The history of “scientist”

Today is a red-letter day for readers of The Renaissance Mathematicus; I have succeeded in cajoling, seducing, bullying, bribing, inducing, tempting, luring, sweet-talking, coaxing, coercing, enticing, beguiling[1] Harvard University’s very own Dr Melinda Baldwin into writing a guest post on the history of the term scientist, in particular its very rocky path to acceptance by the scientific community. First coined by William Whewell at the third annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1833 in response to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s strongly expressed objection to men of science using the term philosopher to describe themselves, the term experienced a very turbulent existence before its final grudging acceptance almost one hundred years later. In her excellent post Melinda outlines that turbulent path to acceptance, read and enjoy.


J.T. Carrington, editor of the popular science magazine Science-Gossip, achieved a remarkable feat in December of 1894: he found a subject on which the Duke of Argyll (a combative anti-Darwinian) and Thomas Huxley (a.k.a. “Darwin’s bulldog”) held the same opinion.

Carrington had noticed the spread of a particular term related to scientific research. He himself felt the word was “not satisfactory,” and he wrote to eight prominent writers and men of science to ask if they considered it legitimate. Seven responded. Huxley and Argyll joined a five-to-two majority when they denounced the term. “I regard it with great dislike,” proclaimed Argyll. Huxley, exhibiting his usual gift for witty dismissals, said that the word in question “must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.’”

The word? “Scientist.”

Duke of Argyll

Duke of Argyll

Thomas Huxley

Thomas Huxley

Today “scientist” is not only an accepted title—it is a coveted one. To be a “scientist” is to be someone with an acknowledged right to make knowledge claims about the natural world. However, as the 1894 debate suggests, the term has a fraught history among English-speaking scientific practitioners. In retrospect, Huxley and Argyll’s rejection of “scientist” might seem merely quaint, even petty. But the history of the word “scientist” is not just a linguistic curiosity. Debates over its acceptance or rejection were, in the end, not about the word itself: they were about what science was, and what place its practitioners held in their society.

William Whewell

William Whewell

The English academic William Whewell first put the word “scientist” into print in 1834 in a review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Whewell’s review argued that science was becoming fragmented, that chemists and mathematicians and physicists had less and less to do with one another. “A curious illustration of this result,” he wrote, “may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” He then proposed “scientist,” an analogue to “artist,” as the term that could provide linguistic unity to those studying the various branches of the sciences.

Most nineteenth-century scientific researchers in Great Britain, however, preferred another term: “man of science.” The analogue for this term was not “artist,” but “man of letters”—a figure who attracted great intellectual respect in nineteenth-century Britain. “Man of science,” of course, also had the benefit of being gendered, clearly conveying that science was a respectable intellectual endeavor pursued only by the more serious and intelligent sex.

“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains.

“Scientist” became so popular in America, in fact, that many British observers began to assume that it had originated there. When Alfred Russel Wallace responded to Carrington’s 1894 survey he described “scientist” as a “very useful American term.” For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.


Nature Masthead

Nature Masthead

Feelings against “scientist” in Britain endured well into the twentieth century. In 1924, “scientist” once again became the topic of discussion in a periodical, this time in the influential specialist weekly Nature. In November, the physicist Norman Campbell sent a Letter to the Editor of Nature asking him to reconsider the journal’s policy of avoiding “scientist.” He admitted that the word had once been problematic; it had been coined at a time “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Campbell argued, however, that such questions of “style” were no longer a concern—the scientist had now secured social respect. Furthermore, said Campbell, the alternatives were old-fashioned; indeed, “man of science” was outright offensive to the increasing number of women in science.

In response, Nature’s editor, Sir Richard Gregory, decided to follow in Carrington’s footsteps. He solicited opinions from linguists and scientific researchers about whether Nature should use “scientist.” The word received more support in 1924 than it had thirty years earlier. Many researchers wrote in to say that “scientist” was a normal and useful word that was now ensconced in the English lexicon, and that Nature should use it.

However, many researchers still rejected “scientist.” Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a zoologist, argued that “scientist” was a tainted term used “by people who have no great respect either for science or the ‘scientist.’” The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists,” he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired—perhaps unjustly—the significance of a charlatan’s device.”

In the end, Gregory decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist,” but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word. Gregory argued that “scientist” was “too comprehensive in its meaning … The fact is that, in these days of specialized scientific investigation, no one presumes to be ‘a cultivator of science in general.’” And Nature was far from alone in its stance: as Gregory observed, the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution, and the Cambridge University Press all rejected “scientist” as of 1924. It was not until after the Second World War that Campbell would truly get his wish for “scientist” to become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.

Tracing the acceptance or rejection of “scientist” among researchers not only gives us a history of a word—it also provides insight into the self-image of scientific researchers in the English-speaking world in a time when the social and cultural status of “science” was undergoing tremendous changes. Interestingly, the history of “scientist” shows that the word’s adoption cannot be straightforwardly associated with the professionalization of the sciences. “Scientist” was used in America to separate scientific researchers from “professionals.” In Britain, many researchers viewed “scientist” as a term that threatened their social and intellectual identity, a term that would open science up to any “Barney Bunkum” rather than confirm it as a selective, expert endeavor. Perhaps those who denounced the word might have been reassured by a glimpse into the future of the “scientist”—or perhaps they would still think that “scientists” might be better off as zoologists, chemists, and physicists.

Further reading on the word “scientist”:

Melinda Baldwin, Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2015).

Paul Lucier, “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America,” Isis 100 (2009): 699-732.

Sydney Ross, “Scientist: The Story of a Word,” Annals of Science 18 (1962): 65-85.

