How the term "scientist" came to be

For most of history, scientists have been called natural philosophers. You might expect that scientist 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 term philosopher 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 called scientists.

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 that scientist 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.

More 19th century science

11 thoughts on “How the term "scientist" came to be

  1. I have heard that the ist, er, ian, etc. suffixes relates to the origin of languages. I would suppose if the same convention in 1835 was held in a different part of the world scientists would be called scienticians.

  2. 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.”

  3. Will: I was in the middle of updating the post to include your graph when your comment arrived. Thanks!

  4. Will, The lag may be credited to the fact that the word was not well received….. I am stealing John’s Blog to expand on the story a little, but it will be a day or two away…. As late as 1900 there were publishers who had the word on their not-acceptable list.

  5. Well, since we’re trying to be so *precise* here, the O.E.D. provides nearly the same story, verbatim, but gives it as reported in the Quarterly Review for 1834. So maybe a year off? Maybe an error in the Oxford English Dictionary?

  6. How about taking a view from the character of the membership of the Royal Society around 1830-1836 – when A.B. Granville delivered two studies of the works of the Fellows of the Royal Society and in ‘The Royal Society in the XIXth century’, 1836, in a table recording the extent of Fellows’ contributions to the Philosophical Transactions gave indications of those who did in fact appear for the Society as ‘scientists’ with papers and endeavours to fit the term, and those who clearly did not. – With one outcome being that within a decade or so the Royal Society tightened the qualifications needed for membership of what then became in effect a Royal Society … of Scientists …

  7. According to scholar Renée Bergland , the term was first used to describe a female populiser of science – Mary Somerville- because “man of science” would have been inappropriate.
    How reliable is this?

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