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History of 20th-century physical and chemical sciences

Jeff Hughes

What follows is an incomplete summary of some of the resources I've found useful in my work on the history of the physical and chemical sciences in twentieth century Britain. It makes no claims to completeness, nor does it cover the biological, medical etc. sciences. It will, I hope, save you at least some time and effort by giving you the benefit of my research experience!

General histories

There are any number of general histories of the twentieth century. Obviously, they should be used with care. The only one I would single out is:

  • A.J.P. Taylor: English History 1914–1945.

General reference works

The usual problem in this kind of work is to identify a person or to generate lists of people working together at a particular place at a particular time. The emphasis here is therefore on biographical sources.

The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB) and the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) with their twentieth century supplements are the obvious starting places, but they only cover 'important' figures and the scientific 'establishment'. Much better general coverage of twentieth century scientists can be found in:

  • Chambers Biographical Encyclopaedia of Scientists, UL Reference Section R340.39
  • Who's Who and Who Was Who (many editions), UL R454.2
  • Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (ed. Turner), UL 450.33
  • Biographical Dictionary of American Science, UL 340.40
  • World Who's Who in Science, Whipple Reference Section

The UL has a reference section (Reading Room, right of doorway into West Room) devoted to listings of college alumni. Very handy! I've been surprised by some of the institutions represented here, so it's always worth a browse!

Another general reference work which might be useful is the guide to Nobel Prize Winners up to 1987 (UL R450.32). For details of who nominated who for Nobel Prizes, have a look at E. Crawford, J.L. Heilbron and R. Ullrich (eds.), The Nobel Population 1901–1937. A Census of the Nominations for the Prizes in Physics and Chemistry (Berkeley, 1987) – there is a copy in the Cavendish library (but see note, below).

Obituary Notices are obviously an invaluable source of information, not only for biographical details but because they usually contain complete lists of publications. For the twentieth century, the relevant sources are the Obituary Notices (later the Biographical Memoirs) of the Fellows of the Royal Society (UL P340.1.b.133, but also in the Whipple) and the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science (Washington) (CSL).

Women scientists tend to be neglected in some of the works listed above. More sympathetic coverage of 20th century women scientists can be found in:

  • Ogilvy: Women in Science (Whipple)
  • Hoyrup: Women of Science, Technology and Medicine (Whipple)
  • Abir-Am and Outram: Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives (Whipple E511)

For invaluable general guidance about research, writing, footnoting and an amazing collection of hints and tips, see J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (5th edition, 1985).

Reference works by subject

Most of the following can be found in the Reference section of the Whipple Library.

  • Brush and Belloni: The History of Modern Physics. An International Bibliography (Whipple)
  • Heilbron and Wheaton: Literature on the History of Physics in the 20th century (Whipple)
  • Heilbron and Wheaton: An Inventory of Published Letters to and from Physicists 1900–1950 (Whipple)
  • Forman et al: Physics ca. 1900 Hist. Stud. Phys. Sci. 5 (1975)
  • Kuhn et al: Sources for History of Quantum Physics (Whipple)
  • Russell: Recent Developments in the History of Chemistry (Whipple R139)
  • A Bio-Bibliography for the History of the Biochemical Sciences since 1800 (UL R340.41 and Whipple)
  • Smit: History of the Life Sciences. An Annotated Bibliography (Whipple)
  • Porter: The Earth Sciences. An Annotated Bibliography (Whipple)
  • Brush and Landsberg: The History of Geophysics and Meteorolgy (UL R345.5.15)

Getting into the primary literature

Aside from the obituary notices above, listings of a scientist's published output can be found in:

  • Catalogue of British Scientific and Technical Books (3 volumes covering the period up to 1957), UL R340.72/3
  • Scientific, Medical and Technical Books Published in the U.S.A. up to 1956, UL R340.75
  • Bibliotheca Chimico-Mathematica, UL R340.77

and especially:

  • Poggendorff Handworterbuch der Exacten Wissenschaften, UL R340.35

It takes a while to become accustomed to Poggendorff, which is in several editions categorised by period. In the end, though, it can save you hours of time!

