skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Michael Hoskin, pre-eminent historian of astronomy, fellow of St Edmund's College, sometime Librarian and President of Churchill College, and former head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, has died in Cambridge at the age of 91.

He was born in London on 27 February 1930. After early education in classics, he graduated from London University in 1952 in mathematics. He then studied as a research student at Peterhouse, where he completed a PhD in algebraic geometry on infinitely-near varieties in 1956 and won a research fellowship at Jesus College, where he also started inquiries into medieval natural philosophy. A year later, without formal training in the field, he won a newly founded lectureship in history of science at the University of Leicester, and in 1959 moved to replace Rupert Hall in Cambridge, a post in history of science which Michael would later recall was awarded without interview. In that year he told the readers of Nature that 'history of science is expanding at university level so rapidly that lectureships are sometimes left vacant for want of suitably trained lecturers to fill them' and bemoaned the 'shortage of suitable books' for the subject at school level. He published significant studies on medieval sciences and on Galileo, composed a remarkable paper on Samuel Clarke's early commentaries on Newtonian natural philosophy, and produced many perceptive reviews, such as that of Bernard Lovell's 1958 Reith Lectures on cosmology, often contributing to organs of modern Catholic thought. A striking essay compared Church policy on birth control with the Galileo case: 'as an historian of scientific ideas', so he explained in the Dominican journal New Blackfriars, 'I am accustomed to situations where people ignore the most obvious questions simply because they are operating within a conceptual framework that directs attention only in certain ways'.

In 1959 he published his first of many studies on the figure with whom his reputation is most closely linked, the great cosmologist and astronomer William Herschel. His 1963 collection, William Herschel and the construction of the heavens, established novel and authoritative accounts of the dramatic transformation represented by Herschel's nebular and stellar programme in telescopic astronomy. The work set the pattern for further studies, which were often accompanied by invaluable reprints of original documents and images. Michael also distinguished himself as a major promoter of education, archival studies, and public engagement in his chosen field. In early 1962, in partnership with the Oxford scholar Alistair Crombie, he launched the new annual journal History of Science, which sought to avoid publishing research articles and instead set out to offer critical reviews of the state of scholarship in significant areas of the field: the inaugural issue contained such reviews as those by Pearce Williams on earlier nineteenth century sciences, by Tom Whiteside on Newtonian research, and by Donald Cardwell on eighteenth-century science and technology, alongside surveys by Crombie on teaching in history of science at Oxford and by Gerd Buchdahl on history & philosophy of science in Cambridge. The journal carried substantive essay reviews and listings of current PhD theses. The precocious Cambridge historian Roy Porter took over as executive editor of History of Science in 1972, from which time the journal began to appear as a quarterly and more regularly carried original research papers. Michael remained a noteworthy collaborator across the field. He recalled that his very first doctoral student, Tom Whiteside, assigned to Michael's supervision after a dinner at King's, was 'a genius who had strong, not to say immoveable opinions as to the direction his research should take': and that Whiteside decided against a career as a film critic solely because 'he decided this would reflect badly on his supervisor'. Michael actively supported Whiteside's edition of Newton's mathematical papers, raised funding from Trinity College, the Sloan Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust, and acted as assistant for the first six volumes of the work from 1967. Michael also directed a major history of science series for the London publishers Macdonald, including titles by Allen Debus on Paracelsian chemistry, A. I. Sabra on seventeenth-century optics, Gweneth Whitteridge on Harvey, R. S. Westfall on force in Newton's physics and Mary Jo Nye on Jean Perrin. In 1968 he commissioned a new collection of original and translated essays by Alexandre Koyré, a work that soon became a standard reference in teaching in history of scientific ideas.

