’ imagination.” The challenge, of course, was to make “readers picture a thousand, ten thousand, or a million years of gradual change, periods that for most people were almost unimaginable.”

Under the section of The Present and the Past, selections from Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy (1809) describes how “valuable new traits and habits could be directly transmitted to the next generation,” thus appealing to “people’s sense of self-worth.” Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) “compared himself to a historian, criticizing his opponents’ theories in terms that echo reviews of bad fiction.” Lyell was also anxious to appeal to conservative readers, and thus wrote his “story in the language of educated gentlemen, illustrating his ideas with quotations from Virgil, Horace, Shakespeare, and Milton.” William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) relates the limitations of the English language when accounting for both space and time. According to Whewell, “the rhythm and metre of language suggested time’s passage far better than the spatial metaphors that language offered.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) challenges the notion that a fragmented past constitutes a coherent history: “Like the portraits of ancestors, fossils alone can tell no story. It takes imagination, not just memories, to create a meaningful narrative.” Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) reminded readers of how breeders produced new animals, “summoning images from their memories.” What is more, despite numerous observations to support his theory, Darwin knew—ironically—he needed to tell readers a story for them to accept it as real. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) suggests, like geologists and naturalists, “novelists are retelling lost tales, recovering lives and events whose traces have been obliterated…[presenting] the relations between present and past in a manner quite similar to Lyell’s.” Thomas Henry Huxley’s On the Physical Basis of Life (1869) cites French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), known for his interests in the relationship between animals (especially human beings) to their environment. According to Otis, “cultural debates about evolution encouraged observations of people’s similarity to animals.” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), for example, “presents a scenario in which noble labour ends ‘in nothing’ because of an urge people and animals share.” Similarly, George John Romanes’ Mental Evolution of Man (1888) argues that “people and animals differ only in degree,” thus challenging the “uniqueness of the human soul.”

On Individual and Species, “in the intense debates that evolutionary theory provoked, the consequences for individual identity become immediately apparent.” August Weismann’s Essays on Heredity (1881-5), for example, argued against Lamarck, “individual organisms lived and died without influencing their ‘immortal’ germ plasm. Here we also have excerpts from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), who used language to immortalize life that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” constantly threatens to obliterate. Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology (1864-7) argued that “selfhood made no sense on an evolutionary scale…the idea of a unique, representative individual loses its meaning” under evolutionary theory. Or as Otis puts it, “the human concept of individuality had no basis in nature. It was rooted in culture and was being imposed on nature by writers who failed to see humanity from a broader, evolutionary perspective.” Thomas Hardy’s Hap (1866) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) “subversively suggests that it is more comforting to think of a world directed by a vengeful god than a world without direction or purpose.” Ernst Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man (1874) sees organisms as “texts in which one could read the past.” Samuel Butler’s Unconscious Memory (1880) “described the individual as a ‘link in a chain,’ a body that contained and often re-enacted the past.” Emily Pfeiffer’s Evolution (1880) and To Nature pictures nature as “dread Force,” churning the universe with mindless motion. May Kendall’s amusing, yet moving, Lay of the Trilobite (1885) “invites the reader to imagine life from the perspective of an extinct animal.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Nature is a Heraclitean Fire (1888), like Tennyson’s In Memoriam, “resists science’s claim to replace religion as a provider of inspiration and enlightenment.”

In the final section on Sexual Selection, we see how both scientists and literary writers continued to reinforce cultural renderings of sex. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) “suggested how much was at stake—socially and economically—in the search for a wealthy husband.” Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) provided “anthropomorphic descriptions in which females choose their mates,” but when describing human beings, “Darwin’s account reinforced cultural readings of female desire as a dangerous force that threated the social order.” This is how Otis puts it: “When women did take the active role and select their mates, they were acting in a primitive fashion, revealing people’s animal origins.” Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Constance Naden’s Natural Selection (1887), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) only further confirms these convictions, using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection to “formulate a problem they had long been describing.”

Sciences of the Mind

The forth theme within this magnificent anthology is Sciences of the Mind. According to Otis, the mental sciences emerged slowly, and amid much controversy. One reason for this is because studies of the mind retained much of their philosophical roots. “The main tenet of the nineteenth-century mental physiology, the conviction that the mind and body were interdependent so that any understanding of the mind must be based on neuroanatomical and neurophysiological knowledge, owes a great deal to John Locke’s belief that true knowledge must be gained through experience, and David Hume’s insistence that philosophy be inductive.” During the nineteenth century, the emergence of mental science came at the heels of several combined factors: “an increasing respect for knowledge gained through experimentation; a conviction that the methods of the physical sciences could be applied to other fields; and an idea that minds, like bodies, had evolved and could be scanned for traces of ancestral forms.”

