Skip to main content

1850-1877: Science and Medicine: Overview

1850-1877: Science and Medicine: Overview

Intellectual Markets. Science, technology, and medicine went through important changes between 1850 and 1877. New findings in these fields, especially in technology, helped to give shape to a modernizing, industrializing nation; at the same time, the economic and social transformation of American society had a profound impact on science, technology, and medicine as urbanization and industrialization brought more people together to share new ideas, and organizational changes in industry created a demand for specialization and expertise. This interplay between science and social change was not limited to the United States. By the middle of the nineteenth century Americans were active participants in a competitive, capitalistic world market in which the interaction of new ideas proved to be as important as the exchange of goods for sale. Europeans remained the leaders in science, medicine, and technology, but Americans made some significant scientific contributions, especially in terms of practical inventions. During the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s American scientists gained valuable knowledge from their European neighbors, and they gradually began to apply the lessons they learned to their own experiments and institutions.

The Professionalization of Science. Between 1850 and 1877 American science emerged as a modern profession. Before this time scientists had largely conducted their work on an individual, part-time basis. That pattern changed between the mid 1840s and mid 1870s as science became a more collective undertaking. Scientific fields became more specialized; greater emphasis was placed on scientific education; and national scientific societies were formed. The Smithsonian Institution opened in 1846 as the first national institution devoted to the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men. Under the leadership of Princeton University scientist Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian promoted scientific research and publishing and served as a museum of natural history. A year after the Smithsonian opened, a group of prominent scientists created the American Association for the Advancement of Science to increase communication within the scientific community and to raise the standards of scientific study. Scientific societies provided an important outlet for discussion and debate: for instance, at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston and at the Boston Society of Natural History, leading American scientists debated Charles Darwins theory of evolution in 1859 and 1860.

European Influence on American Science. The changing organization of American science was patterned on European models. Many American scientists studied abroad in the middle of the century, returning to the United States with new ideas for advancing their fields. Some foreign scientists, such as the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz, also immigrated to the United States. This interchange of ideas inspired a small group oflead-ing American scientists, who called themselves the Lazzaroni (an Italian word referring to lower-class men or women engaged in revolt), to work for greater professionalization of the sciences. This group, which included Agassiz, Henry, and Alexander Dallas Bache, promoted not only the formation of national scientific associations but also more-rigorous standards of scientific education. The Lazzaroni emphasized the importance of scientific research in colleges and universities, a concept pioneered by German scientists. Their efforts were partially realized in 1876 when Johns Hopkins University, a research-based institution, was founded. By this time some colleges and universities were granting Ph.D. degrees in science and science courses were becoming more specialized.

Advances in Technology. Like science, American technology became more professionalized between 1850 and 1877. The formation of national technological associations and professional journals along with greater emphasis on scientific research characterized these decades. As in science, too, European trends and models proved useful, and American technologists benefited from scientific exchanges with Europeans. Some American collegesmost notably, the United States Military Academy at West Pointhad emphasized science and engineering as early as the 1820s, but the mid nineteenth century witnessed an increase in engineering schools; the most influential was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, established in 1861. While technological education increasingly emphasized the importance of scientific training, most technological innovations were still based less on scientific methods and principles than on the intuition and experience of inventors and engineers. Nevertheless, changes had been set in motion that would have a great impact on late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century technological innovation.

Changes in Medicine. Medicine, too, moved only slowly toward greater professionalization in the mid nineteenth century. The American Medical Association (AMA) was created in 1846 to raise professional standards for doctors, but the organization made little progress in influencing medical practices during its first half century. Until the 1870s standards for medical education varied widely, and few states had licensing laws for physicians. The years after the Civil War marked the beginning of state and city boards of health, the modern hospital, and professional nursing; these three phenomena were rooted in the reforms made by Florence Nightingale and the British Sanitary Commission during the Crimean War in the 1850s and by the United States Sanitary Commission and other reformers during the Civil War.

Social Sciences. Greater mobility in nineteenth-century America fostered an awareness of differences among various groups of people, and Americans turned to social science, which emerged as a new field during the middle decades of the century, to analyze and understand these distinctions. The more specialized and technical nature of course offerings in colleges and universities also promoted the study of social science, and history, political science, and economics began to stand on their own as independent disciplines. The new disciplines of sociology and anthropology were also developed during this period; they were grounded largely in the defense of slavery, the study of Native Americans, and the impact of Darwins theory of evolution on social, economic, and religious thought.

Government Assistance. Federal, state, and local government financial support for science, medicine, and technology varied depending on the specific field and paled in comparison to levels of support in Europe. Naval and military explorations, especially surveys of the western United States, enabled scientists to make valuable studies and record many new species and phenomena. During the Civil War the federal government made funds available for land-grant colleges, which stressed agricultural and technical education, and set forth plans for a transcontinental railroad. Government support for technology, especially railroads and the telegraph, helped to facilitate modernization. In some respects, though, government remained passiveespecially in medicine: state governments did not reestablish licensing requirements for physicians until the 1870s (such requirements had been in place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), and state and national governments were less active in public health than were the governments of European countries.

The Civil War. While the Civil War produced important changes in medicine, science and technology received little practical benefit from the war. Scientists were taken away from their research to fight or work with the army. The American Association for the Advancement of Science suspended its activities until the war ended, and some scientific societies were permanently dissolved. The physical and economic destruction caused by the war decimated Southern science, which had already lagged behind Northern science. While the Union army benefited from antebellum technological innovations, including efficient railroads, the telegraph, and improvements in weapons, scientists and inventors did little during the war to advance the war effort. The need for immediate production of war materials, combined with the belief that the war would not last long, helps explain why neither government nor private industry encouraged wartime technological development.

Women in the Sciences. Nineteenth-century science, medicine, and technology remained almost exclusively reserved for males. Yet at about the same time that a small group of women were becoming increasingly vocal about their right to equal participation in society, some female pioneers emerged in medicine and science. In 1849 the British-born Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female in the modern world to receive a medical degree. Her sister Emily Blackwell and her close friend and pupil Marie Zakrzewska also became physicians, despite considerable opposition from both men and women, and the three helped to establish the first womens hospitals in the United States. Women also enjoyed greater professional opportunities in nursing during and after the Civil War. Science and technology were somewhat harder fields for females to enter, although in 1865 Maria Mitchell was made professor of astronomy at the newly established Vassar College. Despite these achievements, men continued to dominate and control medicine, science, and technology in the nineteenth century, seldom treating female professionals as their equals.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"1850-1877: Science and Medicine: Overview." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"1850-1877: Science and Medicine: Overview." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/1850-1877-science-and-medicine-overview

"1850-1877: Science and Medicine: Overview." American Eras. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/1850-1877-science-and-medicine-overview

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.