Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science

James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) was a chemist, educationist and diplomat who served as a president of Harvard University. Among various educational reforms he pushed for in his influential position, was a greater role for the history and philosophy of science in science education.

In 1948, Harvard University Press published two volumes consisting of eight case studies in the history of science, edited by Conant and others. In the introduction, Conant writes that they were “designed primarily for students majoring in the humanities or the social sciences.”

The thinking was that people from a variety of professions — such as policy makers, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, writers, etc. — could be called upon to evaluate the work of scientists. To be able to do this, they needed to have an understanding of how science worked.

But how do you understand how science works, without having mastered the latest scientific knowledge?

Conant and his co-editors chose stories of discovery from 18th and 19th century science for their case histories. These were narratives that anyone who had had a basic secondary school education in science could follow. And as Conant argues in the introduction, the underlying process of scientific inquiry had not changed much since the 18th century, although research institutions and scientific communication had become far more sophisticated.

I learnt about the Harvard Case Histories in my first year of teaching. I was excited to find used copies available on Amazon’s US website. They were old copies discarded by some university library and I paid $1 for the books and $25 for the shipping! I devoured the case histories and found fascinating ways to use the material to actually teach science in school. I’ll write more about those explorations later, but this post is about the books themselves.

Volume 1 has four case studies in the physical sciences:

  1. Robert Boyle’s experiments with vacuum and air pressure
  2. Phlogiston theory and the chemical revolution
  3. Development of heat and temperature as distinct concepts
  4. The development of the atomic-molecular theory including the question of atomic mass

Volume 2 has three case studies in the life sciences and one in the physical sciences:

  1. The discovery of photosynthesis
  2. Pasteur’s study of fermentation
  3. Pasteur’s and Tyndall’s study of spontaneous generation
  4. The development of the concept of electric charge – early experiments up to Coulomb

The digital copies are freely accessible on Internet Archive. The books must still be in copyright, but I suppose they have been made available with permission from the publishers, being out of print since 1957. Internet Archive must surely have done their homework before making it available.

Volume 1: https://archive.org/details/harvardcasehisto010924mbp
Volume 2: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.60093