In 1969, as part of his considerable work in broadcasting, Michael wrote, presented and performed in a TV series for schools, The Mind of the Scientist, each episode of which featured him in interview with eminent men of science: Galileo (memorably played by Michael Gough), Newton, Herschel, Darwin and Pasteur. The resulting publication has been widely translated worldwide. 'This book is like a brisk walk in the mountains', observed New Scientist. In the same year Michael was invited by Churchill College as Librarian to set up the college's new Archive Centre, and after Macdonald's financial troubles stemming from relations with the publisher Robert Maxwell, launched the new Journal for the History of Astronomy, which he continued to edit for forty-three years. 'There dwells in England', he wrote in an early number of the Journal, 'an evil demon who goads professors of astronomy into writing histories of astronomy then deprives them of their critical faculties. Why do busy professors of astronomy attempt tasks for which they have neither the time nor the training?' The Journal was designed to exorcise the demon. One of its many welcome features were regular detailed listings of major astronomical archives, including catalogues of significant Irish holdings such as those at Birr, Markree and Armagh. Michael insisted that 'in astronomy authors are allowed and expected to present a sanitized account of their researches' and that 'it is a task of the history of astronomy to humanize such artificial and inhuman presentations': he reckoned conservation and study of archives were indispensable for this task. Such principles were conveyed to his range of doctoral students: after Whiteside, these also included, among others, Christine Jones on Tycho (1964), Alex Keller on Renaissance mechanical inventions (1967), George Molland on Bradwardine (1967), Trevor McLaughlin on Rohault (1972), Jim Bennett on Wren (1974), Robert Smith on astronomy's Great Debate (1979) and Simon Schaffer on Newton (1980). A fine example of Michael's skill in the interpretation of manuscripts and print were his studies of the remarkable eighteenth-century cosmologist and landscape designer Thomas Wright, whose work on stellar structures and the Milky Way Michael decisively reinterpreted. In 1971 Michael established Science History Publications to manage both History of Science and Journal of the History of Astronomy: 'the rent for a kitchen table', he later explained, 'is lower than for a West End office'. Under his editorship, the Journal also published a range of studies in ancient and prehistoric astronomy, notably work by the engineer Alexander Thom on British Neolithic astronomy, some of whose essays were ghost-written by Michael. Eventually the Journal issued a supplement, Archaeoastronomy, to carry this material.

Between 1975 and 1986, in succession to Gerd Buchdahl, Michael was head of the History & Philosophy of Science Department in Cambridge. He oversaw the overhaul of the Department's buildings on Free School Lane and the rapid expansion of student numbers both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels during the subsequent decade. Major initiatives in publication in the history of astronomy continued, including Michael's oversight of the extremely ambitious General History of Astronomy from Cambridge University Press as well as a rich collection of his original studies in the field, Stellar Astronomy: Historical Studies, published in 1982, including accounts of Newton's stellar cosmology, Herschel's enterprises, and the developments of new galactic astronomy in the epoch of Hubble. After his retirement in 1988, later work included his impressive and highly influential studies on archaeoastronomy across southern Europe including Andalucia, Malta and the Balearics, and involving analyses on site of more than two thousand megalithic orientations, the results of which were gathered in 2001 as part of what he called 'a new perspective on Mediterranean prehistory'. His work established megaliths' orientations towards sunrise throughout Iberia and most of France, and towards sunset along the coast of Provence. Michael was presented with the Medalla de Oro de Bellas Artes in person by the King of Spain in recognition of the work. The Solar Research Centre at the Antequera Dolmens Archaeological Complex in Andalucia, to which he donated more than five thousand photographs, is named in Michael's honour, while the Mirador Michael Hoskin is embellished with his bronze bust. Thanks to these researches, the complex is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A lengthy further series of publications, including the collective biography Discoverers of the Universe issued from Princeton, on the careers and enterprises both of William Herschel, and of his sister Caroline Herschel, whom he described as 'astronomy's matriarch', relied on Michael's unrivalled knowledge of their original letters, diaries and notebooks. One of his very last publications was a letter rectifying the mistaken identification by the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of his Society's emblem as the Leviathan of Parsonstown – 'it is of course', Michael corrected, 'the 40-foot reflector completed in 1789 by William Herschel'. In 2001 Michael was honoured by the International Astronomical Union with the designation of an asteroid as Minor Planet Hoskin. His was a remarkable, lengthy and extraordinarily energetic career, marked by consistently lucid, able and exemplary scholarship and engaging teaching and personal encouragement: his sad loss will be deeply felt by all his many colleagues, his students and his devoted family.

Simon Schaffer