History of scientific organizations and institutions

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Science As Organization

There is a tendency for many to view the history of science as a series of individual achievements, with scientific knowledge advancing directly from investigator to investigator, one mind to another mediated only by the awareness of individual researchers of the work of their predecessors. Yet, modern science is often as much a collective as an individual effort and the history of science contains numerous examples of important instances in which institutions, associations, groups and networks of collaborating and competing investigators and other collective efforts figure importantly. And it isn’t just formal institutions and organizational and bureaucratic ties that bring this about. Also important are informal associations and collegial, reputational and other networks.

Science, like Citizendium, is inherently a collaborative endeavor involving many individuals working in proximity to one another. In some fundamental ways (e.g., the peer review process) the very idea of science as a solo operation is an oxymoron. Awareness of such networks of collaborators, competitors, rivals and even bitter enemies is not only important in contemporary terms. It also counters many conventional stereotypes of sciences originating in the minds of solo investigators working in isolation.

Aristotle's Lyceum

In the ancient Greek world, a scientific institution created by Aristotle was both important in its own terms and a pre-cursor of even more important activity. Aristotle was the son of the court physician at Macedon. He is thought to have entered Plato's Academy at about the age of 17 and remained there for 20 years until after Plato's death in 347 BC. Matson (1968) reports a long-standing view that Aristotle left Athens following the death of Plato after not being named to head the Academy, and opened his own philosophical school after being passed over a second time upon the death of Speusippius. [1]. Whether or not this is historically accurate matters primarily to ancient historians. From the standpoint of organizations and institutions, these claims have a ring of authenticity to them, as anyone familiar with programmatic struggles and leadership succession issues in contemporary scientific organizations and associations can attest.

Following a few years absence, which apparently included various philosophical, biological and zoological research activities Aristotle undertook supervision of the education of Alexander the Great for three years, and about 335 BC returned to Athens to open his own philosophical school, which we know as the Lyceum. Like Plato's Academy, the Lyceum was probably located outside Athens, a short distance northeast of the city and named after a place. The curriculum of the Lyceum was decidedly Aristotelian with a strong emphasis on natural science, particularly biology, and natural history. According to Matson (115), the Lyceum contained an extensive library and collection of plant and animal specimens. It also may have been the base of operations for a large research network of biological investigators that reached across the region. Moses Finlay notes that at one time, Aristotle is reputed to have had a network of at least 1,000 researchers in the field gathering data throughout the Mediterranean region.[2]

The Internet Encyclopedia of Science expresses doubts on this point:

Both Philip [then King of Macedonia] and Alexander appear to have paid Aristotle high honor, and there were stories that Aristotle was supplied by the Macedonian court, not only with funds for teaching, but also with thousands of slaves to collect specimens for his studies in natural science. These stories are probably false and certainly exaggerated. [3]

Following the example of Plato's Academy, there were also a number of other philosophical schools founded in Athens by Epicurius and others, some of which endured for many centuries, but Aristotle's Lyceum appears to be the one with the clearest connection to the history of science.

The Library of Alexandria

Another institution with an important connection to the historical development of science is the library, defined as a collection, common resource pool or knowledge commons of writings, manuscripts, codexes or encoded information available to a group of scientists or other knowledge workers. Both the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle had their own libraries, founded in the 4th century BCE. The earliest university library was probably the Buddhist Takshila (Takshashila or Taxila) University, established around 600 BCE. This university was in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, now a part of Pakistan. Very little is known about its library collection, but there are some notable relics, although it is not clear if any of these are directly linked to the history of science. The oldest university library still in existence today is the Al-Qarawiyin University Library in Fez, Morocco, which was founded circa A.D. 859 [1].

Early archeological excavations at Herculaneum (near Pompeii) also unearthed evidence of a large library there. A collection of 2,000 carbonized Greek and Latin scrolls, mostly Epicurean philosophical writings, was found in a luxurious Herculaneum house known as the Villa of the Papyri, which was discovered in 1752.[4]

No library in the ancient world, however, is better known or more interesting to the history of science than that which developed when Alexandria was made capital of Egypt after the conquest by Alexander in 332 BC. The Library of Alexandria was part of a larger complex known variously as The Museum or the University of Alexandria, founded during the reign of Ptolemy I, who had been one of Alexander's commanders. It was essentially a 'research and graduate teaching institute' which formed part of the Royal Palaces of Alexandria, and the Library, in turn, formed part of the Museum. Ancient Egypt was already familiar with the concept of libraries as manuscript collections. The first libraries in Egypt had developed by 2000 BCE. Before 1000 BCE, the library in the Hittite capital had tablets in eight languages, and before 600 BCE, the library at Nineveh contained poetry, educational texts and grammars. Nor did the Ancient Mediterranean have any monopoly on libraries. Following the example of Takshila mentioned above, numerous Indian universities had well developed libraries and the Chinese scholars also began collecting texts of various kinds at a very early date.

