Aristocrats and paupers, farmers and tradesmen – Where do the scientists come from?

A few days ago on Twitter I stumbled across the following exchange, a certain Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) tweeted:

What does it say about modern science that most of the #scienceamoviequote tweets are about grants, publishing, tenure, and careers?

To which Claus Wilke (@ClausWilke) responded:

200 years ago no scientist worried about grants, tenure, careers.

All were wealthy lords with free time on their hands.

Or monks.

To which Gomijacogeo (@gomijacogeo) added:

Or had patrons…

Yours truly, as ever, eager to play Whac-A-Mole with any myth in the history of science, as soon as it pops its head above the parapet, it not being the first time that I’ve seen the same or similar expressed, reciprocated:

Sorry, but that is simple not true.

Referring to Claus Wilke’s comment rather than Gomijacogeo’s, which does have a certain amount of historical validity.

This brief exchange led me to think about the origins of the various figures from the history of science that I write about on a fairly regular basis and what follows is a totally informal survey of the backgrounds of those scholars. Mr Wilke’s remark only extends back to 1815 but my survey goes back to the fifteenth century on the principle that the further back one goes the more likely it is that a scholar needs to be independently wealthy or a monk.

Johannes Müller, aka Regiomontanus, was most probably the son of miller, miller by name miller by trade, who was obviously wealthy enough to send his son to university, where he became a lecturer on having completed his studies. Later he enjoyed the support of a series of patrons over a period of about fifteen years until his death. As is all too often the case, we no nothing about the background of Regiomontanus’ teacher Georg von Peuerbach before he became a lecturer at the University of Vienna. We do however know that he enjoyed the patronage of various kings and emperors in his role as an astrologer.

Moving into the sixteenth century we little about the backgrounds of the three Nürnberger mathematicians, Johannes Werner, Georg Hartmann and Johannes Schöner but all three were university graduates and all three held secure but relatively lowly and poorly paid jobs in the church, which however gave them the freedom to pursue their diverse mathematical activities. Georg Rheticus who knew all three of the Nürnberger came from a wealthy bourgeois background, although his father a town physician was executed for theft and fraud when he was a child. His mother was, however, independently wealthy and Achilles Grasser, another town physician, took over guiding his education until he became a university lecturer. Rheticus of course brought Copernicus’ magnum opus, De revolutionibus, to the world and it is to the good Nicolaus that we now turn. His father was a rich businessman, who also passed away whilst Copernicus was still a child. In his case his career was directed and supported by his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who was Prince Bishop of Ermland and thus a very powerful patron who also secured a church sinecure for his nephew, who thus needed never to work in his whole life, although he did take on important administrative posts in the Bishopric of Frauenburg.

Up until now with had quite a lot of wealthy and important patrons but not one wealthy lord, as a scholar in his own right. This changes with Tycho Brahe who was a genuine, bone fide, wealthy aristocrat, whose scientific career was footed on a very generous appanage from the Danish Crown, although as I have pointed out in an earlier post his appanage would almost certainly have been much larger had he decided to become a courtier instead of an astronomer.

The opposite end of the scale can be found in Tycho’s most famous assistant Johannes Kepler. His parents were poor, mostly working as innkeepers, although his father was a mercenary who regularly disappeared of to war and at some point never came back. Kepler, very obviously a gifted child, only got an education because of the very generous scholarship scheme that existed at the time in Baden-Württemberg to educate the large number of Protestant priest and school teachers needed following the conversion from Catholicism. Kepler then worked as a schoolteacher and district mathematician, a lowly paid job, in Austria before moving to Prague and becoming Tycho’s assistant and shortly afterwards his successor as Imperial Mathematicus. This was in theory a well-paid position but, as was all too often the case with royal and aristocratic patrons, actually getting paid was a major problem. Kepler would later enjoy the patronage of the Catholic General Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Waldstein, better known as Wallenstein, although I’m not sure that enjoy is the right word for their relationship.