There was, of course, resistance. But resistance came from those who thought the subject matter—namely, human perceptions, thoughts, and behavior—was “inherently subjective.” Mental scientists in turn sought efforts to persuade readers of the validity of their studies. “In their effort to create an authoritative voice,” Otis writes, “they quoted poets whose insights into the mind were culturally respected.”

In The Relationship between Mind and Body, for example, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) describes his sensations after ingesting opium, thus using his “own personal testimony as ‘evidence’…of how changes to the body could alter one’s perceptions.” Marshall Hall’s On Reflex Function (1833) “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone.” James Cowles Prichard’s A Treatise on Insanity (1835) offers portraits of morally insane individuals through “histories, personal idiosyncrasies, and detailed narratives similar to those associated with fictional characters.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark (1846) argues that “mind could affect the body,” and that “the body” was a mental construct, “subject to the projections…of the mind.” Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1856) “suggested the ways to describe the effects of food and alcohol on behavior, illustrating the complex interplay of constitution and environment.” Thomas Laycock’s Mind and Brain (1860) argues that both hemispheres of the brain are now seen as the seat of “teleorganic processes” and “noetic ideas” of the mind. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) “depicts a woman tainted by hereditary madness and is at time so suspenseful that it nearly maddens the reader.” S. Weir Mitchell “explored the mental and physical roots of personal identity by studying his patient’s phantom limb experiences,” illustrating such experiences in his fictional patient of The Case of George Dedlow (1866). Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870) observed how women’s reproductive system “powerfully influenced their mental state.” William B. Carpenter’s Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) contended that the interplay between mind and body was extremely complex, “so that no one could define no clear boundary between voluntary and involuntary phenomena.” And William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), ever the moderate, attempts to steer a middle-way between the “associationists” and “spiritualists” account of our mental life, for both positions, in his estimation, are found wanting. James says, “The spiritualist and the associationist must both be ‘cerebralists,’ [his emphasis] to the extent at least of admitting that certain peculiarities in the way of working their own favorite principles are explicable only by the fact that the brain laws are a codeterminant of the result.”

“If the human mind was housed in a bodily organ, the brain, then, structural studies of that organ might yield valuable information about its function.” In this sense both Physiognomy and Phrenology became a “science of reading.” As skilled interpreters of bodily texts, George Combe’s Elements of Phrenology (1824) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim’s Phrenology in Connection with the Study of Physiognomy (1826) argue that the relative size of the brain’s component parts act as indicators of potential character and behavior. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) “integrated the language of phrenology into physical descriptions of their characters so as to play on readers’ assumptions.”

According to Otis, Mesmerism and Magnetism “gave the subject’s own testimony much greater importance.” Chauncey Hare Townsend’s Facts in Mesmerism (1840), besides quoting both “Coleridge and Newton side by side” to support his claims, sees mesmerism as another technique for exploring the mind. John Elliotson’s Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State (1843) viewed his patients as both object and subject. “When literary writers used the same kind of detail, they sometimes convinced readers their imaginary patients were real,” such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s Mesmeric Revelation (1844). Turning to mesmerism to relieve her chronic pain, Harriet Martineau’s Letters on Mesmerism (1845) used “precise visual descriptions and innovative metaphors her readers would have encountered in good realist fiction.” James Esdaile’s Mesmerism in India (1847) reinforced fears of mind control in his reports of mesmerism in India. Robert Browning’s Mesmerism (1855) suggested that “both imagination and mesmerism offered opportunities for controlling the world around one.” And Wilkie Collins’ popular mystery novel The Moonstone (1868) transposed Esdaile’s findings into the British context.

In Dreams and the Unconscious, when Hall “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone,” scientific studies of the “unconscious mind” quickly emerged. These studies provoked wide interest in literary writers as well, such as Charlotte Brontë’s When Thou Sleepest (1837). Frances Power Cobbe’s Unconscious Cerebration: A Psychological Study (1871) also “combines scientific and literary accounts of dreams and sleep.” More importantly, Cobbe proposed that people commit immoral actions all the time in their dreams “without apparent attacks of conscience because consciousness is not needed for thought, and mental activity continues when the will is suspended.” “The existence of an unconscious mind that spoke when the will was relaxed suggested the potential for struggle between different parts of human consciousness,” as memorably played in the fictional case study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Finally, August Kekulé’s Address to the German Chemical Society (1890) advised his listeners to “‘learn to dream,’ suggesting that rather than forging scientific ideas, reason might destroy them in the process of emergence.”

