George Sarton (1884-1956), who developed history of science as an academic discipline in America, was born and educated in Ghent. His family descended from both the Flemish and the Walloon communities of Belgium, and although his French was better than his Dutch, he sympathized with the plight of Dutch speakers early in the twentieth century. His father was a chief engineer of the Belgian railways. His mother, considerably younger than his father, spoke a number of languages and played the piano; she died when Sarton was in his second year. His father never remarried.

After attending athénées in Ghent and Chimay, Sarton entered the University of Ghent. He began studying letters with the thought of reading for the law. Among his juvenilia are two novellas, literary commentary, and a stream of correspondence with a wide range of intellectuals. He then turned to study chemistry in the laboratory of Frédéric Swarts. In 1908, for his candidate’s degree, he defended a thesis on the physical chemistry of negative self-catalysis in a heterogeneous system; it received first-prize for chemistry among all theses at the four Belgian universities, garnering a gold medal, and also a silver laurel branch from the city of Ghent. He changed direction once more and studied mathematics and physics, in 1911 successfully completing a doctoral dissertation on the principles of Newton’s mechanics. Sarton’s jury lacked the professor best qualified to comment on history of science, mathematician Paul Mansion, who had retired the previous year. Mansion requested permission to continue teaching his history of science course, but in his place the authorities appointed a younger man, Arthur Claeys, who judged Sarton’s text. Sarton expressed dissatisfaction with the dissertation, and in 1912 he hoped to rewrite it taking account of Einstein’s relativity. No copy of the manuscript survives.

Sarton was an unruly child without siblings. He received instruction and guidance from relatives, but only at the beginning of physical maturity did he acquire the ethical principles and aesthetic sensibilities that guided him for much of his life. Around age 21, he cast his lot with intellectuals in the Belle Epoque who embraced socialism, feminism, pacifism, vegetarianism, and abstinence. In parallel with university studies and beginning a career as an independent scholar, Sarton animated a number of progressive political and social organizations in Ghent and in Belgium. Across the years leading into the First World War, this role brought him into communication with many distinguished thinkers, among whom were the Nobel laureates Romain Rolland, Maurice Maeterlinck, Henri Bergson, Henri Lafontaine, and Wilhelm Ostwald, in addition to Nobel laureates whom he encountered in the course of his scholarly activities—Nicholas Murray Butler, Sir William Ramsay, and Charles-Edouard Guillaume. Other people in his pre-war circle ranged from Victor Alter, who later led the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia (known as the Bund), to the Breton nationalist and writer Emile Masson, to Emile Waxweiler, the socialist confidant of philanthropist Ernest Solvay.

Through an association for self-improvement which he helped found, Reiner Leven, Sarton met his future wife, Mabel Elwes, who was studying art and design in Ghent. A liberal, free-thinking engineer, Elwes’s father raised his daughter without much direction; he died suddenly in 1906, his investments without value. By this time, Elwes was living in Ghent at the home of a childhood friend, Celine Dangotte, whose parents Leopoldine and Adolphe Dangotte owned a successful business in interior design. In Zurich, Elwes studied under Julius de Praetere, a member of the circle of Symbolist writers and artists in the Ghent suburb of Laethem St-Martin, and then she worked for the Dangottes. Elwes’s designs for fabric and furniture received critical acclaim in London and Ghent. Her international reputation preceded Sarton’s. When she and Sarton moved to America in 1915, she partnered in a firm specializing in peasant-style embroidery.

Sarton and Elwes married in 1911. Sarton’s father died two years earlier, leaving him an inheritance which he invested in a house and property in Wondelgem, a suburb of Ghent. His income, enough to support a family, was insufficient to underwrite his life’s work, which he declared to be writing a general history and philosophy of science and also to promoting social democracy. Foremost in his plans was the inauguration in 1912 of Isis, a general periodical for the history of science. Sarton knocked on doors to obtain a teaching position, and he earned a bit of money by writing for publications in the periodical press, but from the outset his domestic situation was bedeviled by penury. Maintaining Isis was ruinous. Into the 1930s, much of his enterprise related to a search for funding.