With Kepler’s great rival in the heliocentricity stakes, Galileo Galilei, we have another aristocrat albeit a minor impoverished one, with an emphasis on impoverished. This is probably the reason that his father wanted him to study medicine, a profession that would guarantee a good income. Unfortunately he chose instead to become a mathematician a profession that was notoriously badly paid in the early seventeenth century. Galileo became a university professor for mathematics and despite subsidiary income from his thriving instrument workshop and providing boarding for students, a common practice amongst Renaissance professors, he was always infamously hard up. This was partially because he enjoyed la dolce vita and lived beyond his means and partially because of the financial demands of his brother and sisters for whom he took over responsibility after the death of his father. This is probably the main reason that Galileo used his scientific discoveries as capital to acquire the patronage of the Medici and became a courtier, leaving academia behind him.

Simon Marius, astronomical colleague, of both Kepler and Galileo, although his relations with both of them were fraught, was the son of a barrel maker and relied on the patronage of the local lord of the manor to obtain his education. The same lord then employed him as court astrologer thus ensuring that he could devote his live to his scientific activities.

Christoph Clavius, about whose background we know absolutely nothing, was like all the other Jesuit mathematicians and astronomers, who I’ve written about over the years, a monk. Although it should be remembered that the Jesuits were/are essentially a teaching order so the scientific Jesuits can almost be considered as proto-professional scientist (excusing here the anachronistic use of the term scientist and it further uses in this post).

Mathematician and physicist, Marin Mersenne, was a genuine monk who conducted his voluminous scientific correspondence from his humble monk’s cell. His colleague, contemporary and fellow Jesuit academy graduate, René Descartes was the son of a wealthy lawyer and politician, who after graduating from university as a lawyer became a mercenary. After he retired from soldiering he lived from his inherited wealth although he also had patrons at different stages of his life. Pierre Gassendi, a priest who lived and worked as a university professor, came from a similar bourgeois background. Holland’s most famous Cartesian, Christiaan Huygens was the son of a wealthy Dutch aristocrat, who however on his appointment to the French Académie des sciences became a, highly paid, professional scientist.

Crossing the channel to the British Isles we meet another aristocrat in the form of Robert Boyle, who was wealthy enough to live the life of an independent scholar. Boyle’s closest colleague and one time assistant, Robert Hooke, was the exact opposite. Born the son of an Anglican curate he was left almost penniless when his father died. Hooke had to strive for everything he got in life and his inherent feelings of social inferiority might go a long way to explaining his less than pleasant character. Hooke strove well, dying a wealthy man, money earned by his own honest labour. No patronage here.

Hooke’s nemesis Isaac Newton was the son of a yeoman farmer, albeit a wealthy one. Later in life when he inherited them, the Newton acres generated an annual income of six hundred pounds per annum, not bad compared to the one hundred pounds per annum paid to the Astronomer Royal, for example. Newton’s mother, however, put him through university as a sizar, a student who earns his tuition fees by working as a servant to other students. After graduating MA for which he had received a fellowship, Newton became Lucasian Professor and later, famously, warden of the mint thus earning his own living without patronage. Newton’s sidekick Edmond Halley was the son of a wealthy soapboiler, a not especially romantic profession but obviously a profitable one, as Halley inherited a substantial fortune after his father was murdered. Halley would go on to hold various positions including Savilian Professor and most notably Astronomer Royal.