And in Nervous Exhaustion, Otis observes how nineteenth-century scientists contended that in an exhausted mind, “the will could no longer control emotional impulses, so that one might fall victim to hysteria.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner (1861) shows how “overwhelming environmental pressures can wear out a mind.” S. Weir Mitchell’s Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked (1872) “maintained that women were especially vulnerable to nervous exhaustion.” Interestingly enough, both Holmes and Mitchell “wrote fictional as well as actual case studies to illustrate” their views. But Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892) uses personal experience to challenge such scientific theories, often espoused from male physicians of “high standing.”

Social Sciences

The final theme is Social Sciences. During the nineteenth century, “new discoveries and theories increasingly indicated that human beings were subject to natural laws, so that the societies and legal systems they created might be seen to have a foundation in nature.” Like the mental sciences, “social phenomena had been a subject for philosophers.” And like those before them “while struggling to legitimize their field, early sociologists relied heavily on literary techniques.”

Under Creating the Social Sciences, Otis explains that the social sciences “originated not in the field’s scientific and literary allegiances, whose interplay stimulated its growth, but in the issue of government interference.” As such, “the social sciences attempted to build knowledge in order to control and improve societies.” Interestingly enough, while Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791) proposed an architectural panopticon, intended for prisons, workhouses, hospitals, and schools, “which allowed government supervisors to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives,” his Manual of Political Economy (1793) “advised governments not to interfere in economic matters.” This contradictory desire for both freedom and control makes sense when one considers whose freedom is being advocated and who needs to be controlled. According to Otis, “every social scientist sought to legitimize a system in which wealthy subjected managed their lives as they chose, but troublesome paupers were managed for their own good.” “If social laws were an extension of natural ones, then poverty was a natural phenomenon and could be viewed as inevitable,” and perhaps even necessary. Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) “argued along these lines, proposing that charity, however well-intended, only added to human suffering.” J.R. M‘Culloch’s A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1832), inspired by Bentham, “offered readers volumes of facts, inscribing knowledge in terms of practical uses rather than intellectual value.” Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853) “proposed that human thought had developed in distinct stages, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.” Charles Dickens hoped his novels, such as Bleak House (1852-3) and Hard Times (1854), would “stimulate social reform.” John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), like Bentham, advocated a “society that would please as many members [i.e. the wealthy elite] as possible.” And Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) depict “overpopulation in a tragic, despairing light, as a biological fact that no social initiative can overcome.”

Under Race Science, Otis observes that imperial expansion “stimulated naturalists’ efforts to classify unknown plants and animals,” ultimately “encourage[ing] anthropologists to categorize human beings” as well. Both Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) set out a “racial science” of eugenics, which presented the “supplanting of one people by another as a natural, even compassionate process.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Yellow Face (1894), however, questions the validity of racial science, suggesting that racial characteristics are often “projected onto subjects by observers.”

In Urban Poverty, an excerpt from Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) argues that “the rich have consciously constructed their city so that its leading citizens never see the slums in which their employees live.” Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Walter Besant’s East London (1899) “described urban problems by creating semi-fictional protagonists, inviting readers to hear the poor ‘speak with their own voices.’” Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) suggests that “impoverished workers frightened members of the middle classes.” Matthew Arnold’s East London and West London (1867) expressed the desire to “make middle-class readers see and hear the poor.” Thus J.W. Horsley’s Autobiography of a Thief in Thieves’ Language (1879) “envisioned himself a translator, converting the argot of the very poor into a language his readers would understand.” And George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898) reinforces Engel’s claim that poverty sustains the wealth of the elite by focusing on an “unbreakable bond between the rich and the poor, implying that even the highest intellectual work is sustained by the sale of the human flesh.”

And the final section to this anthology ends, fittingly, with Degeneration. “When social scientists appropriated Darwin’s natural selection hypothesis…many began to attribute vice to hereditary factors.” Excerpts from Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Mind (1876) argues “that a third of all criminals were physical and moral degenerates who had reverted to earlier stages in human development.” Such studies “encouraged scientists all over the world to look for signs of inborn criminality.” George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) relies heavily on French psychologist Benedict Morel’s argument that mental illness is the accumulation of successive generations of poor urban dwellings, malnutrition, bad air, alcohol, tobacco, ultimately leading to degeneration. Degeneracy was not restricted to the poor, as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) paints a picture of degeneracy among society’s most privileged members. Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) argues that “modern stresses like railway travel and urban crowding were overtaxing people’s nervous systems, leaving them unfit for the demands of everyday life.” Sarah Grand’s controversial novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), depicts degeneration as an avoidable process, proposing that unfit Europeans should be forbidden from breeding, in the interest of maintaining an intelligent, physically healthy population. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) likewise sees a “dreaded emasculation as a literal draining.”

