Cohen, I. Bernard 1914-2003

views updated

Cohen, I. Bernard 1914-2003


Born March 1, 1914, in Far Rockaway, NY; died June 20, 2003, in Waltham, MA; son of Isador and Blanche Cohen; married Frances Parsons Davis, June 23, 1944 (died, 1982); married Susan Johnson, c. 1984; children: (first marriage) Frances. Education: Harvard University, B.S. (cum laude), 1937, Ph.D., 1947.


Physicist, educator, and writer. Carnegie Institution, Washington, DC, fellow in the history of science, 1938-41; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor in physics, 1942-46, instructor in physical science, 1946-47, instructor, 1947-49, assistant professor, 1949-53, associate professor, 1953-59, professor of the history of science, beginning 1959. University of London, special lecturer, 1959; Lowell lecturer, 1961; Queen's University, Belfast, Wiles lecturer, 1966; Cambridge University, visiting fellow at Clare Hall, 1965, visiting overseas fellow at Churchill College, 1968.


International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (first vice president, 1962-68; president, 1968-71), International Academy for the History of Science (chair of membership committee, 1961-62), U.S. National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science (chair, 1961-62), Institute for Early American History and Culture (member of council, 1957-60), History of Science Society (member of executive council, 1945-58; president, 1961, 1962), American Association for the Advancement of Science (fellow; vice president, 1959-60), American Association for the History of Medicine, American Antiquarian Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (vice president), American Historical Association, Royal Astronomical Society (fellow), Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Athenaeum Club (London, England), Club of Odd Volumes (member of council, 1965-69), Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi.


Guggenheim fellowship, 1956; postdoctoral fellowship, National Science Foundation, 1960-61; LL.D., Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, 1964; George Sarton Medal, History of Science Society, 1974.; Pfizer Book Prize, History of Science Society, 1986; elected to the American Philosophical Society, 1995; honorary doctorate, George Washington University, 1997; Centennial Medal, Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1998.


Benjamin Franklin's Experiments, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), 1941.

Roemer and the First Determination of the Velocity of Light, Burndy Library (Norwalk, CT), 1942.

Science, Servant of Man: A Layman's Primer for the Age of Science, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1948.

Some Early Tools of American Science: An Account of the Early Scientific Instruments and Mineralogical and Biological Collections in Harvard University, foreword by Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1950.

Ethan Allen Hitchcock: Soldier, Humanitarian, Scholar, Discoverer of the "True Subject" of the Hermetic Art, American Antiquarian Society (Worcester, MA), 1952.

Benjamin Franklin: His Contribution to the American Tradition, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1953.

Franklin and Newton: An Inquiry into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof, American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1956, revised edition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1973.

Isaac Newton's Papers on Natural Philosophy, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1957.

The Birth of a New Physics, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1960, revised edition, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1985.

Science and American Society in the First Century of the Republic, Department of Physics and Astronomy and Graduate School, Ohio State University (Columbus, OH), 1961.

Introduction to Newton's "Principia," Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971.

The Newtonian Revolution: With Illustrations of the Transformation of Scientific Ideas, Burndy Library (Norwalk, CT), 1980.

From Leonardo to Lavoisier, 1450-1800, Scribner (New York, NY), 1980.

(With others) Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Revolution in Science, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1985.

The Newtonian Revolution, Burndy Library (Norwalk, CT), 1987.

Benjamin Franklin's Science, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), 1990.

Interactions: Some Contacts between the Natural Sciences and the Social Sciences, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.

Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1995.

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.


(With F. Watson) General Education in Science, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1952.

Benjamin Franklin, Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1954.

(With Howard Mumford Jones) A Treasury of Scientific Prose: A Nineteenth-Century Anthology, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1963.

(With A. Koyre and Anne Whitman) Issac Newton's Philosophiae Mathematica, the Third Edition (1926) with Variant Readings, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1972.

Issac Newton's "Theory of the Moon's Motion" (1702) with a Bibliographical and Historical Introduction, Dawson's of Pall Mall (London, England), 1975.

Isaac Newton's Papers and Letters on Natural Philosophy and Related Documents, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1978.

Index Rafinesquianus: The Plant Names Published by C.S. Rafinesquianus with Reductions, and a Consideration of His Methods, Objectives, and Attainments (revision of 1949 edition), Ayer (Salem, NH), 1980.

The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler: First Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey (revision of 1929 edition), Ayer (Salem, NH), 1980.

Quantum Physics in America, Ayer (Salem, NH), 1980.

(With John F. Herschel) Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, with Addresses and Other Pieces, Ayer (Salem, NH), 1981.