At the moment I’m (supposed to be) preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists, so let us now turn our attention to them. Stephen Hales was the son of a Baronet, a purchasable title, who went on to become an Anglican clergyman. Although this survey does not include many of them, clergymen made considerable contributions to the sciences, as amateurs, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Joseph Black was the son of a wine trader who after a very successful studentship went on to become professor of medicine and chemistry and thus a professional scientist. Black’s student Daniel Rutherford was the son of a professor of medicine and went on himself to become a professor of botany. William Brownrigg the son of landed gentry became a medical practitioner. Henry Cavendish was a scion of one of the oldest and most powerful aristocratic families in Britain, who was thus, like Robert Boyle, able to lead the life of a gentleman scientist, making him the third scientist to fulfil the cliché expressed in the tweet that prompted this post. The most famous of the pneumatic chemists, Joseph Priestley, was the son of a cloth finisher, supported by wealthy relatives he studied to become a dissenting preacher and teacher both of which professions he practiced for many years before relatively late in life moving to Birmingham, where he effectively became house chemist to the Lunar Society. For a number of years he had been private tutor to the children of Lord Shelburne, who might thus be considered a patron.

The astronomer William Herschel was the son of a military musician who followed his father into the Hanoverian army as an oboist. After a military defeat he fled to Britain (as a deserter!) where he successfully established himself as an organist, composer, conductor and music teacher, astronomer was his hobby. Following the discovery of Uranus he was appointed The King’s Astronomer, enjoying the patronage of George III and able to devote himself full time to the study of the stars.

Closing out in the nineteenth century with three rather random scientists, all of who achieved notoriety and fame, Joseph Fraunhofer, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday all started life in poor families but went on, largely through their own efforts to become professional scientists who help shape modern science.

The above is, of course, all anecdotal and as is well known the plural of anecdote is not data. However I think that it demonstrates that at least since the fifteenth century, in Europe, men who went on to become important contributors to the evolution of science could and did come from a wide variety of backgrounds and managed to conduct their investigation through an equally wide variety of channels. They were by no means all “wealthy lords with time on their hands or monks”.

On the subject of patronage, which helped many of those I have sketched to follow their chosen paths in the sciences. I personally don’t see a great deal of difference between a wealthy ruler in the Renaissance supporting the work of an outstanding researcher and some modern international business conglomeration paying for a new research facility at some modern elite university. Both are institutions with substantial resources, which see the utility of supporting scientific research for whatever reasons they might have.

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

9 responses to “Aristocrats and paupers, farmers and tradesmen – Where do the scientists come from?

  1. What a great post!

    If memory serves, no love was lost between Newton and his mother. Or is that pure speculation?

  2. Speaking of the financing of science before modern times: the list of clergymen who made significant contributions to natural history and mathematics is quite long—William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, and Thomas Bayes come immediately to mind—and all these men had the time and opportunity to pursue their investigations because of the tithes of parishioners. Of course churches have long played an important part in the economics of science and its earlier analogues, at least since the formation of the Universities in the West. It isn’t just that religion provided a motivation for studying Nature as the handiwork of the creator. In many cases, institutional religion paid the salaries. Which is not surprising when you think about it since science is as much an aspirational activity as theology. Like the building of pyramids, the worship of God, or the Buddhist pursuit of Enlightenment, science expends an economic surplus in the pursuit of ideal goals. Somebody has to pay for the extravagance whether the surplus is extracted from the working population by the church or the state.

    • araybold

      I have wondered whether there was, at least sometimes, an informal arrangement to find positions in the church (and, later, the civil service) for talented scholars lacking independent means. I am imagining something similar to the ways that enlightened scientists found for talented women to pursue studies that they were formally barred from, in the 19th. and early 20th. centuries.

      • This was certainly the case in the Renaissance. The three Nürnberger mathematicians I list in the third paragraph of the main text were all give their post in the church on such a basis.

  3. Phillip Helbig

    Financial problems of scientists:

    Physicist: I’m looking for a job.
    Boss of taxi company: What are your qualifications?
    Physicist: Master’s degree in physics.
    Boss of taxi company: Sorry, all my drivers have at least a doctorate.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #08 | Whewell's Ghost

  5. Attila Smith

    Johann Lambert of cartographic fame, who also proved the irrationality of pi, and even of pi^2 , and has many other titles to fame.

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