A cross-pollination of novels, scientific essays, poems, and textbooks, Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century clearly demonstrates the “feedback loop” of influence between literary and scientific writers.

Publishing, Reading, and Inventing Science in the Nineteenth Century

British Museum Reading Room PanoramaJonathan R. Topham’s chapter in Science and Religion prompts a more careful examination of the role of science within literature, as well as the cultural embeddedness of science itself. In several other places, Topham offers a more detailed account of the pivotal roles of author, publisher, and reader of nineteenth-century print media, particularly in his essays “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources” (2000) and more recently “Scientific Readers: A View from the Industrial Age” (2004).

The Periodical as Medium of Science

The periodical press was without doubt the primary means of cultural circulation in the nineteenth century, having a greater impact and reaching far larger and more diverse reading audiences than books. Science permeated the content of periodicals in nineteenth-century Britain, appearing not only in dedicated scientific journals, but also in other forms, including fictional representation, glancing asides in political reports, and caricatures and comical allusions. “From the perspective of the readers of periodicals,” write Gowan Dawson and Topham in “Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical” (2004), “science was omnipresent, appearing even in recipes and advice on domestic pets, as well as strongly didactic fiction that was a mainstay of early nineteenth-century children’s magazines.” (See esp. Topham’s “Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences for Science in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Youth’s Magazine, 1828-37″ [2004]) And as William H. Brock, in his chapter on “Science,” in J. Donn Vann and R.T. VanArsdel’s Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (1994), further notes, during the Victorian age “almost all initial scientific communication took place through…periodicals rather than books.”

The Intimate Relationship between Literature and Science

Furthermore, in nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, articles on scientific issues were set side by side with fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. “In the popular press,” writes Laura Otis in her Literature and Sciences in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009), science and literature “commingled and were accessible to all readers. Scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers we now identify as primarily ‘creative’ explored the implications of scientific theories.” Both literature and science, observes Gowan Dawson in “Literature and Science under the Microscope” (2006), are now “viewed as similarly constituted practices embedded in particular culturally and historically contingent formations, with neither privileged epistemologically as necessarily objective, rational or true, and earlier conceptions of scientific ‘influence’ have been replaced by an awareness that the interaction between literature and science is very much a reciprocal process—the intellectual ‘traffic’ is ‘two-way.'” By focusing on the complex embodied processes by which readers make sense of printed objects, new insights emerge into the manner in which meaning is both made and contested.  Scientific texts are, in any case, just as amenable to critical analysis as any work of imaginative literature, and their authority-mandated meanings equally likely to be resisted or subverted in the actual reading processes of different audiences. This new approach, according to Dawson, raises “important questions regarding the production of meaning and the transmission of knowledge that have resonated in a variety of different disciplines, and in the study of literature and science most especially.”Like the constructivist approach to the history of science, Topham explains, “the new history of reading has shifted attention from disembodied ideas to the underlying material culture and the localized practices by which it is apprehended.”

The History of Reading

According to Topham, a profound series of changes occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These changes came with epistemological and rhetorical shifts, but most importantly it came with the circumscribing of communities, “from the logic of discovery, theoretically open to all…to a far more restrictive notion of disciplined ‘expertise.'” This was “boundary work,” the active self-fashioning, self-promoting, and restricting of scientific expert from passive public. It was, in short, the predetermining of audience relations to the new sciences.

This predetermining was accomplished, in part, by the popularization of science in nineteenth-century print. It is of considerable significance, Topham observes, “that the same period which witnessed the creation of specialist scientific disciplines, typified by trained cadres of ‘experts’ and increasingly arcane and technical vocabularies, also saw the potential readership for printed accounts of those sciences increase exponentially.” In attempting to understand how nineteenth-century scientists, authors, and publishers managed the new print media, Topham refutes the traditional “diffusionist notion of ‘popularization’ in which scientific ideas are viewed as being communicated in a basically linear process from the (expert) context of discovery and validation to the (lay) context of passive public consumption.”

Perhaps the most profitable approach to understanding nineteenth-century print culture is the discipline of the history of reading, which is derived from literary criticism, cultural history, media studies, and book history. This approach, Topham argues, shows us that however readers encounter texts—books, journal, periodical, newspaper, tract, pamphlet, poster, or even computer screen—it makes a difference to the meaning they derive from them. “Readers approach books with different expectations and interests, levels of skill, and reading conventions, and these substantially alter the sense they make.” The assumption that scientific ideas and practices operate in an unmediated, uni-directional manner from scientist to lay public, as many recent work in the history of science and the history of reading have demonstrated, is, in the final analysis, completely untenable.

