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1878-1899: Science and Medicine: Overview

1878-1899: Science and Medicine: Overview

An Era of Optimism. The scientific trends in the United States during the late nineteenth century were representative of a sense of optimism fed by western expansion, new successes in treating disease, technological advances, and the progressive belief that society was evolving in a positive direction. This association with progress linked science to the social and political goals of society and promised even more gains in the future.

Government Funding. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the federal government funded several important scientific projects, putting into motion a transition away from military control of scientific research at the beginning of the period to civilian control by the end. This shift partly involved shedding a model borrowed from Europe, where countries that were constantly at war concentrated many strategic scientific activities in army bureaus. American civilian agencies such as the U.S. Coast Survey (later the Coast and Geodetic Survey), the Geological Survey, and the Naval Observatory were able to command the services of the best scientists, such as Charles Sanders Peirce, later one of the greatest American philosophers, who began his career as a talented physicist with the Coast Survey. The ability of the U.S. government to fund laboratories and research programs requiring extensive field-work was important in an era when universities had limited funds for research and foundations with scientific and educational programs had not yet been established.

Exploring the West. Western exploration was the scientific keynote of the period. The vast areas opened to settlement by the railroads were unmapped and unexplored, particularly from a geological perspective. Settlers, land speculators, railroads, miners, and timber interests had a stake in the successful completion of such surveys. In this monumental mapping project John Wesley Powell was the dominant figure, not only because his surveys produced high-quality work but also because of his broad perspective on land use in general and his dynamism as a scientific administrator.

European Models in Medicine. In medicine Americans followed the lead of the Europeans. There was the steady shift in American medical education from purely clinical training to the European model in which clinic and laboratory were co-equal. The new science of bacteriologyespecially the discoveries of the Frenchman Louis Pasteur and the German Robert Kochhad a major impact on both the organization of medicine itself and how diseases were treated. The drive to identify the microbes that caused specific diseases and then to develop effective vaccines against them was a powerful stimulus for making experimental research a part of the curriculum in American medical schools, along the lines of the German laboratories where many Americans sought postdoctoral experience throughout this period. Experimental medicine had been developed by Claude Bernard (1813-1878), but during the 1860s and 1870s, the period of his greatest influence, American medical schools were too small, too attuned to the dire need for clinicians, and too poor to take up Bernards call for the transformation of medicine into a laboratory-based science.

The Popularization of Science. Exploration was the topic that most engaged the American publics imagination during the late nineteenth century. Another subject of interest was the debate over evolution, which was the centerpiece in the popular conception of the warfare between science and religionor the military metaphor, as it has been called. American evolutionary science was enjoying a kind of golden epoch, with paleontologists attached to the great geological surveys making major fossil finds in the West. While dinosaur bones caught the public eye, the most enduring monuments of evolutionary science were Othniel Marshs reconstruction of the evolution of the horse and Edward Drinker Copes discoveries of previously unknown extinct species. Much of the public looked at science from a religious perspective and was uncertain about evolution. Yet Christian liberals and others who had already distanced themselves from traditional religious beliefs were comfortable with the notion that an improved environment would offer its inhabitants benefits that could be passed on to the next generation.

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