The Office for the History of Science and Technology at Berkeley (maison Heilbron) has issued a series of booklets listing the non-technical writings of a number of 20th century scientists, including Rutherford, W.L. and W.H. Bragg, Heisenberg and Planck. These are also available in the Whipple's reference section.

Perhaps the most useful resource I have found in/about the primary literature is Science Abstracts (UL P352.c.59, also in CSL). This comes in two series: A (physical sciences) and B (engineering), and runs from the turn of the century up to the 1940s, when it was superseded by the more familiar Physics Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts etc. (all of which are in the CSL).

Getting into the secondary literature

The obvious starting point here is the Isis Bibliography (Whipple). Heilbron and Wheaton, Literature on the History of Physics in the 20th Century (Whipple) is an excellent source for the secondary literature on the physical (and chemical) sciences. I also recommend S.G. Brush, The History of Modern Science. A Guide to the Second Scientific Revolution (Whipple).

Journals and libraries

Almost everything you could possibly need, from Annalen der Chemie to Zeitschrift fur Physik, will be at the UL and/or the Central Science Library. Periodicals can be borrowed from the CSL, which is open until 10pm during full term.

If you want to photocopy an article, facilities are available at both the CSL and the UL, though you may find photocopying at the UL tedious, time-consuming and expensive. It is often easier to borrow the journal volume from the CSL and do the photocopying more cheaply yourself at the Whipple (PLEASE have consideration for others and don't hog the photocopier for hours on end: try and choose a quiet time to do your copying!).

The libraries of the Cavendish lab and the Chemistry department (Lensfield Road) are also useful, though you have to be careful to stay on the right side of the librarians. Books can be borrowed from the Cavendish, but they only reluctantly allow outside readers to do so. PLEASE respect borrowing limits, or such borrowing rights as we have may be withdrawn altogether!

Archives and manuscripts

Scientific archives in this country can be located with some effort using the following:

  • The Manuscript Papers of British Scientists 1600–1940 (Whipple) – the famous 'small yellow book'!
  • R.M. Macleod and J.R. Friday: Archives of British Men of Science. A Survey of Private and Institutional Holdings of British Scientific Archives. Available on fiche at the Librarian's office in the Whipple.
  • J. Foster and J. Sheppard: British Archives. A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom (2nd edition, Macmillan, 1990) (Whipple).

The most comprehensive – and most infuriating – resource is the National Register of Archives listing, which is available in the Manuscripts Room of the UL. Rather confusing at first, so ask the Superintendent, Godfrey Waller, for advice!

The UL also holds catalogues for manuscript collections held elsewhere in the country – again, ask for help. Many archives remote from Cambridge are willing to supply photocopies of manuscript material in their possession, and it is useful to be able to consult their catalogues in the UL.

A resource which is becoming increasingly useful is the Catalogue of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre (Box File 52 in the Whipple). The catalogues which they publish of they various manuscript collections they have sorted are all held in the UL (MSS room).

Cambridge itself is richly endowed with archives of twentieth century scientists, many of which have not yet been turned over by historians. In summary:

  • University Library – Papers of Rutherford, J.J. Thomson, F.G. Hopkins, J.D. Bernal, F.W. Aston; Cavendish Laboratory Archives, some Chemistry Department archives; University archives, including minutes of faculty board meetings.
  • Churchill College Archives Centre – Papers of James Chadwick, Cockroft, Lise Meitner, Dirac, E.T.S. Walton, C.T.R. Wilson.
  • Trinity College – Papers of G.P. Thomson, G.I. Taylor, G.H. Hardy.
  • St. John's College – Papers of Joseph Larmor.
  • Archives for the History of Quantum Physics – Many of the most important European and American manuscript sources of the 20th century are available on microfilm in the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics, a copy of which is held in the Science Museum, London. To gain access, take a letter from your supervisor and let them know in advance that you're coming. Amongst others, the AHQP has the papers of Bohr, Born, Lorentz, Pauli, Richardson and Zeeman. There is no up-to-date catalogue, but the 1969 partial catalogue Sources for History of Quantum Physics (available in the Whipple) still holds good. There is also a more recent handlist of the various reels of microfilm held at the Science Museum.