The reader is never a passive reader. This point is conveyed nicely in Robert Darnton’s notion of a “communication circuit” of print, found in his essays “What is the History of Books?” and “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” in The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1990) and, more recently, his “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited” in Modern Intellectual History (2007). According to Darnton, books generally pass through roughly the same life cycle:

from the author to the publisher (if the bookseller does not assume that role), the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader. The reader completes the circuit, because he influences the author both before and after the act of composition. Authors are readers themselves. By reading and associating with other readers and writers, they form notions of genre and style and a general sense of the literary enterprise, which affects their texts…A writer may respond in his writing to criticism of his previous work or anticipate reactions that his text will elicit. He addresses implicit readers and hear from explicit reviewers. So the circuit runs full cycle.

In the same vein, Roger Chartier, in his “Texts, Printings, Readings” (1989), calls for a triangular relationship between texts as conceived by author, as printed by the publisher, and as read (or heard) by the reader. Recognizing this “communication circuit” between author, publisher, and reader, therefore, reveals the multi-directional nature of nineteenth-century print culture. Topham’s aim in these articles and others is to discuss ways in which such an account could be developed regarding science in nineteenth-century Britain.

Production and Reception

The most obvious starting place in understanding audience-relations of scientific writing is its production and reception. James Secord argues that such an approach must begin “from the ground up, looking at the basic material products of cultural life,” obvious in the case of experimental instruments, natural history specimens, three-dimensional models, but also equally true of pamphlets, drawings, periodicals, journals, articles, notebooks, diagrams, paintings, and engravings (see Secord, “Knowledge in Transit” [2004]). Patterns of production are an important indicator of what was read and by whom. And here bibliographers, librarians, and collectors provide data on the output of books on different scientific subjects.

But as Topham points out, looking at book production alone is problematic. Books of much wider significance have been obscured by predispositions toward “great men” and their “great books.” Because of the difficulty in establishing the actual views of those outside the gentlemanly elite, focus has shifted toward bibliometrics. While bibliometric methods are most often found in library and information sciences, bibliometrics have wide application in other areas. Citation analysis of books, periodicals, libraries, institutions, and lectures can be used as determinants and indicators of popular science in nineteenth-century publishing. Trade lists from the London Catalog of Books, for example, provides a classified index to all contemporary books published in Great Britain published from 1816 to 1851. The copyright receipts of books in the Publishers’ Circular, which was a trade journal for the publishing industry first established in 1837, is the single largest printed source of information on books published in Britain in the nineteenth century. With over 70,000 pages of listings, publishers’ advertisements, statistics and editorial matter, it represents an immensely rich and detailed reference and repertoire of sources. These more inclusive sources help avoid what has been called “cultropomorphic distortion,” that is, the overt dependency on a few canonical works as representative of the whole. We must recover, Topham argues, this “vast body of forgotten works.”

Patterns of distribution were equally as important as patterns of production. High prices of books made libraries, reading rooms, book clubs—even pubs, parlors, and fashionable salons—central destinations of nineteenth-century print culture.

The Rise of Periodicals

Such “full publishing profiles,” as Topham calls them, is not only a largely unexplored area, but a dauntingly time-consuming and exhausting exercise. In recent years, however, historians have made a determined effort through the aid of technology, by the development of computerized bibliographical databases. This “electronic harvest,” as Secord termed it in an Essay Review (2005) of the same title, has given much more attention to periodicals than to books. And for good reasons. “Journals,” writes Topham, “played a particularly important role in defining reading audiences,” and even more important were non-specialist reviews, magazines, newspapers, which had much wider circulation than the more specialist periodicals. For example, Susan Elizabeth Darwin, Charles Darwin’s older sister, in the 1830s recommend her brother read the Penny Magazine to gain “a little smattering” of geology. Michael Faraday felt a personal indebtedness to Jane Marcet, author of Conversations on Chemistry (1805), as one of his inspirations to study in the scientific field. Marcet was determined to explain chemistry in a straightforward and clear way even though she herself was not a chemist. In a letter to Swiss physicist Auguste de la Rive, Faraday wrote:

Mrs Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a book-seller and book-binder at the age of 13, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped me, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry which gave me my foundation in that science.

