Coining The term ‘scientist’

 

Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Galileo Galilei. What did they have in common? They did not consider themselves scientists.

From today’s perspective, Newton is categorised as a scientist. However, the term “scientist” had not yet been invented in the 18th century. Instead, these men called themselves Natural Philosophers or Naturalis Philosophus.

So, who coined the word scientist for the first time?

In 1834, it was William Whewell who in an article in the Quarterly Review first invented the term “scientist”.

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The year was 1834, the very same year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.  William Whewell was writing a review of Mrs Sommerville’s book ‘On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences’ in the periodical Quarterly Review. In his review of Somerville’s book he makes interesting remarks about the “female intellect”.

Our readers cannot have accompanied us so far without repeatedly feeling some admiration rising in their minds, that the work of which we have thus to speak is that of a woman. There are various prevalent opinions concerning the grace and fitness of the usual female attempts at proficiency in learning and science; and it would probably puzzle our most subtle analyst of common sense or common prejudice to trace the thread of rationality or irrationality which runs through such popular judgements. But there is this remarkable circumstance in the case, – that where we find a real and thorough acquaintance with these branches of human knowledge, acquired with comparative ease, and possessed with unobtrusive simplicity, all our prejudices against such female acquirements vanish. Indeed, there can hardly fail, in such cases, to be something peculiar in the kind, as well as degree, of the intellectual character. Notwithstanding all the dreams of theorists, there is a sex in minds. One of the characteristics of the female intellect is the result of feeling; thought, of seeing; their practical emotions do not wait for instruction from speculation; their reasoning is undisturbed by the prospect of its practical consequences. If they theorize, they do so

‘ In regions mild, of calm and serene air, Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot which men call earth.’

Remarkable as Somerville was in her intellect, she was not immune to being compared to the stereotypical view of what constituted a woman in the minds of men in the nineteenth century. For even in paying tribute to her work, Whewell remarks on stereotypes of Somerville’s gender in the same breath as his commendations to her.

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It was whilst Whewell was pondering on the bequizzlement set by Mrs Somerville’s book that he homed in on an issue that was highlighted by Mrs Somerville’s attempt to draw a common “Connexion of the Physical Sciences”.

Whewell notes that “A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.”

The British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford, and Cambridge felt a very “oppressive” want of any name. They needed a label to assign to these men of Science. Whewell recounts that “There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits”.

Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity of philology and metaphysician; savans was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English; some ingenious gentleman propose that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist – but this was not generally palatable; others attempted to translate the term by which the members of similar associations in Germany have describe themselves, but it was not found easy to discover an English equivalent for natur-forscher. The process of examination which it implies might suggest undignified compounds as nature-poker, or nature-peeper, for these naturæ curiosi; but these were indignantly rejected.

So in the end, “scientist” rose to prominence and indeed eventually became the most common label we assign to those who engage in Science. 

Thus, in 1834 the term ‘scientist’ was born.

By Suren Vynn

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