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1815-1850: Science and Medicine: Overview

1815-1850: Science and Medicine: Overview

National Pride. The period from 1815 to 1850 was not one of great achievement in American science and medicine. It was, however, a period during which distinctively American developments in science and medicine first began to emerge. Public interest in the sciences grew rapidly, and the institutional framework necessary to foster theoretical and applied research began to appear. Simultaneously, social and political conditions in the United States prompted a revolt against the medical establishment. Since European advances in anatomy and physiology would not produce practical treatments until the turn of the twentieth century, a wide variety of nontraditional medical therapies and practitioners filled the void in the anti-authoritarian atmosphere of Jacksonian America.

Limited Resources. Prior to 1815 the United States looked to England and the European continent for leadership in science and medicine. American scientists and doctors sought formal academic training at universities in Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris. With the favorable conclusion of the War of 1812, however, a spirit of nationalism provoked a desire for cultural, as well as political, independence from the Old World. The development of an independent American scientific community would occur slowly, however, for excellence in research required significant capitol investment and a strong institutional base in the form of major universities and government-sponsored institutes that the young republic lacked. Most American colleges and universities had been founded to provide students with a liberal education and to train ministers rather than to promote research. For decades the question of government funding for science was rendered moot by a political climate that favored a strict view of constitutional authority. In other words, the reigning political opinion of the nineteenth century saw such activities as outside the scope of the federal government as defined by the Constitution.

Exploration. Nevertheless, some government support for scientific endeavors was forthcoming, primarily in the form of exploration. Numerous companies of explorers, comprised of military leaders, surveyors, cartographers, scientists, and artists, set out to map the littleknown areas west of the Mississippi River. Such activities were considered constitutional because they were needed to establish the borders of the nation for military and diplomatic purposes and to determine the commercial potential of regions not yet organized as states. Individual states sponsored their own internal geological surveys to identify mineralogical resources and evaluate soil for agricultural purposes.

New Discoveries. Federal- and state-sponsored exploration yielded enormous quantities of new information in many fields, including geology, mineralogy, ornithology, botany, zoology, and ethnography. Explorers transported that information back east in the form of collected specimens; paintings and drawings of people, animals, plants, and rock formations; and written descriptions. Some of the new information overturned well-established European schools of thought, especially in geology. The discovery of previously unknown plants, animals, and birds complicated existing schemes for classifying living things. On the positive side, botanical researches, combined with information about herbal remedies gleaned from Native American tribes, resulted in a uniquely American pharmacology, codified by Jacob Bigelow between 1817 and 1821 in his American Medical Botany. These new bodies of information sparked further scientific interest and bolstered national pride.

Specialization. The sheer amount of information coming out of the American West, as well as that from European laboratories and research hospitals, promoted a trend toward the specialization of knowledge. The general study of nature (natural philosophy) steadily broke down into more-specialized fields such as mineralogy, geology, chemistry, and natural history (the study of plant and animal life). As the amount and complexity of information became impossible for nonspecialists to absorb, their understanding and support for science weakened. The growth of specialized knowledge thus produced a public backlash against physicians, and the growing community of professional scientists worked to stave off criticism by engaging in a public-relations campaign to demonstrate the utilitarian and patriotic benefits of their work. In a climate characterized by the exponential growth of evangelical Christianity, scientists also won support by claiming that science reinforced piety and morality by showing God at work in nature. New discoveries in geology regarding the age of the earth appeared to challenge the authority of the Bible, but debates over this issue were generally contained within the scientific community, and clashes between science and religion did not come to dominate public discourse until the publication of Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Science and Religion. The scientific and religious communities of antebellum America were not mutually exclusive. Most scientists considered themselves Christians, and Benjamin Silliman Sr., Joseph Henry, Asa Gray, and many others embraced the evangelical, revivalist Protestantism that dominated the period. The amicable relationship between science and religion derived largely from Baconianism, a way of thinking based on the work of seventeenth-century Scotsman Francis Bacon. Baconianism, the leading philosophy governing scientific pursuits in the United States, meant coming to conclusions base on an assembled boddy of observable facts (inductive reasoning). It entailed a conscious rejection of deductive reasoning that began with a premise or a hypothesis (the basis of the modern scientific method). For example, Silliman noted in 1818 that Geology, at the present day, means not a merely theoretical and usually a visionary and baseless speculation, concerning the origin of the globe, but, on the contrary, the result of actual examination into the nature, structure, and arrangement of the materials of which it is composed. For this reason nineteenth-century American scientists focused on natural history, geology, and chemistry rather than the more theoretical and abstract fields of mathematics and physics. Such an emphasis worked well with the Baconian commitment to creating taxonomies, or classifications, of knowledge.

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