What is more, in comparison with the 1,250 copies of the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that were printed and in circulation by the end of 1859, Darwinian ideas soon reached a vastly larger audience through the reviews and other commentaries carried by well over a hundred periodicals, several of which had print runs far in excess of 10,000. Newspapers and magazines, as Secord argues, often functioned as foils for readers’ own developing views: they might read them “not to agree with them, but to think with them.” Periodicals were also explicit forums of debate. Huxley, for instance, published much of his most important work in journalistic form, pictured himself and his adversaries as “dialectic gladiators, fighting in the arena of the Fortnightly [Review], under the eye of an editorial lanista, for the delectation of the public.” As Gawon and Topham put it, “such general periodical played a highly significant role, probably far greater than that of books, in shaping the public understanding of new scientific discoveries, theories, and practices.”

There is, then, the “need to recover the often faint traces of individual reading habits.” And thanks to such technological advances as the Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Victorian Society, Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906, Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals, Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (SciPer), Nineteenth Century Serials Edition (NCSE), Reading Experience Database (RED) and others, the staggeringly vast output of nineteenth-century periodicals is increasingly being put under bibliographical control. Indeed, “historians have never been in a better position to identify the actual patterns of reading historical actors, and it is only by reading the evidence of production and distribution…that an accurate picture can be obtained of who read what, and where.”

Reading Practices

This empirical approach to the history of reading is only a beginning. In addition to knowing the “what and where,” we also need to know “how and why readers read what they read.” Parsing authorial intentions and textual strategies of authors have traditionally been the main method of historians. In recent years scientific authors in particular have come under closer scrutiny. There is a “growing awareness that the thinking that scientists do, rather than being purely cerebral, is also a ‘practical activity, intimately bound up with other kinds of doing,'” leading into an interest in the sociological and rhetorical nature of scientific writing. In several places Steven Shapin alerts us to the rhetorical aims of scientific texts and writings about science (see esp. “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions” [1982]; “Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology” [1984]; “A Scholar and A Gentleman: The Problematic Identity of the Scientific Practitioner in Early Modern England” [1991]; The Scientific Revolution [1996]; “Science and the Modern World” [2007]; and “The Image of the Man of Science” [2008]), as does Jan Golinski (see “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory: Sociological Approaches in the History of Science” [1990] and Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science [1998]), Peter Dear (see esp. The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument [1991]), Geoffrey Cantor (see “The Rhetoric of Experiment,” in D. Gooding, T. Pinch, and S. Schaffer, The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences [1989]), and others (see also A.E. Benjamin, G.N. Cantor, and J.R.R. Christie, The Figural and the Literal: Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630-1800 [1987]).

Related to this is what Topham calls the “semiotics” of books as objects of sign and symbol. A book’s physical structure played quite a significant determinant of reading experience. A book’s physical appearance reveals not only its intended audience but its intended meaning, “publishers increasingly sought to exploit different physicals forms for different audiences, often, indeed, producing multiple editions of the same work to suit the pockets and tastes of different readers.” Attention must be given, moreover, to the complex and changing semantics of typography, material paper, format, and binding. Leslie Howsam, for example, argues in  “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: The International Series” (2000) that “the bland package of a printed and bound book” conceals a “complex history of networking and power-broking among authors and publishers,” seldom hinting at “decisions to include or omit material” negotiated between publisher and writer. A case in point is the International Scientific Series, “whose ‘familiar red covers’ were described as ‘a guarantee of sound material within.'” But the readily recognizable packaging, according to Howsam, evoked “the illusory but still compelling insurance of textual quality,” and thus exists as a “triumph of nineteenth-century publishers’ marketing that continues to resonate in antiquarian bookshops and rare-book collections today.” Such an “analytical bibliography” of books will thus “recover crucial aspects of historical reading experiences.”

A text’s own self-definition, however, is never enough to tell us a reader’s motivations and experiences in reading. “Readers approach books with different expectation and interest, levels of skill, and reading conventions, and these substantially alter the sense they make.” What a book means thus frequently becomes a matter of contest between parties engaged in a struggle for cultural authority. One must consider the agency of readers in subverting authorial intentions and textual strategies in producing meaning.

But the reader is never a wholly free agent. Indeed, readers are not only greatly affected by the formal and textual strategies of printed objects; they are also obviously constrained by the culture of the communities to which they belonged. These communities of readers are distinguished, furthermore, by differences in reading ability, in norms and conventions that defined legitimates uses, ways to read, instruments and methods of interpretation, and by differences in their expectations and interests. “The historians task,” says Topham, is to chart the “differences in educational provision, by analysing the different conceptions of reading conveyed by such guides to reading as conduct manuals, periodical reviews, and sermons, by examining the different representations of reading in works of art and literature and in more personal sources like letters and autobiographies, and by considering the different spaces in which reading took place.” If reading practices are indeed embodied, then questions about what scientists read, when, and with what effect are just as important as public reading practices.

