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According to Linnaeus's classification, I come under the head of the Miscellaneous Botanophilists.

Thoreau, February 17, 1852, Journal, [1906] 1962, 4:309

Even by his contemporary standards, Thoreau cannot be counted among those who were becoming an increasingly professionalized group. Thoreau

himself carefully eschewed formally affiliating with the scientific community, and to the extent that he had any interaction, it was in the role of amateur naturalist—in his day, to be sure, a serious commitment. In that capacity, he lectured, wrote various natural history essays, was enrolled by Louis Agassiz, the newly Harvardappointed Swiss biologist, to collect specimens (beginning with turtles and fishes in the spring and summer of 1847), and was elected a corresponding member of the Boston Society of Natural History in December 1850. He joined that society largely for the same reason he had petitioned Harvard College in September 1849, namely, to have library privileges. (Thoreau declined to join the Association for the Advancement of Science at least partly because there was no such ostensible reason to justify his affiliation.) Founded in 1830, the Boston Society published both a Proceedings and a Journal, both of which were highly valued in European and American libraries.

For Thoreau, the most important appeal of these societies was not this venue for publication so much as the access to the libraries of Boston and Cambridge they provided. By 1850 these libraries were premier in scholarly resources (Bruce 1987, p. 39). Boston in particular, and Massachusetts in general, led the nation in total volumes; more significantly in this context, they excelled in the categories of collegiate and learnedsociety libraries. This statistic indicates the character of the Boston intellectual community. In the spring of 1846 the geologist Josiah Whitney called Boston “the only city in America where anything of any account is done for science” (cited by Bruce 1987, p. 32). A hyperbolic statement, perhaps, but based on an assessment of the actual distribution of major scientists and the institutions supporting them. Through the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a disproportionate number of those educated in the Boston constellation would emerge as the leaders of the larger scientific community. Despite being half the size of Philadelphia and a third of New York's population, by 1846, when Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, Boston had taken the lead in American science by possessing the deepest infrastructure to support scientific inquiry. As Robert Bruce has documented (1987, pp. 29 ff.), the factors that came into play for Boston to assume this role indicate deep historical and cultural roots, the most important being a strong educational tradition in Puritan New England and the support offered by Boston's social and commercial elite who, in underwriting institutions of learning, expressed an ideal of stewardship and noblesse oblige. Combined with a strong Yankee competitive work ethic and a cultural ideal that opportune circumstances might be translated into material gain, the key institutions supporting science—societies, libraries, colleges—were richly endowed.


Such resources promoted the professionalization of scientists. By 1846, two out of every three scientists confined themselves to a single major field, and specialization was even more practiced than this statistic indicates. The third of the scientists who apparently worked in several disciplines were actually more likely to perform minor interdisciplinary research. For instance, the number of crossover geologists might be increased by counting a chemist who analyzed geological specimens, or a physicist who measured terrestrial magnetism. On closer scrutiny, there was widespread application of specialized interests and skills (ibid., p. 94).

So in the mid-1840s, of the life scientists listed in the Dictionary of American Biography, 10 percent bore the oldfashioned label of “naturalist.” While there was a rich tradition of natural history in America (e.g., the wellknown travels of the Bartrams, the celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition, the popular paintings of Audubon), by this time the work of the naturalists was being eclipsed by a descriptive biology based on another scientific agenda. Zoology heavily influenced by an intellectual explosion in geology and paleontology expanded prodigiously; growing controversy over the nature of species would swell into the polemics over Darwinism in 1859; descriptive embryology was radically changing as a result of the acceptance of the cell theory in the 1840s and the preoccupation with species relationships; physiology was emerging as a new discipline, stimulated in large measure by attempts to make medical correlations. And botany was growing as a specialty area, led by Harvard's Asa Gray, whose Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1848) made an organized science out of American systematic botany. But Americans, despite their professionalization in the various life sciences, lagged behind Europe in experimental biology. Indeed, there was no significant research before 1880 in that arena, and despite ambitious American enterprise, the instrumentation and technology required to support sophisticated scientific research also remained largely European until the next century.

