Field of Science

Are scientists palatable?

In the early part of the 19th century, the word scientist had yet to be coined. As the scope of materials and phenomena that natural philosophers and historians dealt with increased, there was a growing sense that these terms were inadequate to describing the task of this new breed of inquirers. In the 1830s, the British Association for the Advancement of Science explored potential candidates, but ultimately rejected various proposed terms, including scientist:
"Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term,..; savans was rather assuming,..; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist — but this was not generally palatable."
The need remained, however, and a decade later, William Whewell, a philosopher and biologist pushed the issue again: “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.” This time it stuck.

Once the name stuck, an image quickly became attached -- wild hair, lab coats and odd apparatus all became part and parcel of what it means to be a scientist. My most recent Thesis columnin Nature Chemistry -- Men of Mystery -- takes up popular images of scientists, and considers the impact the images might have on public discourse about science.

UPDATED: See Snail's Tails post about philosophy and philosophical instruments. The ad for the "philosophical instrument makers" is fascinating!


  1. It seems that until the end of the 19th century, philosophy still meant science in the broad sense. See this post of mine.

  2. Indeed, yes! The ad for the instrument makers is great, I've now embedded a link to your post into mine!

  3. Ah, your article is behind a paywall!!!

  4. I am led to understand that the general disciplines of what we now call "science" (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), were originally all described as "natural philosophy".

    To this day, the highest degree in the sciences that is conferred by a university is "Doctor of Philosophy". It is only recently, and as far as I can tell, mostly in psychology, that some institutions have began awarding a discipline-specific degree, e.g. Psy.D, or Doctor of Psychology, but that is a horse of a different color.

    This was an interesting and useful post, and thanks for bringing it up.


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