An example of what this might look like is provided by Topham in “Scientific Readers: A View from the Industrial Age” (2004), in the case of Charles Darwin. Darwin’s reading notebooks—recording books he intended to read or had read—have been transcribed and annotated, as have his marginalia and early theoretical notebooks by a generation of dedicated scholars. Darwin’s reading was a key element of his scientific work. His reading of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is well known. Less known is how Darwin set about reading books, making notes, where he learned those practices, and how he shared these personal practices of reading with his scientific peers. The recent collection of essays edited by Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (2009), attempts to fill this gap by examining Darwin’s main scientific ideas and their development; his science in the context of its times; and the influence of Darwinian thought in recent philosophical, social and religious debate. Hodge’s essay in particular, “The Notebook Programmes and Projects of Darwin’s London Years,” provides a sketch of Darwin’s reading habits during his most productive years in London following the Beagle voyage. It was during his time in London where Darwin formulated almost “all the main theories later published in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s: his theory of the origin of species; his theory of generation or reproduction and heredity; his theory of the origin of the moral sense in man from ancestral animal social instincts; and his interpretation of the expression of the emotions in man and animals.” All this work is collected in a series of small leatherbound notebooks which Hodge carefully dissects.

Topham also insists, following Secord, that reading for Darwin was a bodily activity. For Darwin, “books were not for ostentatious display, but tools for use.” According to Secord, Darwin “split them in half, ripped pages out of pamphlets, and never had anything rebound”; he had “accumulated a personal library of several thousand books, but was very selective and bought only those likely to prove valuable to his own work in specific ways.” Topham also relates a memory recalled by Darwin’s son, Francis Darwin, regarding his father’s procedures of note-making and annotation:

He had one shelf on which were piled up the books he had not yet read, and another to which they were transferred after having been read, and before being catalogued. He would often groan over his unread books, because there were so many which he knew he should never read. Many a book was at once transferred to the other heap, either marked with a cipher at the end, to show that it contained no marked passages, or inscribed, perhaps, “not read,” or “only skimmed.” The books accumulated in the “read” heap until the shelves overflowed, and then, with much lamenting, a day was given up to the cataloguing.

Martin Rudwick has also highlighted the social and spatial situatedness of Darwin’s scientific work during the years he spent in London. In his “Charles Darwin in London: The Integration of Public and Private Science” (1982), Rudwick argues that Darwin’s involvement and participation in the collective enterprise of the Geological Society shaped both his public and private theorizing on transmutation, as well as his scientific practices, which included his note-making. Darwin’s work, in other words, was not a solitary affair; it was “molded by social practices such as  formal discussion in society meetings, private conversation and correspondence, and even practical cooperation in research.” Reading practices—especially scientific ones—are “craft skills,” learned by example and usually part of some pedagogical process.

Punch Magazine 1885 - Bristish Museum Reading RoomThe evidence for reading practices which has received most attention from historians have been, of course, periodical reviews. In the early nineteenth century, periodicals were seen as important sources of advice on reading, informing readers not only about what but also how they should read. What is more, popular and more general periodicals like Wesleyan Methodist Magazine reportedly sold 25,000 copies monthly in 1820—far more than either the Edinburgh or Quarterly reviews—and provided authoritative guidance both on what and how to read. Other scholars have pointed to other sources as well, including conduct manuals, sermons and lectures, as well as personal sources of advice such as conversations and letters, for guidance as reading practices. The main point here is that reading is embedded in oral culture and serves as social intercourse, as social function; and because it is social it has to be practiced in particular ways.

Patterns of Publishing

Readers were largely dependent on the commodity market of the book trade. Indeed, publishers acted as creative agents, responsible for selecting and developing certain forms of scientific publication. Mention has already been made of the rhetorical strategies of the International Scientific Series. Historians of science have traditionally focused on the profound technological advances made in nineteenth-century print, including mechanization of paper manufacturing, national transportation, mass-produced cloth case bindings, and so on. But Topham wants to avoid slipping from a “‘soft’ form of technological determinism to a ‘hard’ form which make changes in print culture…follow ‘inexorably’ from the development of paper-making machines, stereotype moulds, steam presses, or binding cloth.” According to Topham, the development of these technologies were the result of commercial imperatives in the book-trade. These imperatives, moreover, included not only the practices and motivations of publishers, but the concerns of both authors and readers as well.

