The Transformation of the Physical Sciences into Professions During the Nineteenth Century

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The Transformation of the Physical Sciences into Professions During the Nineteenth Century


For today's students, pursuing a career in science is as normal as undertaking the study of law or medicine. Yet, before 1800 it would have seemed almost inconceivable that one day people could earn a living practicing science. In fact, the word "scientist" was not even invented until 1833. During the nineteenth century, however, the proliferation of scientific societies, journals, and opportunities for advanced research and education lead to the professionalization of the physical sciences and the formalized structure of specialization, publication, and academic training that characterizes modern scientific scholarship.


The primary characteristics of all professions are authority and autonomy. Only members of a profession are granted the privilege of determining what is true or valid within that field. For instance, only astronomers can determine whether a new discovery represents a pulsar or a quasar, just as only physicians can determine whether a growth is cancerous or benign. Once a determination has been made, it can only be legitimately challenged by another member of the same profession. The means by which a field gains this authority and autonomy generally revolve around coming to an agreement about what constitutes expertise in the field and creating positions in which a person can earn a living by practicing a profession.

During the nineteenth century four key elements came together to allow science to become a profession: 1) creation of salaried positions for work within a scientific field; 2) academic instruction at advanced levels; 3) formation of specialized societies and meetings; and 4) publication of new research in peer-reviewed journals. These elements arose at different times within various scientific fields, and across national borders. Between 1800 and 1900, however, almost all the physical sciences achieved these necessary elements and gained the status of professions.

In order to understand the developments in science in the nineteenth century, it is necessary to place the events in context. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries science was practiced by individuals who collected specimens, performed experiments, and communicated their discoveries with each other through informal correspondence. A few important organizations existed which served to give cohesion to this scattered group of natural philosophers. The Royal Society of London and the Paris Academy of Sciences held meetings at which members discussed scientific topics. The publications and correspondence of these organizations were very important for keeping members in touch with current discoveries and theories. As important as these societies were, they were not professional societies, because membership was not based on expertise in the field and many of the topics discussed bore little resemblance to science. In fact, many members of the Royal Society were wealthy aristocrats who considered it more of a gentlemen's club than a scientific society.


This informal organization of science might have continued indefinitely except for the changing role of science in society. Chemistry and physics were vital to the new technology and new industries arising during the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Advances in astronomy and new discoveries in magnetism were crucial for nautical navigation during this age of exploration and colonialism. As science became more important for the economy and military, the need for trained scientists encouraged the growth of educational and salary opportunities for scientists, along with the creation of methods for evaluating expertise. The creation of educational, salary, and evaluation opportunities came about through the development of scientific societies, journals and conferences, and university-supported science studies.

Although the Royal Society of London and the Paris Academy of Sciences had provided a foundation for gatherings of scientifically inclined individuals, by the nineteenth century there were numerous factors that promoted the growth of new societies. Primary among these were specialization and locality. As interest in science grew and more and more people outside of the big cities became involved in science, local societies were born throughout Europe and America. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Manchester Philosophical Society are examples of the many local societies formed to meet the needs of individuals who either did not have the social prestige necessary to be admitted to the Royal Society or who simply wished to be able to gather with other scientifically-inclined people near to home.

In addition to these many general science local societies, the nineteenth century saw the birth of specialized societies. Whereas the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences discussed all scientific topics, these specialized societies were dedicated to individual branches of science. The Astronomical Society of London was founded in 1820 to meet the needs of British astronomers, and the Astronomische Gesellschaft was formed in Germany in 1863. The first national chemical society was formed in England in 1841, and others were soon founded in other countries. In time, even more specialized societies arose as scientific fields split into narrower categories such as physical chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and so on. Societies allowed science to evolve from individuals pursuing science independently, to groups organized around a locality or a specific field. In time, these loosely organized groups gained national and even international cohesion.

