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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Joshua Nall, August 2022

On 1 August 1972, the University of Cambridge welcomed a new department: History and Philosophy of Science. In truth, this administrative manoeuvre—approved by an unopposed grace to the Regent House on 15 April—was less a founding and more a formal restructuring.1 History of science had been taught in the University since the 1930s; philosophy of science, in one guise or another, even longer. Yet these activities had always been conducted under a series of rather tenuous administrative arrangements. It was fifty years ago, this year, that the future of HPS was finally secured in Cambridge with the establishment of an independent department.

The pre-history of Cambridge HPS begins much earlier, in 1936. That year saw the establishment of two programmes that would have a lasting impact on the teaching of the subject in the University. The first was an exhibition of 'Early science in Cambridge' organised by the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Hosted in the University's Old Schools, the display included instruments, models, manuscripts, and images gathered up from Cambridge's many colleges, laboratories, and museums, as well as individual collectors. Conceived as a show of objects with "a definite national value as milestones in the history of English Science", the exhibition was also a sales pitch of sorts, intended to promote the emerging historical consciousness of the Cambridge sciences.2 In this sense it was a natural complement to the year's other major event: the inauguration of a series of lectures in the history of science, organised by the scientists Joseph Needham and Walter Pagel and administered by an intra-faculty committee under the auspices of the Boards of Biology and Physics and Chemistry. Attended by an "overwhelmingly large" audience drawn from "undergraduates of every year and every faculty", as well as researchers and graduate students, the first course of lectures surveyed the modern sciences, with all but one delivered by eminent men of science.3

Both projects were explicit about their expansionist ambitions. Ernest Rutherford, in a speech at the opening of 'Early science in Cambridge', pressed the need "to find a permanent suitable home" for the University's "wealth of important historical apparatus".4 Likewise, Needham and Pagel made clear their desire, "in the long run", for "really well-organized facilities for the study of history of science and technology in Cambridge", to include, at least, "a chair in the subject and a small department". Yet such recognition, they conceded, "doubtless ... will have to wait for the endowment of some wealthy benefactor".5

Just such a patron would emerge eight years later. Robert Stewart Whipple, a Cambridge industrialist with connections among the Philosophical Society, offered, in 1944, to present to the University his collection of historic scientific instruments and books, together with an endowment fund, on the condition that it be used to found a museum "designed and maintained as a teaching instrument and an accessory to modern research". Whipple's canny manoeuvre pushed the University to act on both fronts at once: in taking his collection, they formally committed to finding a home for both it and the University's own scientific relics. Simultaneously, new materials and infrastructure could only push at "the wider and fundamental question of the future position of the History of Science as a subject of study and research in the University".6

In characteristic Cambridge fashion, the resolution of these interlinked challenges would begin only very slowly. Care for the Whipple collection was an immediate problem, and one that could hardly fall to Needham and Pagel's pre-war committee, which was not formally constituted within the University. So in February 1946 the General Board replaced it with a new 'History of Science Committee', chaired by the historian Herbert Butterfield and given broad control of teaching and collections. Following Pagel and Needham's departure from Cambridge during the war, Butterfield had secured effective control of the subject, and in the post-war years he moved decisively to ensure that his newly empowered committee was dominated by representatives from the humanities rather than the sciences.7 So it was a protégé of Butterfield, A. Rupert Hall, who secured the first (part time) curatorship of the Whipple Museum in 1948, stewarding the collection through some rocky years in temporary housing before a first (rather desultory) home was found for it on Corn Exchange Street in 1951.8 Needham, meanwhile, had returned to Cambridge in 1948 to find himself side-lined from the committee that he had founded. As a scientist, a Marxist, and a scholar of non-Western science, he would be systematically excluded from Cambridge's history of science courses for the next three decades.9

Photos of some of the people mentioned in this article

Gerd Buchdahl, Mary Hesse, Roger French and Michael Redhead

An important step in the expansion of HPS teaching was the introduction in 1951 of history and philosophy of science into the Part I Natural Sciences tripos as a 'half subject'—a somewhat controversial move at the time. With it came a recognition of a need for lectures in the philosophy of science to accompany the historical series. The subject had long found a niche in the University's Philosophy Faculty, and it would be one of their members, Richard Braithwaite, who initially picked up the new course, until the appointment of Norwood Russell Hanson to a dedicated lectureship in philosophy of science in 1953. Hall, meanwhile, had been appointed assistant lecturer in 1950 to tackle the history of Western science, 1400–1800. (History of science after 1800 was, according to one reminiscence, "not to be trusted to historians" and so—contrary to Butterfield's agenda—it was taught by a rotating cast of scientists.)10 Hanson recollects taking students to science classes and then lecturing with Hall on their HPS implications; by 1955, his Philosophy of Science Club had 250 members across Cambridge.11 In 1957, Hanson left and was replaced by Gerd Buchdahl, and two years later Hall was similarly replaced by Michael Hoskin. 1960 saw the Committee's first increase in staffing with the arrival of another philosopher of science, Mary Hesse. So without a Chair, or buildings, but with staff (technically appointed to appropriate faculties such as Philosophy and History), the History of Science Committee could slowly expand its teaching offer, eventually adding courses in Natural Sciences Part II and, in 1971, a graduate Diploma (replaced in 1977 by the present MPhil).12

