The vexed problem of nationality in the history of science

People seem to like/want/need heroes in sport, culture, politics, in fact in almost every area of life including the history of science. In particular for many people this desire for heroes is closely tied to feelings of national pride – a great Argentinian footballer, a great German composer, a great American boxer, a great English physicist and so on and so forth. This identification of people, whatever their field of activity, with their nationality is problematic for historians of science both geographically and historically

The earth did not come into existence about four and a half billion years ago with the borders of the national states stamped into its surface. In fact even within the one hundred to two hundred thousand years that Homo sapiens have occupied the earth the concept of a nation state is, in historical terms, a very recent one. Also within the time since nation states have existed their borders have not been static but have ebbed and flowed like the tide; states coming into and going out of existence down the centuries.

Brabant and Savoy, two important European states that existed in the High Middle Ages and Early Modern Period have long since disappeared into the mists of history. Looking at the modern map of Europe, The Netherlands only came into existence in the late sixteenth century, whilst its neighbour Belgium was created in 1815. Germany only really became a nation state following the fall of Hitler and the Nazis in 1945 and was for several decades two nation states, East and West, which only became finally united on 3 October 1990.

Duchy of Brabant 1477 Source Wikimedia Commons

Duchy of Brabant 1477
Source Wikimedia Commons

The early years of Wikipedia saw several epic battles over the nationality of scientific heroes, the most notorious being over Nicolaus Copernicus, which became so vitriolic that it was a news item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news magazine, The Today Programme. The Poles and Germans carrying on a dispute that dates back to the late eighteenth century; a dispute that is totally barmy, as he was actually neither Polish nor German, as I explained in an earlier post. The nationality of the Islamic mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who gave algebra and the algorithm their names, is also disputed between Persia and Uzbekistan. The astronomer Johannes Hevelius, a native of Danzig, or should that be Gdańsk, is like Copernicus claimed by both Germany and Poland. The Jesuit mathematician, astronomer and physicist Ruđer Josip Bošković (English: Roger Joseph Boscovich) is claimed by Croatia, Serbia and Italy, although it should be noted he became a naturalised French citizen and the end of his life. Anther astronomer with dual nationality is the Italian Giovanni Domenico Cassini who ended his life as the Frenchman Jean-Dominique Cassini. Although it is debateable whether it is correct to call Cassini an Italian, as Italy only became a united national state in 1861, about one hundred and fifty years after his death

The latest case of, potentially, disputed nationality that caught my eye and generated this post occurred in an article on the BBC News website, The Irish novel that seduced the USSR, the story of the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Voynich. Don’t Panic! The Renaissance Mathematicus has not metamorphosed overnight into a blog for literature criticism, you might understand when I say that Ethel Voynich was born Ethel Lilian Boole the youngest of the five daughters of the mathematician and logician George Boole and his wife the proto-feminist and educationalist Mary Everest-Boole. What provoked this post was that the article describes Ethel Voynich as an Irish writer.

Ethel Lilian Voynich née Boole

Ethel Lilian Voynich née Boole

Ethel Lilian Boole was born 11 May 1864 in the city of Cork in the Irish province of Munster, so she is Irish, right? Well, maybe not. My eldest sister was born in Rangoon in Burma, so she is Burmese, right? Actually she isn’t, she was born British and has remained British all of her life. Likewise, my brother was born in Lahore, so he’s Pakistani, right. Once again no, he was born British and remained British up to his death two years ago. Both of them were born in what was then British India of British parents, although my mother like my sister was born in Rangoon, and so both of them were automatically British citizens. My bother’s potential nationality is made even more complex by the fact that when he was born Lahore was in India but is now in Pakistan.

Let’s take a closer look at Ethel Lilian. At the time of her birth Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, a country ruled by a single government in Westminster, London. Her father, George Boole, was born in Lincoln and was thus English.

Georg Boole Source: Wikimedia Commons

Georg Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Her mother Mary Everest, the niece of Georg Everest for whom the mountain is named, was born in Wickwar in Gloucestershire and so was also English, although her family is Welsh. The family name, by the way, is pronounced Eve-rest and not Ever-est.

Mary Everest Boole Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Everest Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

To complicate matters, George Boole died 8 December 1864 just seven months after Ethel Lilian’s birth and Mary immediately returned to England with her five daughters. Ethel Lilian grew up in England and never returned to Ireland and identified as English not Irish. Given her parentage it is doubtful whether she should be referred to as Irish at all, despite having been born in Cork.