Much of the growth of American science in the nineteenth century depended upon the colleges and the societies, both of which lobbied the government and wealthy patrons for support. By promoting science and presenting its advances to the public at large, scientific societies served to increase the cultural presence of science generally. Strong amateur participation characterized these societies. Both the Boston Society of Natural History and the older American Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded 1780) housed a majority that was made up of “gentlemen who, to use an expression of … [the] founders [of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia], are ‘friendly to science’ and its cultivation. Many of them pursue science

only as a recreation during leisure hours, some are pleased to observe and know what others do, and others are content to encourage those who work” (from a report on the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; cited by Bruce 1987, p. 36). During the 1840s, even a small village might form a “scientific society” to organize discussion groups and host lectures, for the insularity of professional exchange had yet to be created, and those inclined could still engage directly with the latest discoveries and theories.

Mid-Nineteenth-century science was thus accessible to a broad population, both conceptually and socially. The larger scientific societies played an important role in science's “democratization” by distributing information and serving as important repositories of books, periodicals, specimens, and apparatus that might be employed even by the amateur. Amateurism was part of the general democratic ethos of American society of this post-Jacksonian period, and so we might well imagine that Thoreau could affiliate comfortably with the Boston Society of Natural History and still maintain a strong aloofness from the trend to professionalize. He lived in multiple worlds. Indeed, Emerson and Whitman, like Thoreau, not only respected scientists, they sought their company and welcomed interchange with them (Bruce 1987, p. 118). But the tides were, in fact, changing, and the respected amateur scientist was rapidly being eclipsed by the professional. In 1846, when Thoreau was studying Walden Pond and its surrounding forests, only 15 percent of the leading scientists (as determined by their listing in the Dictionary of American Biography) were amateurs, drawing no income from their sciencerelated work; by the time of Thoreau's death sixteen years later, the percentage had shrunk to 9 percent (Bruce 1987, p. 135). In regard to natural history in particular, Agassiz was instrumental in relegating its field studies to secondrate status, reducing its fieldbased model to an amateur standing (as opposed to specialty training offered at Harvard), and essentially disfranchising the scientific role of its supporting institutions like the Boston Society of Natural History (Kohlstedt 1976; Walls 1995, p. 146). Already in the 1840s, research and study groups at Harvard were superseding the training, cooperative enterprises, and research activities of the Boston Society, so that by 1867, when the society opened its own Museum of Science, its goals had become almost entirely educational as opposed to researchoriented.

Agassiz's sentiments were formed in Europe, where natural history, especially in the Germanspeaking states, was already being professionalized (Nyhart 1996, pp. 426–29). With an emphasis on morphology and physiology, a new journal (founded in 1848),Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, sought to establish a more scientific approach to what passed for

natural history as Thoreau might have understood it. Excluding what they deemed applied topics and plain taxonomy, the editors wrote:

We desire to give our journal the most scientific character possible…. To this purpose we exclude all announcements of new genera and species that do not relate to this task, unless they offer us a more thoroughgoing insight into plant and animal structure [Bau], into the lifehistory of animals and plants, or in the lawful organization of the organic realms. For the same reason we will exclude any kind of simple notes and natural history news. (Quoted by Nyhart 1996, p. 429)

With the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, the boundaries of natural history were again redrawn, and the fate of life histories in the evolving discipline of biology followed a complex path. This move toward a scientific ethos which emphasized “structure” and “organization” and disregarded nonsystematic natural history “notes” and “news” reflected the influence of an increasingly stringent view of the organic realm. To a large extent this attitude drifted in from German reductionism, born in the 1840s (Galaty 1974), and in the drive toward a reductionist account of nature we witness the most dramatic contrast to Thoreau's own endeavor. Not only did reductionism reflect an orientation radically different from his holism, but the adherents of its approach were professional scientists, who were little concerned with the practice of what they perceived to be an outmoded style of studying nature.

Thus by the 1850s, despite the democratization of science, a perceptible widening schism had opened between the professionals and their supporting culture. Some scientists of the period admittedly deplored the political and social necessity of promoting and popularizing their profession. For instance, in 1854 James Dana complained that to satisfy the “vulgar appetites of the people,” science had to be “diluted and mixed with a sufficient amount of the spirit of the age” (cited by Bruce 1987, p. 115). It is not clear what Dana meant specifically by “spirit of the age,” but he might well have had in mind the lingering Romantic airs, which were not easily mixed with the emerging clouds of invention and burgeoning technology issuing forth from laboratories revitalized by a new scientific ethos.

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