Laura J. Snyder, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World (New York: Broadway Books, 2012).

[1] Actually I just asked her and she said, yes.


Filed under History of science

67 responses to “The history of “scientist”

  1. Will Thomas

    Lindy, thanks for the handy summary. I would only note that it might give the impression that the embrace of the term “scientist” in America was comparatively quick and non-controversial. Paul Lucier’s article, which you cite, offers a more detailed overview, but, for those looking for a quick synopsis of his argument, here’s a link to my post on his article.

    • Good point, Will! Thanks for the link to a more comprehensive overview of the American case. America got the short shrift in this post a bit because I’m much more familiar with the spread (or non-spread) of “scientist” in Britain.

  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Will’s post above answers my question as to the source for the discussion of the American case – that was really interesting and not something I’d properly realised before. Thanks.

    I also love the word as “a charlatan’s device” – chimes in well with my post complaining about the use of the word (and “science”) today

  3. Thanks for a really interesting piece, I feel less slovenly already!

  4. Thank you for such an insightful piece. I loved this! I had never researched the history of the term before.

  5. I am terribly embarrassed that I forgot who Mary Somerville was.
    I was impressed by the physicist, who in the early 20th century, noted that “man of science” is gender-exclusionary and opposed it on those grounds.
    A lovely article!

  6. Pingback: Open thread | Climate Etc.

  7. Very interesting article. I think that there is still confusion about the term today, especially amongst non-scientists – many journalists, judging from what they write, do not appear to consider biologists as scientists, especially common when talking about ecologists, entomologists and their ilk.

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  11. Animesh Chatterjee

    Reblogged this on Idols of the Theatre and commented:
    A wonderful history of the word ‘scientist’.

  12. Pingback: ‘Scientist’: the evolving story of a word | Climate Etc.

  13. David Hall

    If you want to see a comparison of the use of “science” & “scientist” in the New York Times click here: #nytchronicle . The sharp drop in use of both words since 2010 is a bit of a worry!

    • I wonder if “science” and “scientist” have become hot-button terms in light of their recent politicization in the US media, especially with respect to climate change, creationism and the ‘conservative’ agenda. It would be interesting to see a comparison of use-frequency in other regions or worldwide.

      In an age of specialization, “scientist” does not do a good job describing any particular individual. If it has become a target term for those who do not really understand what scientists do, it may be easiest to simply avoid.

    • Before worrying about the drop since 2010, I’d want an explanation of the sharp rise from 1994 to 2012 (both words more than tripling in frequency). The drop appears to be more of a return to the previous levels.

  14. segmation

    What a great blog. I never heard of renaissance mathematics! Thanks for making me more aware!

  15. Kingdevallah

    Reblogged this on therealkingdev and commented:

  16. Beautiful words. Enjoyed the read.

  17. Well done and more grease to your elbow!

  18. Reblogged this on andrewdonkor601's Blog and commented:
    Scientist Who Made Science Big

  19. afiwiyono

    Reblogged this on Chosen.

  20. T

    Reblogged this on Et Tu Césaire? and commented:
    ‘Man of Letters’ vs. ‘Barney Bunkum’

    This post reminded me of how there is no longer any language requirement for science undergraduates at my school. Assuming that knowledge is at the foundation of language, this suggests that scientists may no longer know what they are saying, or to whom they are speaking. This is particularly true among students of the biological sciences, where there is no rigorous training in math or physics to supplement this deficiency.

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  25. ‏ ‏‎ ياصاحبي لا تقول لي انساه لأن هالشي صار مستحيل أنت تعرف كيف أنا أهواه وكلام الحب فيه والله قليل ياصاحبي مستحيل اني أنساه مـستحيـل ياصاحبي ماتدري ليه نسيانه مـستحيـل .. أنا اللي علمته الحب وخليته متولع فيني .. .. أنا اللي زرعت لهفته لما يشوف عيني .. أنا الحب الوحيـد اللي يشوفـه أنا الحب الأكيـد اللي يذوقـه أنا من علمه كيف يشتاق و كيف يصير من العشاق صار كل شي في حياته أنــا مايعشق في الدنيا غيري أنــا .. كل اللي قلته يعتبر شي قليل .. .. بالعربي كذا نسيانه مستحيل .. ياصاحبي مستحيل اني أنساه مـستحيـل وأظن دريت الحين ليه نسيان

  26. w8screens

    Guten Start in die neue Woche wünsch ich 😉

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  28. Reblogged this on CuriosoRealista and commented:
    Saiba como surgiu o termo “cientista” e algumas questões históricas interessantes sobre o assunto. Excelente leitura.

  29. tmcal77

    My impression is that the atomic bomb gave scientists a huge status boost in the public eye. Did the popularity of the word “scientist” increase at the same time, or had the word already attained complete acceptance by that point?

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  33. girlslikescience

    Hey! I just read about this topic in The Philosophical Breakfast Club a couple of weeks ago. Fascinating period in the history of science, and Whewell was a well-connected and significant player. Thanks or the great post!

  34. Reblogged this on Ideas and thoughts and commented:
    Excellent exposition of world of science.

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  36. Search for the word “scientist” on GoogleBooks Ngram Viewer and see the use of this word in books from 1800s onwards.

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  50. Jacob

    Scientists was used in several spanish books prior to Whewells birth such as:

    Las Trezientas by Juan de Mena, Juan de Villanueva y Pedro de Robles, 1566

    Clamores inconsolables de el agua, y sangria, contra la mala administracion y vana esperanza de sus professores by Manuel Martin, Cosme Grancha, 1738

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