The Philosophical Breakfast Club

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How the term “scientist” came to be

For most of history, scientists have been called natural philosophers. You might expect thatscientist gradually and imperceptibly replaced natural philosopher over time. Surprisingly, it’s possible pinpoint exactly when and where the term scientist was born.

It was June 24, 1835 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in attendance. (He had previously written about the scientific method.) Coleridge declared that although he was a true philosopher, the termphilosopher should not be applied to the association’s members. William Whewell responded by coining the word scientist on the spot. He suggested

by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.

Since those who practice art are called artists, those who practice science should be calledscientists.

This story is comes from the prologue of Laura Snyder’s new book The Philosophical Breakfast Club (ISBN 0767930487). The subtitle is “Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World.” William Whewell was one of these four friends. The others were John Herschel, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage.

Update 1: Will Fitzgerald created the following Google Books ngram that suggests thatscientist was used occasionally before 1835 and would take another 30 years to start being widely used in books. Click on the image to visit the original ngram.

So it is with many innovations: the person credited with the innovation may not have been entirely original or immediately successful. Still, perhaps Whewell’s public confrontation with Coleridge gave scientist a push on the road to acceptance.

Update 2: Pat Ballew fills in more of the story on his blog including editorial opposition to the term scientist. Pat brings more famous people into the story, including H. L. Mencken, Michael Faraday, and William Cullen Bryant.

Update 3: Here’s an excerpt from The Philosophical Breakfast Club.

  1. My favorite Coleridge quote that isn’t part of a poem: “My Opinion is this—that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation.”

     

 

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