HPS as a community—if not yet a department—would coalesce around the Whipple Museum. In 1959, the departure of Chemistry to a new home on Lensfield Road left the magnificent Perse Hall vacant on Free School Lane. Hall, shortly before his departure, arranged for the transfer of the Whipple collections to this beautiful new home, where it was subsequently cared for by several curators on very limited contracts. After some agitation from the Whipple family, the University finally appointed a museum professional, David Bryden, as a full-time curator in 1969.13 The Museum's grand space housed antiquarian books as well as instruments, and seminars could be held around its central reading desk. Office space in the attached Victorian frontage also finally provided the Committee's lecturers with a shared workspace and, eventually, a separate library stocked with teaching texts. No fewer than three influential journals were founded from this new home: History of Science (f. 1962); Journal for the History of Astronomy (f. 1970); and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (f. 1970).14

Photo of the Whipple Museum in the former Perse Hall

The Whipple Museum's Main Gallery in around 1970

The intellectual agenda of post-war HPS had diverged markedly from Needham and Pagel's pre-war interest in the social and economic relations of science. Butterfield and his successors on the Committee had pursued a rigorously 'internalist' approach that prioritised scientific thought over practice, with the philosophers likewise focussing on the rigorous analysis of concepts in the physical sciences. Like so much else, this approach would be challenged in the 1960s, a period that saw an opening up of the course—first to include the history of the biological sciences with Bob Young's temporary engagement as an assistant lecturer in 1964, and then the history of the earth sciences with Martin Rudwick's appointment to a permanent post in 1967. Both Hesse and Buchdahl, meanwhile, pursued a vision of HPS as a single integrated discipline, greatly broadening the scope of what counted as philosophy of science. But political divisions amongst the small but growing faculty appear to have made this a turbulent decade. Young's failure to secure a permanent post, combined with differing agendas regarding how to organise and teach HPS within a flimsy committee structure, resulted in two failed attempts to secure departmental recognition.15 But the arrival of significant financial support from the Wellcome Trust in 1971 to establish a Unit for the History of Medicine gave renewed weight to HPS's claim for independent status. Crucial too was the University's capitulation on a significant point of administrative order: University policy decreed that new departments must join an existing Faculty; but the incorporation of HPS into any one such subject area constituted a major point of disagreements among the dispersed lecturers, each of whom had a very particular sense of where their specialism sat in relation to the wider University and discipline. In the spring of 1972, the General Board finally conceded this point, agreeing to establish the Department of History and Philosophy of Science under the supervision of a Syndicate, incorporating the Whipple Museum and with the Wellcome Unit as a sub-department.16 Buchdahl, the principal architect of this successful push for an independent department, was appointed as its first Head, replaced two years later by Hoskin.17

Modest expansion of the faculty accompanied these administrative changes. Peter Harman had been hired as an assistant lecturer in 1970, to be replaced in 1974 by Nick Jardine. Bob Young had briefly served as head of the new Wellcome Unit, and, upon his departure in the same year, Roger French joined to replace Young as its director.18 On 5 October 1972, Hoskin delivered the Department's first Part II lecture; in late May of the following year it administered its first Tripos examinations; and on 29 June 1973, the Department's first undergraduate cohort received their degrees.19 Four decades after Cambridge's eminent scientist-historians had first called for a permanent home for HPS, the University had finally delivered: a museum, a library, an independent faculty, and a building on Free School Lane to house it all.20


1 'Report of the General Board on the establishment of a Department of History and Philosophy of Science', Cambridge University Reporter, 1 March 1972, pp. 606–11. For the grace, see p. 668 (15 March) and p. 704 (19 April) in the same volume.

2 Boris Jardine, 'The museum in the lab: Historical practice in the experimental sciences at Cambridge, 1874–1936', BJHS Themes 4 (2019): 245–71, pp. 251–58; Anna-K. Mayer, 'Setting up a discipline: Conflicting agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936–1950', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 31 (2000): 665–89, quote on p. 671.

3 Lecturers included Ernest Rutherford, William Bragg, Arthur Eddington, John Ryle, and J. B. S. Haldane. The one non-scientist was Francis Cornford, Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy. The lecture series was subsequently published as: Joseph Needham and Walter Pagel (eds.), Background to modern science: Ten lectures at Cambridge arranged by the History of Science Committee, 1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938). For the attendance quotes, see the introduction, p. x.