It is even more of a stretch to call The Gadfly an Irish novel. Ethel Lilian travelled extensively throughout Europe, as an adult and the novel, which is set in Italy and features an English hero, was first published in New York and then London before being translated into Russian, whereupon it became a mega best seller in Russia. To call it an Irish novel purely because of Ethel Lilian’s birth and seven-month residency in Cork is in my opinion a bridge too far.

Cover of the first publication of E. L. Vojnich's novel «The Gadfly» Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cover of the first publication of E. L. Vojnich’s novel «The Gadfly»
Source: Wikimedia Commons

All five of Boole’s daughters led fascinating and historically significant lives. You can read a short account of Those Amazing Boole Girls on my friend Pat’s Blog or for a fuller account I heartily recommend Desmond MacHale’s excellent biography, The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age. The family history is dealt with even more fully in Gerry Kennedy’s The Booles and the Hintons: Two Dynasties That Helped Shape the Modern World, which I haven’t read yet (it’s on the infinite reading list) but which has received excellent reviews.








Filed under History of science

25 responses to “The vexed problem of nationality in the history of science

  1. I’m inclined to agree though it’s worth bearing in mind that people often like to be thought of as Irish, however tenuous the connection – are you sure this wasn’t the case here?
    Two historical points you probably know:
    (i) Some Boole biographers claim that his wife’s belief in alternative medicine (freezing cold baths etc) may have helped his demise after catching that famous chill
    (ii) ‘The Gadfly’ is forgotten in the West as a novel, but well-known as a suite of music by Shostakovitch. He wrote the score to accompany a film based on the book. The music is now far better known than either the book or the film, partly because it was later used as a soundtrack for the 1970s tv series ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies!’

  2. I’m reminded of an argument we used to have in grad school about who was the greatest English philosopher, the Scot or the Austrian.

  3. Simon Rattle, as conductor of the Berliner Philharmonic, once introduced an encore by Händel as having been written by a famous English composer. 🙂

    • As England could not lay claim to any famous composer between Henry Purcell (17th Century) and the 20th Century, Rattle was having to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

      • Händel spent more that fifty years living and working in London and became a naturalised British citizen

      • “Händel spent more that fifty years living and working in London and became a naturalised British citizen”

        Indeed. Someone once suggested, with Händel in mind, that, if anything, nationality should be based on the country of one’s death, not of one’s birth.

        Einstein famously said that if relativity turned out to be right, Germany would say that he is German and France that he is a citizen of the world. But if it turned out wrong, for the French he would be a German and for the Germans a Jew.

        Einstein moved around quite a bit (what was later Germany, Italy, Switzerland, what was later the Czech republic, Germany, USA), changing his citizenship, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. He was known for his internationalism. But he kept his Swiss citizenship even after taking on US citizenship.

  4. “Ethel Voynich”

    There is a connection with the manuscript of the same name.

  5. “Germany only really became a nation state following the fall of Hitler and the Nazis in 1945 and was for several decades two nation states, East and West, which only became finally united on 3 October 1990.”

    I seem to remember learning in school that it was Otto von Bismark who united the German states in the 19th Century.

    Also Belgium gained its independence in 1830, from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which had been formed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It was the Treaty of London in 1839 that guaranteed Belgian neutrality and made de jure the de facto independence it had enjoyed since 1830..

    • Yeah, and Germany was an idea a long time before it was a state. I’m thinking particularly of the proto-nationalism of various German humanists in the renaissance and their boundless enthusiasm for the Germania of Tacitus.

    • I too found this puzzling. If Germany wasn’t a nation state at the beginning of WWII, what nation were the Allies fighting (along with Japan and Italy)? Prussia?

      OTOH, Thony has lived in Germany for decades and has blogged about his battles with German red-tape, so I presume there’s an explanation.

  6. The claim about Hitler and the Germany national state is more symbolic than historically correct. German unity/unification was a heated point of discussion within the German states since at least the Middle Ages but as cynical political commentators point out it took twelve years of Adolf Hitler to finally achieve it.

    During the Franco-Prussian War the German states united under the leadership of Prussia to fight France. After the war this alliance stayed together not as a national state but as an empire with the Prussian King as Kaiser However, Bavaria, the strongest German state after Prussia, whilst part of this empire, remained a largely autonomous monarchy with its own king.

    Following WWI the Kaiser was forced to abdicate by the allies, and with him the Bavarian King, and Germany was actually united for the first time ever in the so called Weimar Republic. This highly democratic institution lurched from one crisis to another and was plagued by political extremists both from the left and the right, a situation that was a major contributory factor in the rise of Hitler. This nation state continually threatened to dissolve back into its constituent parts.