In a series of books (Judging New Wealth:Popular Publishing and Responses to Commerce in England, 1750-1800 [1992]; The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, 2 Vols.[2000]; and more recently, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 [2007]), James Raven argues that dramatic changes in publication were chiefly due to fundamental changes in the commercial orientation of the book trade. The roots of these changes, he says, were the commodification of middle-class leisure. The middle-class demanded books, and the book trade in turn developed new genres to exploit the new emerging market, including the novel and the magazine, children’s books and “recreational” books of natural philosophy and natural history, anthologies, and new physical formats such as pocketbooks. “In the book trade of early nineteenth-century Britain,” writes Topham, “publishers were more than ever before innovative entrepreneurs, intent on creating and exploiting new markets with an increasing range of literary products.”


All this leads to questions about the dramatis personae of nineteenth-century scientific books. Who were the scientific writers? It is now well-known that many of those who wrote on science were not scientific practitioners themselves. The range of individuals are considerable, including “hack writers,” “compilers”of miscellanies, “fashionable” authors, “professional” journalists, and the band of reviewers in weeklies and monthlies of the general and religious press. Some scholars have gone to great lengths in identifying where such “authors lived or worked, their dedicatees, their occupations, and their educational institutions, together with indexes of printers and publishers and of the places of publication.” Indeed, Bernard Lightman has claimed that “professional scientists…account for only a small portion of the works of Victorian popularizes of science,” and “may have been more important than the Huxleys and Tyndalls in shaping the understanding of science in the minds of a reading public composed of children, teenagers, women, and nonscientific males.”

But distinguishing scientific practitioner who was also scientific author from nonscientific writer is no easy task. Otis in her Literature and Sciences in the Nineteenth Century, often mentions the close relationship between scientific practitioner and literary writer: “anyone who read the works of successful scientists could see immediately that most good scientists were also imaginative writers…to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.”

But more than mere credibility, the scientific practitioner who was also scientific author had significant financial incentives in composing popular works. Indeed, authorship had been an increasingly valuable source of income for scientific practitioners, beginning in the eighteenth century and onwards, as the market for books on natural subjects greatly expanded.

As an example, Topham looks at the literary labors of Scottish physicist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and writer, David Brewster (1781-1868). For Brewster, the financial incentives of science were endless. He supported himself by writing, editing, tutoring, inventing, serving on scientific societies, occasional prizes, and government pension. “Like many of his contemporaries,” writes Topham, Brewster “particularly benefited from the burgeoning range of early nineteenth-century periodicals, becoming a regular reviewer for the heavy quaterlies and an editor of several of the new scientific magazines.”

There was clearly a living to be made from such work in the early nineteenth century. But this revenue came at a cost. Scientific writers were forced to develop a multifaceted persona in which they were both original and authoritative, exhibiting both genius and expertise. For the “aspiring man of science, learning to write within this genre was the prerequisite of success as a scientific author.” More importantly, as Richard Yeo has argued in his essay, “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-nineteenth Century Britain” (1989), with popular works like Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, scientists were provoked in “writing self-conscious works of ‘popular science’ to enforce their claims to authority.” According Topham, it is only by situating scientific authors and their writings within the context of the ever-expanding print culture and the increased status and power of nineteenth-century authors that we can fully appreciate their role in the making of science.


If reading is to become a subject of serious and integrated historical scrutiny, it needs to combine the “external history of reading”—the who, what, where, and when of reading—with the “internal” history of how and why readers read. Alvar Ellegård’s Darwin and the General Reader (1958) relies on the publication of articles on evolution in the British periodical press, and thus is a good example of an entirely “external” reception study. Although Topham criticizes Ellegård as giving “no thought to how such articles were read or responded to by readers,” his chapter on “Science and Religion: A Mid-Victorian Conflict” provides important periodical sources that reveal conflict emerging from discussions of “Higher Criticism” rather than Darwinism; and his earlier work, “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain” (1957) provides a painstakingly researched directory of nineteenth-century newspapers, weekly reviews, quarterlies, monthlies, journals, and magazines.

To be sure, Ellegård’s attempt to codify public opinion on Darwinism by a statistical analysis of press reaction, classifying responses according to just a handful of possible positions,  obscures the vibrancy of debate on the topic. In the final analysis, an external history of reading can only be partial. Sources for an internal history of reading include the book as a semiotic system, its material form as a printed artifact; individual encounters with works recounted in dairies, marginalia, notes, correspondence, and autobiographies; and a history of education, including studies on how habits of reading were instilled in grammar schools and university students.

The idea that the historian might be able to gain a fuller understanding of the experience of nineteenth-century readers of books and periodicals by combining evidence from production, distribution, and consumption with evidence from relating to textual strategies of authorship, and to contemporary reading practices, has far-reaching consequences for the historian of science. Indeed, as Secord puts it, such a pursuit is “a study of cultural formation in action.”