In Search of the Social Impulse: Science and Conciliation during the Interwar Years, 1919-1939

Abe Gibson (PhD, History, Florida State University) was a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Consortium in 2014-2015. Read more about his experience below.

I recently had the distinct privilege of serving as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Ostensibly, I was granted an opportunity to research and write my second book project, In Search of the Social Impulse, which examines the scientific study of cooperation between the First and Second World Wars. To be sure, I have made significant progress on this project, and I hope that I can one day write another blog post for the Consortium shamelessly promoting the book when it finally goes to press. Until then, however, I thought I’d write a blog post describing some of my experiences during my tenure in Philadelphia, including some of the surprising ways in which life began to imitate work. It wasn’t long after I accepted the fellowship offer from PACHS (the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science) that I learned PACHS would soon cease to exist. To be more precise, I learned that PACHS had outgrown its original footprint, and that it was destined to change names as it expanded beyond the mid-Atlantic to include new member institutions from other time zones and other nations. I had nothing to do with choosing the new name, the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, but I could not have chosen a better one. Strange though it may sound, I have come across the idea of a “consortium” a lot while writing my second book. After all, consortia are most successful when their constituent members complement one another, when they integrate, when they cooperate. During the interwar period, this insight prompted many biologists to insist that each individual cell was also a “consortium,” a heterogeneous collection of previously distinct units. In other words, the cell was best understood as a group, one that achieved advanced integration at some point in the remote past. It is telling that biologists who had just survived the deadliest war of all time (up to that point) were desperate to prove that cooperation could achieve at least as much as violence. Their use of the consortium metaphor implied that evolution was a collaborative process, and that individuals can invariably achieve more as members of a group than they can on their own. Rummaging through the archives for the next year merely reaffirmed my support for the name change. Rather than trying to recount all of the various libraries and institutions that I visited while serving as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Consortium, I thought I’d focus on one especially satisfying discovery that illustrates my point. In the fall of 1941, a diverse group of scientists and scholars convened a symposium at the University of Chicago to investigate the evolutionary origins of cooperation, and the proceedings were later published as Levels of Integration in Biological and Social Systems. The symposium was held just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and thus appears at an interesting moment in my project’s narrative. Europe and the Pacific had descended back into bloodshed, but the United States was still technically neutral. The symposium’s emphasis on cooperation was thus more urgent, and less tenable, than ever before. I was somewhat familiar with the symposium thanks to the work of Greg Mitman and Donald Worster, among others, but I had long struggled to get my hands on a copy of the proceedings. I was a graduate student at Florida State University, and the only copy in the state was located in Coral Gables, some 500 miles away. By comparison, the Consortium holds not one copy but two. When I finally sat down with a copy in the Othmer Library at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, I was not surprised to learn that several of the symposium’s participants promoted the powerful “consortium” metaphor when advocating on behalf of cooperation. Although the Consortium now boasts more than 3.3 million items in its rapidly expanding collections, the center’s greatest asset remains its people. On any given day (and on most nights), an incredibly diverse mix of scholars would stop in to discuss and debate the long, fascinating history of the scientific enterprise. I was keenly aware that my tenure at the Consortium would not last forever, and that I should probably spend every waking moment in Philadelphia writing, but I could hardly resist when the world’s leading historians of science were holding court just down the hall. I tried to attend all of the Consortium’s various working groups at least once, and they were all uniformly great, but I especially enjoyed Etienne Benson’s group on environmental history, Erika Milam’s group on the history of the human sciences, and Karen Rader’s group on the history of the life sciences. Furthermore, I always enjoyed attending regular Brown Bag lunches at the Consortium, where my fellow Fellows-in-Residence (Amanda Casper, Roberto Chauca Tapia, Heidi Hausse, Phillip Honenberger, and Julia Mansfield) and I got to meet with, and learn from, whichever Research Fellows happened to be conducting research in local archives that week. Even on those rare occasions when the Consortium was not hosting an organized event, I could always find someone willing to grab coffee and bond over our shared passion for the history of science. Once again, my experiences had convinced me that individuals are most effective when they are part of a group, when they are part of a consortium. The Consortium was an incredibly dynamic place to work, and I was able to make significant gains on several different projects while serving as a Fellow. During my all-too-brief tenure in Philadelphia, I not only signed a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish my first book, but also made significant progress on my second book. I published two book chapters and two invited book reviews. When travelling to academic conferences outside the region, I was only too happy to advocate on behalf of the Consortium. I presented a paper on the history of feral burros in the American West at the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Washington, D.C., a paper on the history of interwar biology at the Southern History of Science and Technology conference in Richmond, Virginia, a paper on E.O. Wilson’s illustrious career at the Evolution and Ethics conference in Tallahassee, Florida, and a paper on the biogeography of domestic animals at the Agricultural History annual meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. I also represented the Consortium as an attendee at two more conferences, the American Historical Association annual meeting in New York City, and the Society for French Historical Studies annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In sum, I am eternally grateful that I was ever able to live, work, and learn at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, the world’s leading nerve center for the history of science.

Abraham Gibson