Journals and conferences cemented the organization of science through widespread dissemination of new research and bringing together scientists at annual meetings. Most journals began as the published records of society meetings and articles submitted by members. The prestige and quality of the society, its members, and the editor of the journal combined to determine the prestige of the journal. While many society journals were only of local interest and ceased publication with the end of the society, others became widely read and are primary research publications in their respective fields to this day. For example, four of the major chemistry research journals today—the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Berichte of the Deutsche chemische Gesellschaft, the Journal of the Chemical Society of London, and the Bulletin of the Société chimique de Paris—began as society publications in the nineteenth century. Journals played an especially important role in the professionalization of science by presenting a space in which new research could be presented, reviewed, and spread throughout the scientific community.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century new scientific discoveries and research were published in many different kinds of periodicals. Articles about important scientific advances were likely to be found in general intellectual magazines next to literary stories and philosophical essays. As society journals became more prominent and gained prestige, it became more common for scientists to publish in these specialized journals. With more and more contributions, editors of the most prestigious journals had to select which articles to publish. Articles with the most interesting, accurate, and important information were the most likely to see print. Once published, articles were subject to intense scrutiny by the rest of the scientific community and reviews were often published in succeeding issues which either praised or condemned earlier articles. By the end of the nineteenth century, journals had replaced this informal system with a formal system of subjecting every submitted article to review by established and respected scientists before publication. This was the beginning of the peer-review system which is in place today. In this way journals became not only the main conduit for spreading scientific knowledge, but one of the primary tools for evaluating the credentials and merit of scientists and their work.

Like journals, conferences became another tool for disseminating new information and establishing scientific credentials. In Germany, scientists had begun to gather annually at a meeting called the Association for the Advancement of Science. A group of British scholars, recognizing the benefit of creating a society which was not as exclusive as the Royal Society and which catered to the outlying communities, formed the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831. The American Association for the Advancement of Science followed suit in 1848. These societies held annual meetings in cities and towns throughout the countries. During these meetings, scientists were given the opportunity to give talks and demonstrations about their research. Other societies began holding conferences and these soon became an important means for a scientist to make a name for himself and introduce his ideas or discoveries into the scientific community.

Although societies, journals, and conferences were necessary elements in the professionalization of science, the single most important development in the nineteenth century was the creation of university-supported science studies. The first university teaching and research lab was the lab of Justus Von Liebig (1803-1873), chemistry professor at Giessen in Germany. Before Liebig's lab, most advanced science education had taken place between individual masters and students. Undergraduate studies in science were available at most universities, but Liebig introduced the idea of teaching advanced science and supporting organized research at the university in 1827. In his lab, students took classes in advanced chemistry and undertook systematic research under the direction of established scientists. For the first time, students worked individually on distinct research projects which all addressed some aspect of a larger question posed by the professor in charge of the lab. This method benefited both the professor and the students. The professor was able to explore many different aspects of research within his field by delegating projects to his students. The students were able to learn advanced theory and experimental techniques under the guidance of one of the top scientists in the field, while working on individual research projects. Other universities soon followed the example of Giessen. In terms of aiding professionalization, this new system of labs created many new jobs for scientists and produced qualified individuals to fill the new positions. At last, students graduating with degrees in science could count on being able to find a salaried position that would allow them to earn money through teaching and doing research in their fields. Industry also hired many of these new graduates, knowing they had been appropriately trained and evaluated by their advisors.

Together, the growth of university-supported science studies, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, and societies provided the elements necessary for the physical sciences to become professions by the end of the nineteenth century. By 1900 astronomers, chemists, and physicists were trained in university labs, gained employment in academia or industry teaching and doing research, and presented their new discoveries in journals and at conferences. Through education and publication, scientists evaluated each other and determined who was to be considered "legitimate." These elements of professional science are still in place today. The organization that the scientific community created in the nineteenth century gave scientists the autonomy and authority over their fields which enables them to be considered professionals.


Further Reading


Oleson, Alexandra, and Sanborn Brown, eds. The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.


Ben-David, Joseph. "The Profession of Science and its Powers." Minerva 10 (1972): 362-383.

Shils, Edward. "The Profession of Science." The Advancement of Science 24 (1968): 469-480.

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The Transformation of the Physical Sciences into Professions During the Nineteenth Century

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The Transformation of the Physical Sciences into Professions During the Nineteenth Century