Many scientists bypass history and its importance. But learning the scientific methods and the history of science is the embodiment of scientific knowledge, argues Balkees Abderrahman
When I was at medical school, curricula were crowded with a large body of knowledge and countless exams. We all longed for that “A grade.” Nothing else mattered. History bored us and was a distraction to professors. Now, at a later stage in my career, I have come to grasp that history is at the heart of science and medicine because it recognises the characters and institutions that advanced science and medicine, their tragedies and triumphs.
One favourite example is the use of tin to manufacture Napoleon’s soldiers’ buttons. But tin disintegrated in the cold. The authors of Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History, argued that this was a critical factor behind the failure of his army to continue their invasion of Russia.
History shows how progressive a human enterprise can be with the two opposite driving forces: one that supports what the enterprise might add and another resists what’s new. The Jesuit philosopher and mathematician Giovaanni Saccheri’s work on geometry, for example, was published at the beginning of the 18th century and largely ignored, only to be examined seriously a hundred years later by Italian mathematician Eugenio Beltrami.
History shows the relationship between science and society. Margaret Sanger (pictured below) is credited with popularising the terms “birth control” and “family planning,” and establishing the first birth control clinic in America. As startling as this may seem today, contraception, now proclaimed as a major development of the modern world, was then criminalised. In her book My Fight For Birth Control, Sanger describes her indictment and fleeing to Great Britain. Returning to the US, she was arrested because of her continued pro-contraception practices. The publicity surrounding Sanger’s arrest, trial and appeal, ignited and fuelled the birth control movement.
Sujata Gupta’s 2011 profile of my mentor V Craig Jordan, published in PNAS, highlighted a fondness for historical precedent during his successful career as a pharmacologist, citing oestrogen-induced apoptosis as an example and how it was connected to Sir Alexander Haddow’s research from the 1940s and his graduate student, Doug Wolf’s, serendipitous finding with tamoxifen-resistant tumours from the 1990s.
“I believe that we’re all part of this continuum. We’re in a relay race and we’ve got to know where we’ve come from to show us where we’re going,” Jordan told Gupta.
He reformed our laboratory’s curriculum by allocating journal clubs to everyone who joined our team. They were aimed at discussing the history and evolution of science relevant to our laboratory’s interest.
Trainees were given assignments to research, present and debate the historical work, not only from our laboratory, but also from teams around the world.
The first hand stories shared with us of eminent people he knew and worked with, their life work, tragedies and triumphs is the kind of stories not found in textbooks. His teaching style incentivised me to learn history.
When I became a Fellow of the UK Royal Society of Medicine, I was impressed by its History of Medicine society. The section was founded by Sir William Osler in 1912, and is one of the oldest history of medicine societies in the world. Its Norah Schuster Prize rewards exceptional work on the history of medicine and targets early academic stages.
I learn history little by little over time, starting my day with a cup of coffee and at least one article from a credible journal magazine, or newspaper (see Scientific American’s history of science section and its equivalents in ScienceNews, The Economist, The Guardian, New York Times
There are journals such as the British Journal for the History of Science that report exclusively on the history of science and medicine (see also The Bulletin for the History of Medicine, History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Medical History), Also, the Popular History of Science books section on the Goodreads website lists relevant titles. I also set a goal for myself to read 2-3 history books a year, and watch interesting documentaries. Doing so has enabled me to draw the following observations about the importance of discovering the history of science and medicine, and yielded some favourite stories alongside “Napoleon’s buttons.”
Interactions between scientists and nature
The Copernican Revolution is the paradigm shift from having Earth at the centre of the universe to having the Sun at the centre of the solar system. British science historian and broadcaster James Burke in The Day The Universe Changed, takes his readers on a tantalising journey through the unfolding and progression of the revolution. It started with Renaissance-era mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who removed the Earth from the centre of the universe, and positioned the heavenly bodies around the Sun. It, then, progressed with Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who compiled very accurate astronomical observations over 20 years and settled on the sun rotating around the Earth and the planets orbiting the Sun.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution narrates how Brahe’s assistant and German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler produced the three laws of planetary motion describing the motion of planets around the Sun based on Brahe’s data.
Kepler discovered that Venus, like the moon, has phases. This contributed to the transition from geocentrism (universe with Earth at the centre) to heliocentrism (planets and Earth revolving around the Sun at the centre). He settled on planets moving in elliptical motion around the Sun. Italian polymath and “father of modern observational astronomy” Galileo Galilei discovered that moons orbited Jupiter, not stars. This exposed the shortcomings of Aristotelian cosmology that stated all heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth. Galilei’s observation of Venus having a visible full set of phases is credited with the major transition from geocentrism to heliocentrism.
The English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton concluded the revolution with deriving his universal law of gravitation based on Kepler’s laws. This gravitational force between two objects explained the motion related to the heavens.
How history can influence your perspective and shape your career
English naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, expressed how profoundly he was affected by reading the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Darwin said: “He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the principles of geology…yet does not admit how incomprehensively vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.”
History demonstrates the diversity of scientific opinion. French physicist Louis Broglie and German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, reached the same result in quantum mechanics, despite the different approaches.
Portraying pioneering scientists and physicians in a humane light
Given their extraordinary achievements, we presume they must be immaculate. History corroborates that this is a myth. American paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope pioneered paleontology, but used bribery and spies in what became known as the Bone Wars, to prevent each other from succeeding on fossil expeditions. Heisenberg, who pioneered quantum mechanics, almost flunked his doctoral committee exam because he had no idea how a battery worked.
It is still possible to find a place for the history of science within the teaching of sciences. We must remain connected with the past while pushing the frontier of knowledge with the new.
Balkees Abderrahman MD (@Balkees_Abd) is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Breast Medical Oncology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, and a PhD trainee at the Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Leeds, UK. See her LinkedIn profile for a full biography.