François Magendie (revision of 1944 edition), Ayer (Salem, NH), 1981.

Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1990.

The Natural Sciences and the Social Sciences: Some Critical and Historical Perspectives, Dordrecht (Boston, MA), 1993.

(With Richard S. Westfall) Newton: Texts, Backgrounds, Commentaries, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Gregory W. Welch and Robert V.D. Campbell) Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

(And translator, with Anne Whitman, and contributor of guide) Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.

(With Jed Z. Buchwald) Isaac Newton's Natural Philosophy, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.

(With George E. Smith) The Cambridge Companion to Newton, Cambridge University Press (New York, N), 2002.

Editor of book series, including "Three Centuries of Science in America" series, Ayer (Salem, NH), 1980; and "The Development of Science" series, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1981. Author of Album of Science, 1998. Contributor of introductions to books, including Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, Histoire de l'astronomie moderne, Johnson Reprint (New York, NY), 1969; Walter William Rouse Ball, An Essay on Newton's Principia, Johnson Reprint, 1972; Stephan Peter Rigaud, Historical Essay on the First Publication of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, Johnson Reprint, 1972; and William Whiston, Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematick Philosophy More Easily Demonstrated, Johnson Reprint, 1972. Contributor of articles and reviews to professional journals. Isis, managing editor, 1947-52, editor and chair of editorial committee, 1953-58; editorial advisor to the "Papers of Benjamin Franklin" book series.


The author or editor of over one hundred texts, American science historian and physicist I. Bernard Cohen writes about the theories and the theorists who have shaped modern scientific knowledge. In addition, several of his books provide detailed examinations of the history of scientific thought since the 1500s. In Cohen's Revolution in Science, the author poses the question as to whether science is "primarily evolutionary … or revolutionary," according to Joshua Lederberg, writing in the New York Times Book Review. Many of the volumes Cohen edited in the "Three Centuries of Science" and "The Development of Science" book series are reprints of earlier editions from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries.

"The main narrative content of Revolution in Science is the history of physical science from the 17th through the 20th centuries, culminating in the theory of relativity, quantum theory and the theory of plate tectonics," noted New York Times Book Review contributor Lederberg. Praising the anthology as being "carefully documented and told in a straightforward, comprehensive style," Lederberg went on to praise Cohen for his ability to "tease … out what is revolutionary about the people whose works have become milestones." As the critic explained, the author maintains that there are "four stages in a revolution. It begins with an intellectual insight. The scientist then makes a private record of his commitment to its pursuit. He then communicates his ideas privately with colleagues before he formally publishes them. Finally, his theory is incorporated into the theoretical fabric and practice of consensual science. Instead of giving a precise definition of a revolution … he lists four tentative criteria for identifying one: There must be testimony of contemporary witnesses that a revolution has occurred."

Eighteenth-century scientific thought and the desire to achieve consensus on the scientific credentials of Benjamin Franklin are central themes of Benjamin Franklin's Science. Esmond Wright noted in a New York Times Book Review appraisal of the work that Cohen "writes with total authority and renews his now familiar thesis: Franklin was not just a practical inventor but a scientific thinker … and it was as a theorist that he won election to a fellowship of the Royal Society. Mr. Cohen contends that … it was Franklin's standing as a scientist that eased his later path as a diplomat in London and Paris, where he was well known and respected for his science."

Comprised of learned articles originally published between 1943 and 1956, Benjamin Franklin's Science reflects "a period when Professor Cohen and others were fighting to establish the relevance of the history of science to a fuller understanding of eighteenth-century society, and of its multi-faceted individuals such as Franklin," explained Times Literary Supplement contributor Stephen Pumfrey. "Chapters Four and Five … remind us of how influential Cohen has been in establishing the methodological principle that mature scientific accomplishments must be traced to their micro-context. Cohen has an enviable capacity to introduce eighteenth-century problems simply and succinctly, in a literary style which would have pleased Franklin himself."

In summing up Cohen's contribution to the history of science, Pumfrey pointed out: "Claims by historians of science for close connections between political and scientific revolutions are quite recent, and Cohen himself broached the subject in his Revolutions in Science. Cohen's claim made here is … that we should study Franklin's science because it was his scientific reputation that went before him, opening the doors of the influential."