Even so, the Library at Alexandria holds a special place in history and in the history of science. The term museum originally referred to the corporation dedicated to the cult of the Muses. [5] Also in the Museum at Alexandria were a public walk, an exendra with seats, and a large house with a common room for the fraternity of scholars and scientists who were fellows of the Museum, and a zoological garden with many species of African and Asian flora and fauna. This fellowship of scholars and scientists was the corporate holder of the Museum property and was headed by a priest appointed directly by the ruler. This community of scholars was maintained by the king and enjoyed an exemption from taxes. Because it was funded directly from the Royal Treasury, the Museum also had greater resources available to it than any of the Athenian philosophical schools. In return, it was expressly forbidden to teach or engage in political research. [6]

The original faculty at the Museum of Alexandria were mostly graduates of the Lyceum in Athens. [7] The objectives of the library were to assemble in one collection all works of Greek thought in correct texts, and to make available in Greek translation major works in foreign languages.

The scientific achievements of the Library of Alexandria are the stuff of legend. Among the lasting achievements of the Library are Euclid's geometry, along with Greek translation of the Old Testament (although it is unclear whether this work was actually done at the library or in the Greek-speaking Jewish communities of Alexandria, according to Preaux.[8] various histories of ancient Egypt, numerous detailed human anatomy studies and the famous pre-Cupernican Ptolemeic map of a flat earth circumscribed by a revolving sun. The world map was based in part upon African and Asian scientific expeditions in the Aristotelian mode which gathered the animals and plants for the zoo. Also developed there were the pipe organ and the steam turbine. [9]

As befits a large scale scientific enterprise, the economic significance of the Museum at Alexandria was also quite profound:

The library attracted so many visiting scholars that feeding and housing them became an important Alexandrian industry. Copying services were provided so that the library was in effect a publishing house as well. In this way the diffusion of learning was greatly aided. Nevertheless, it remains a tragic puzzle why printing was not invented at this time. There is nothing in the printing process that should have been beyond Alexandrian ingenuity. Probably the scarcity of paper, made by a laborious method in small sheets, was the factor that made printing infeasible. [10]

Arab Science

(Editor's Note: This section is merely a stub. There is a great deal more of importance to be noted about the institutions of Arab science, but little is known in English sources about matters of organization.)

Although the achievements of the Museum of Alexandria are to some degree unprecedented, other great library collections aided the development of pre-modern science. The caliph al-Hakam II, for example, is reputed to have gathered a library of 400,000 volumes of theology, medicine, arithmetic, logic, astronomy, lexicography, grammar, poetry, history, jurisprudence, and other Andalusian sciences in 10th Century Muslum Cordoba.[11] His successor, Hisham II began his reign with a public burning of all the books dealing with the ancient sciences of the Greeks, and there followed a climate of repression and gradual extinction of scholarship and scientific learning.

The Fellowship

One of the most important and interesting of early modern scientific networks is found in 17th century British history of science in what John Gribbin calls “the fellowship”.[12]

His is a tale involving both nationally important organizations and international networks. Gribbin traces a remarkable set of relationships mediated through the Royal Society of London and Oxford University of many of the most prominent 17th century scientists. William Gilbert , Francis Bacon , William Harvey , Robert Hooke , Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys, John Wilkins , Christopher Wren, and Isaac Newton were among the many who formed what might be termed the social organization of 17th century English science. And their awareness of and communication with other, non-British investigators, including Galileo is also well documented by Gribbin and other historians of science.

Scientific Laboratories

Much contemporary science and engineering is organized into laboratories. The term scientific laboratory (often abbreviated to lab) is applied to a highly diverse set of institutions, groups and organizations. It applies to large, publicly funded institutions like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and others. It also applies to a variety of corporate research and development facilities like Bell Laboratories and nonprofits like the Rand Corporation. Such laboratories are typically clusters of large numbers of independent or semi-autonomous laboratories run by individual investigators or research groups or teams. The term laboratory is also frequently applied to these sub-sets of research institutions and universities, especially in engineering, biomedical and basic science fields.


  1. Wallace I. Matson (1968). A History of Philosophy. American Book Company, p. 115. Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) 68003098. 
  2. Moses I. Finley (1974) Aristotle and economic analysis, in ed. Moses I. Finley (1974). Studies in Ancient Society. Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 26-52. ISBN 0-7100-7781-5. 
  3. Aristotle (384—322 BCE) From the website of the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)
  4. A Library of Mud and Ashes Julie H. Walker(Spring 2001), "BYU Magazine", Brigham Young University. Accessed June 6, 2011.
  5. Matson, op cit., 154
  6. Matson, op. cit. 155
  7. Matson, op. cit. 115
  8. C. Préaux (1967), Alexandria Under the Ptolemies in ed. Arnold Toynbee (1967). Cities of Destiny. McGraw-Hill, p.114. 
  9. Matson, op. cit. p. 155
  10. Matson, op. cit. 155
  11. A. Arberry (1967), Muslim Cordoba in ed. Arnold Toynbee (1967). Cities of Destiny. McGraw-Hill, p. 175-6. 
  12. John R. Gribbin (2005). The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution. Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9745-1.