History of Science Collections

In the 19th and 20th centuries, science became much more specialized and professionalized than it had previously been. Scientific publications proliferated, and whole new fields of research emerged. Houghton’s holdings in modern science include first-edition copies of landmark works as well as manuscript drafts, notes, and letters that provide insight into the working lives of modern scientists.

Houghton’s collection of modern scientific works owes much to the efforts of David P. Wheatland ‘22, the founder of Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Between 1941 and 1991, Wheatland gave over 4,600 rare scientific books to Houghton. His gifts reflect his special interests in magnetism and electricity, two subjects that received a great deal of attention in the 19th century. They include manuscript letters from George Louis Ampère and Hans Christian Oersted and published works from Georg Simon Ohm, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. A printed catalogue of Wheatland’s electromagnetism collection may be consulted at Houghton. The papers of Edwin Herbert Hall, a 19th century Harvard professor of physics, further enhance Houghton’s collection of work related to electromagnetism (finding aid).

Outside of physics, other modern scientific fields well represented in Houghton’s collection include evolutionary biology and experimental psychology. One of the most important moments in 19th century science was undoubtedly the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species. In addition to two first-edition copies of this work, Houghton’s collection also includes Darwin’s manuscript draft for one of its pages. Louis Agassiz, founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, was a prominent critic of Darwin’s work, and his correspondence with Darwin is included in Houghton’s collection of his papers. Harvard led the way in the establishment of experimental psychology, in large part through the efforts of professor William James. Houghton holds hundreds of James’ books, letters, notes, drafts and drawings, and several electronic finding aids are available for this material. The finding aid “William James papers: Guide” is a good place to start.

Houghton’s collection also features many examples of popular modern scientific literature. A majority of the books intended for younger audiences concern natural history. One of these, First Lessons in Botany, is by Asa Gray, a Harvard professor of botany and Darwin’s close friend and correspondent. Several periodicals in Houghton’s collection, including The Boy’s Own Paper, Popular Science Monthly, and Science Digest, are interesting for what they reveal about the popular reception of scientific ideas.  

To read about Houghton’s other holdings in science, follow these links for Early Science and Early Modern Science.


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