Cohen, who died in 2003, sent The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life to his publisher just before his death. In this last book by Cohen, the author provides numerous tales and histories that illustrate how numbers became important not only in science but in everyday life. Examining such notable figures in history as Benjamin Franklin and Florence Nightingale, Cohen emphasizes how numbers pervaded all aspects of life, from governments to mysticism. For example, in one section, Cohen discusses the various steps that Thomas Jefferson took to calculate how many seats should be in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cohen also tells how Napoleon Bonaparte examined the Pyramids of Giza and calculated the size of the wall that could be built around France with its stones. In the case of Nightingale, Cohen reveals how she used statistics to further public health efforts. "Full of intriguing observations, this well-written, accessible study diagrams intellectual debates that continue to dominate the modern era," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Noting that the book "makes for informative reading," William Seltzer, writing in Population and Development Review, also commented: "Among the strong points of the work is the clarity of expression, the relative brevity …, the breadth of coverage among those writing in Europe and the United States, the inclusion of a chapter about those (in nineteenth-century England) who opposed the use of statistics in social policy debates, and a masterful chapter on the life and contributions of Florence Nightingale."

Cohen was also a respected Newtonian scholar and is known for his translation, with Anne Whitman, of Isaac Newton's The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. "I hope that, decades from now, when I and my other books have been forgotten, this will still be useful to scholars and students," the author is quoted as saying on the Harvard University Gazette Web site. The translation took fifteen years and is considered to be among the best translations, if not the best, of this work.



American Historical Review, June, 1997, review of Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison, p. 884.

American Scientist, November, 1999, review of Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer, p. 566; July 1, 2005, Tom Korner, "Keeping Tabs," review of The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, p. 376.

Books & Culture, November 1, 2001, Karl W. Giberson, "The Warden of Time and Space," p. 38.

Business History, July, 2000, Geoffrey Tweedale, review of Howard Aiken, p. 178.

Business History Review, winter, 1999, Nathan L. Ensmenger, reviews of Howard Aiken and Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer, p. 761.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, September, 2005, J. Mayer, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 121.

Contemporary Review, November, 1997, review of Science and the Founding Fathers, p. 273; July, 2002, review of The Cambridge Companion to Newton, p. 58.

Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, spring, 2002, Kurt Beyer, review of Howard Aiken, p. 411.

History Today, May, 1997, review of Science and the Founding Fathers, p. 53.

Isis, September, 1997, review of Science and the Founding Fathers, p. 543; March, 2002, Domenico Bertoloni Meli, review of Isaac Newton's Natural Philosophy, p. 114; December, 2003, Stephen D. Snobelen, review of The Cambridge Companion to Newton, p. 728; December, 2003, Alan Gabbey, review of The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, p. 719.

Journal of Economic Literature, December, 1999, reviews of Makin' Numbers and Howard Aiken, p. 1749.

London Review of Books, November 16, 2000, Simon Schaffer, "Somewhat Divine," pp. 30-31.

Nature, February 20, 1997, review of Science and the Founding Fathers, p. 693.

New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1985, Joshua Lederberg, review of Revolution in Science; August 16, 1987; September 30, 1990, Esmond Wright, review of Benjamin Franklin's Science; September 12, 1999, Lawrence Hunter, review of Howard Aiken.

Philosophy of Science, July, 2005, Steffen Ducheyne, review of The Cambridge Companion to Newton, p. 506.

Population and Development Review, March, 2006, William Seltzer, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 178.

Publishers Weekly, February 7, 2005, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 53.

Science Books & Films, special edition, 1998, review of Album of Science, p. 44; November, 1999, review of Makin' Numbers, pp. 248, 264, and review of Howard Aiken, p. 252; July, 2002, review of Howard Aiken, p. 444; November-December, 2006, Marilyn Lisowski, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 257.

Science News, April 16, 2005, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 255.

SciTech Book News, June, 2005, review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 29.

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, September, 2004, Ian G. Stewart, review of The Principia, p. 665.

Times Higher Education Supplement, January 12, 2001, Peter Harman, review of The Principia, p. 32; March 28, 2003, Graham Farmelo, "The Apple of Our Eye," p. 25; January 12, 2007, Graham Farmelo, "Formidable Figures Take over the World—for Better or for Ill" review of The Triumph of Numbers), p. 27.

Times Literary Supplement, September 13, 1985; January 18, 1991, Stephen Pumfrey, review of Benjamin Franklin's Science; January 12, 2007, Peter Pesic, "Maths Applied," review of The Triumph of Numbers, p. 23.



Journal for the History of Astronomy, February 1, 2004, George E. Smith, Wolfgang Saxon, "I. Bernard Cohen, 89, Dies; Pioneer in History of Science."

New York Times, June 28, 2003, "I. Bernard Cohen, 89, Dies; Pioneer in History of Science."

Physics Today, July 1, 2004, Lorraine Daston and Joan Richards, "I. Bernard Cohen."


Harvard University Gazette, (December 7, 2007), "History of Science Scholar I. Bernard Cohen Dies at 89."