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Preserving and Enhancing Access to Physicist Owen W. Richardson’s Papers

By Marlene Renz

With the generous support of a grant from the History Programs, American Institute of Physics, the Ransom Center has created a new online finding aid for the papers of English physicist Owen W. Richardson (1879–1959). The papers were originally processed during the 1960s and described on more than 8,000 catalog cards. Enhanced collection housing was also part of the project, improving long-term preservation of the materials.

 

Recognized for his pioneering work on thermionics, Sir Owen Richardson was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Physics for Read more

Darwin Day: The Fossil Record of a Friendship

By Richard Oram

To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center.

 

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries”—as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

 

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

 

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

 

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

 

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

 

My dear Sir John Herschel

 

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

 

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

 

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Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

 

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Contemporary debates on vaccination policies have historical parallels in Ransom Center’s collections

By Jennifer Yang

Recently, The New York Times published an article on vaccination that has highlighted a resurging controversy. In late June 2014, a federal judge upheld a New York City policy barring unimmunized children from public schools, and objectors have decried the policy as an infringement upon their rights. In the United States, incomplete vaccination rates were highest among the poor until 1994, when the Vaccines for Children Program made it more affordable. Now, these rates are highest among the middle- and upper-classes, due to increasing philosophical and religious objections. However, such controversy is hardly new in the centuries-old history of vaccination. Documents in the Ransom Center’s collections cast historical light upon the modern vaccination debate.

 

In 1721 Boston, a smallpox epidemic generated an atmosphere of fear and suspicion when prominent physician Zabdiel Boylston began to counter the illness with vaccination methods. Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston clergyman, publicly declared his support of Boylston’s practices and encouraged other physicians to do the same. Outraged mobs believed vaccinators to be no better than murderers, and Boylston and Mather became subject to popular attacks, culminating in Boylston going into hiding with his family and practicing medicine in disguise. An assassination attempt made on Mather expressed the furious sentiments of the Bostonian public, as a bomb was thrown through his window with the affixed message “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

 

Vaccination came into more prominence and credulity with the publication of English physician Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae in 1798. Jenner made the observation that farmhands and dairy maids, exposed to cowpox disease through their daily work, seemed to possess immunity against the more severe disease of smallpox. Jenner conducted an extensive series of cowpox inoculation case studies, often following patients for several years and even inoculating his own 11-month-old son, to see if his hypothesis about the effects of vaccination were true. Jenner’s findings increased general confidence in vaccination, as he proved that cowpox inoculations from human to human could guard against smallpox, while previously patients were more dangerously inoculated directly with the smallpox virus or from diseased animal matter.

 

Jenner’s work contributed to the passing of the UK Vaccination Acts, key vaccination laws ranging from 1840 to 1907. The 1840 Act made vaccination free, while from 1853 to 1874 a series of more stringent acts made vaccination compulsory and even penalized objectors with fines and imprisonment. Anti-vaccination groups and protestors became more common in this period, as citizens were gripped by fears of the rumored spread of diseases such as syphilis through negligent vaccinators. Vaccination Brought Home to the People, an 1876 pamphlet by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, exclaims “If the devil delights in torturing, as it is represented, then indeed must he revel in Vaccination!” Pamphlets and lectures expressing such sentiments abounded as membership in anti-vaccination leagues and groups increased. A famous supporter against the UK Vaccination Acts was playwright George Bernard Shaw, who in 1906 wrote a fervent letter of support to the National Anti-Vaccination League, equating official methods of vaccination with “rubbing the contents of the dustpan into the wound.” Dissent was somewhat appeased by the Vaccination Acts of 1889–1907, which enforced regulation and safety measures for vaccination, as well as allowing for conscientious objection.

 

The Ransom Center also possesses many manuscripts on French scientist Louis Pasteur and his work on vaccination.  Pasteur worked on a rabies vaccine from 1881 to 1885, experimenting on dogs, rabbits, apes, and eventually humans. A catalyst to his professional reputation came about in 1885, when Joseph Meister, a 9-year-old shepherd, was mauled by a rabid dog. Though Pasteur did not hold a license to practice medicine, he conferred with his colleagues about the possibility of treating the boy. His longtime friend and collaborator, physician Émile Roux, refused to work with him on the case. Finally, Pasteur found two eminent physicians who agreed to supervise the treatment. The boy recovered successfully, and Pasteur was lauded as a hero—he became nationally famous, with poets even writing odes to his genius, and went on to co-found the Pasteur Institute with Émile Roux on the laurels of his acclaimed scientific achievement.

 

Religious and philosophical objections have risen over the past decade, with religious exemptions for vaccinations nearly doubling in New York, and tripling in Ohio, where a measles outbreak spread throughout the Amish population. The nation has also seen a resurgence in measles and mumps, with the highest rate of measles since 1994. Debate over vaccination laws and compulsory policies in schools continues to rage, as fervent supporters arise to counter objectors in equal measure. Contemporary battles over vaccination controversy may find parallels in the past, as the centuries-old arguments and ideas resound in the modern voices of vaccination’s supporters and detractors.

 

 

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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

 

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Kraus map collection now accessible

By Alicia Dietrich

Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.
Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.

The Ransom Center recently launched an online database for its Kraus map collection. The 36-map collection, acquired in 1969 by Harry Ransom from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus, features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, atlases, a rare set of large terrestrial and celestial globes (ca. 1688) produced by the Italian master Vincenzo Coronelli, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius.

“Visitors can see the remarkable foundations of modern cartography in this digital collection,” said Richard Oram, the Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian. “From a medieval map that shows the world divided into three parts split by the Mediterranean Sea to an early portolan chart of the coast of Africa and a rare 1541 Mercator globe, it’s all accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.”

Because of size and conservation considerations—some maps are as large as six by nine feet—some of these maps have been seen by only a handful of visitors. This digital collection makes it possible for a broader public to examine the collection via the Ransom Center’s website. The maps are all zoom-able, and users can view detailed close-ups of images.

Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.
A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

A collection of science materials from the family of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792–1871) is now open for research after a grant enabled staffers to rehouse the collection and to create an online inventory.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Herschel, the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their ground-breaking achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time, and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers. The Ransom Center’s Herschel collection is exceeded in size only by the collection at the Royal Society in London.

The cataloging project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

Ransom Center receives $10,000 grant to catalog collection of science materials

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in several individual fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their pioneering achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers.

The Herschel family papers will be closed to scholars during the duration of the grant, which runs through Dec. 31, 2011.

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Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.