4 Quoted in: James A. Bennett, 'Museums and the establishment of the history of science at Oxford and Cambridge', British Journal for the History of Science 30 (1997): 29–46, p. 34.

5 Needham and Pagel (eds.), Background to modern science, op. cit. (n.3), p. xi.

6 Both quotes come from [F. H. C. Butler, et al], 'Memorandum proposing creation of Museum and Department, 9 Feb. 1944' reproduced in: 'Documents from the founding and early history of the Whipple Museum', in: Liba Taub and Frances Willmoth (eds.), The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Instruments and interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 11–55, pp. 12–17.

7 Mayer, 'Setting up a discipline', op. cit. (n.2).

8 Bennett, 'Museums and the establishment of the history of science', op. cit. (n.4), pp. 42–44; Rupert Hall, 'The first decade of the Whipple Museum', in: Taub and Willmoth (eds.), The Whipple Museum, op. cit. (n.6): 57–68. For much of the 1950s Hall was greatly assisted by one of his graduate students, Derek J. de Solla Price—see Seb Falk, 'The scholar as craftsman: Derek de Solla Price and the reconstruction of a medieval instrument', Notes and Records of the Royal Society 68 (2014): 111–34, pp. 112–17.

9 Anna-K. Mayer, 'Setting up a discipline, II: British history of science and "the end of ideology", 1931–1948', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 35 (2004): 41–72, pp. 55–64; Falk, 'The scholar as craftsman', op. cit. (n.8), p. 113. Bob Young has suggested that senior figures within the University worked to exclude Needham and deny him "just recognition of his achievement in the history of science in the form of a Chair"—see Robert Young, 'The historiographical and ideological contexts of the nineteenth-century debate on man's place in nature', in: Robert Young and Mikulas Teich (eds.), Changing perspectives in the history of science: Essays in honour of Joseph Needham (London: Heinemann, 1973): 344–438, pp. 355–56.

10 Michael Hoskin, 'History and philosophy of science in Cambridge', Cambridge: The Magazine of the Cambridge Society 26 (1990): 46–50, p. 48; Bennett, 'Museums and the establishment of the history of science', op. cit. (n.4), p. 43.

11 N. R. Hanson, 'The history and philosophy of science in an undergraduate physics course', Physics Bulletin 6 (1955): 116–28, pp. 127–28.

12 Hoskin, 'History and philosophy of science', op. cit. (n.10), pp. 47–48; A. Rupert Hall, 'Beginnings in Cambridge', Isis 75 (1984): 22–25, p. 24; Gerd Buchdahl, 'Twenty-five years of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge', The Cambridge Review 10 (1989): 167–71.

13 Bennett, 'Museums and the establishment of the history of science', op. cit. (n.4), pp. 42–44. Alex Keller recalls his time on a six-hour-a-week contract in: 'A collection to be preserved', in: Taub and Willmoth (eds.), The Whipple Museum, op. cit. (n.6): 69–76. Rosemary Fitzgerald succeeded Keller on similarly poor contractual terms.

14 Buchdahl, 'Twenty-five years', op. cit. (n.12), p. 170; Hoskin, 'History and philosophy of science', op. cit. (n.10), p. 50.

15 Mayer, 'Setting up a discipline, II', op. cit. (n.9), pp. 55–64; Robert Fox, 'Fashioning the discipline: History of science in the European intellectual tradition', Minerva 44 (2006): 410–32, p. 425; Buchdahl, 'Twenty-five years', op. cit. (n.12), pp. 169–71; James A. Secord, 'Revolutions in the head: Darwin, Malthus and Robert M. Young', in: Kurt Jacobsen and R. D. Hinshelwood (eds.), Psychoanalysis, science and power: Essays in honour of Robert Maxwell Young (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming 2023): 33–59, p. 37 and pp. 41–43. Young left Cambridge in 1974, shortly after he had given a withering assessment of Cambridge HPS in an autobiographical essay for Joseph Needham's festschrift (which he had coedited): 'historiographical and ideological contexts', op. cit. (n.9), pp. 352–61.

16 Hoskin, 'History and philosophy of science', op. cit. (n.10), pp. 49; 'Report of the General Board', op. cit. (n.1).

17 Cambridge University Reporter, 2 August 1972, p. 1214; Cambridge University Reporter, 5 June 1974, p. 1061.

18 Cambridge University Reporter, 24 July 1974, p. 1317.

19 Cambridge University Reporter, Special No. 1 (1972–73), p. 115.

20 The final piece of Needham and Pagel's wish list would only arrive in 1987, with the appointment of Michael Redhead to the first Chair of HPS.