    As is well known Germany became, under Hitler, a fascist dictatorship from 1933 to 1945. Following the defeat of the Nazis the allies once again imposed a democratic government on Germany but after twelve years of Hitler and six of war the population was this time happy to accept and live in a unified national state.

  7. The Duke of Wellington was from an Anglo-Irish family and born in Ireland. He did not regard himself as Irish though, reputedly remarking on the subject “being born in a stable does not make one a horse”

    • This is the Wellingtonian equivalent of Galileo’s “eppur si muove”, a comment that everybody says–including many historians–Wellington made, but actually he did not make.

      The comment was not made by Wellington about himself, as is usually reported, but was directed at Wellington by the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell in the course of O’Connell’s trial for holding large open-air political meetings in Ireland, in defiance of their prohibition by the authorities.

      In the course of his testimony, O’Connell observed

      “The poor old Duke [of Wellington]! What shall I say of him? To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”

      [for the source of which see
      Shaw’s Authenticated Report of the Irish State Trials, 1844

      • That puts rather a different spin on the comment! I knew it was a little dubious, I did say he was only reputed to have said it, but good to see the actual source, thanks

      • Was it Yogi Berra who said “I didn’t say half the things I said”? Actually, it doesn’t matter, due to the self-reflection in the previous sentence. 🙂

        Even things correctly quoted and correctly attributed can be misunderstood if taken out of context. For example, John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. However, he didn’t say “We’re more popular than Jesus!”. Rather, he said “We’re more popular than Jesus.” Clearer would be Even we are more popular than Jesus, but this wasn’t necessary in the original context. Like a celebrity roast where one musician says of another “I hope that your group doesn’t break up, since in that case we’d be the worst band on the planet!” So, he wasn’t saying that the Beatles were so popular that they were more popular than Jesus, but rather that Jesus had become so unpopular that even the Beatles were more popular. As he later remarked, he could have said “television is more popular than Jesus” and it might not have been (intentionally?) misunderstood as a dig against religion. It was a statement of fact—referring to England, not to the USA, where it was misinterpreted—and doesn’t imply any comparison of quality. (This, in turn, doesn’t imply that Lennon was deeply religious; he wasn’t.)

  8. Jacob Kanev

    Reminds me of a conversation with a colleague of mine who claimed that Orpheus (the Greek hero) was actually Bulgarian.
    The field of nationality becomes even more blurred when it comes to landmark inventions, like e.g. the computer, which (as all Americans know) is an American invention — unless you ask an English person, cause the English know that the computer is actually English (Alan Turing invented it). while Germans know that it is really a German invention (Kontrad Zuse). The invention of the aeroplane is German (Otto Lilienthal), and rocket science was created by Konstantin Eduardowitsch Ziolkowski, who was Russian or Soviet (take your pick). Unless you grew up in the States, where von Braun was very influencial, and he was American, no, hang on, German, eh, Polish.

    • “Reminds me of a conversation with a colleague of mine who claimed that Orpheus (the Greek hero) was actually Bulgarian.”

      This seems absurd on the face of it, like the claim that Alexander the Great was Macedonian, in the sense of the modern Slavic-language country (a former Yugoslavian republic). Of course Alexander the Great was Greek, and presumably Orpheus, since they spoke Greek, were part of Greek culture, etc.

      However, in many other contexts, nationality goes by geography. Buy a history of England, and it will talk about Picts, Celts, Romans, Vikings, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons. Was King Arthur (assuming he existed) English? Most people wouldn’t even understand the question: Of course he was! He is the very quintessence of Englishness. However, his claim to fame was fighting against the Anglo-Saxons, whose language and culture became dominant in England, giving the land its name. Similarly, Charlemagne, il es francais, n’est-ce pas? Bien sur! He even has a French name. But he spoke German. Why is he considered French? So, in that sense, of course Alexander was Macedonian, and Orpheus Bulgarian, but not in the cultural sense (which many who make such claims wish to imply).

      One can take this too far, of course. Back when Piltdown Man was believed to be real, there was a book about him: The First Englishman. One imagines him stepping out of his cave with bowler and waistcoat.

  9. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #25 | Whewell's Ghost

  10. Pingback: Not German but also not Polish | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  11. Always a delight to find Boole and his Very Talented Family getting some coverage.

  12. Thank you for this post. Trying to rid people of their habit of linking culture-nationality-and-‘race’ is sooo frustrating, especially when the subject at issue dates to the pre-Protestant era and while England was whatever land its king happened to hold that year. Now I can just save my breath and link to you. 🙂

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