The invasion of Belgium in 1914 tipped Sarton’s domestic disequilibrium into crisis. The income from his investments ceased. German soldiers occupied his home. In the autumn, Sarton, Elwes, and their young daughter May fled to England, where Sarton had already made professional contacts and where Elwes had distinguished relatives (among them the widow of Lt. General Sir George Digby Barker, former acting administrator of Hong Kong and Governor General of Bermuda). Sarton worked in the Hostile Country Censor Branch of the War Office for £3 per week, while his wife and daughter lived precariously with friends and family. In March 1915, with help from historian of mathematics David Eugene Smith and chemist Leo Baekeland, he set off for America; his wife and daughter joined him in September. Sarton taught at several American universities (George Washington University, University of Illinois) and worked for Belgian interests (the Belgian Scholarship Committee, the League to Enforce Peace). In 1916, through the intercession of Nobel laureate Theodore W. Richards and biochemist Lawrence Joseph Henderson, Sarton obtained a two-year lectureship in history of science at Harvard University, funded in part by Baekeland.

In the last months of his life at Wondelgem, George Sarton had written for support to Robert Simpson Woodward of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the world’s largest research organization. During the war he maintained contact with Woodward. On Easter 1918, with his lectureship at Harvard ending, Sarton wrote again to Woodward in desperation. Woodward, who had tried unsuccessfully to interest the British polymath John Theodore Merz in writing a general history of science, obtained favorable recommendations about Sarton from academic advisors, including historian Andrew Dickson White, and then appointed Sarton as a limited-term Carnegie researcher. Sarton remained on the Carnegie payroll until he retired in 1951, following the death of his wife.

Sarton experimented with holding his Carnegie position in Washington, where he had a desk in the Library of Congress, but he and his family much preferred the intellectual climate of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He obtained a room in Harvard’s Widener Library in exchange for being an instructor in the history of science. Harvard exploited him in this fashion for years. On 20 June 1935, the university awarded him (along with Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann) an honorary doctorate, but only in 1940 did Sarton become a professor there.

Sarton’s tapestry, Isis, did not appear during the First World War. It resumed in 1920 under essentially the same conditions as those at Wondelgem: Sarton paid for it from his personal income and printed it in Belgium. Around 1920 he hoped to line up a publishing house in England or America, but his contacts (Sir William Osler and Joseph Singer for Oxford University Press, and Paul Carus and Philip Jourdain with the Open Court) variously expired or lost interest in the project. Sarton persisted issuing Isis through the early 1920s, his family avoiding ruin only through his wife’s enterprise in design. In 1924, a group of his friends and colleagues assembled to create the History of Science Society as a means of financing Isis. It was a solution that Sarton—an inveterate promoter of societies and associations—had desired for nearly a decade. The journal continued for a quarter century under Sarton’s firm, idiosyncratic guidance as editor; the financial arrangement has persisted to our own time.

Isis and an association with Harvard conferred authority on George Sarton. The authority was sealed with his Introduction to the History of Science, a vast summary of his bibliographical gleanings and preliminary generalizations, appearing between 1927 and 1948. The work, consisting of lucid reflections and abbreviated commentary, issued from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It proceeds chronologically from paleolithic times to the fourteenth century, and it is organized around savants drawn from all fields of study.

George Sarton was no stranger to Babel. He read the major European languages, in addition to ancient Latin and Greek. Speaking was more troublesome. He acquired oral English at the time of his exile from Belgium (in Europe, he and his wife usually spoke to each other in French). When he thought that his first major book would be devoted to Leonardo (it never appeared), he devoted many months to Italian. South Asia captivated him in the years leading up to the First World War. He put together an issue of Isis devoted to science in India (the war prevented the issue from appearing), and one of his closest colleagues in England and America was Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy—former geologist, Indian nationalist, and curator of Asian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. For years, he sought funding to travel in East Asia. With the help of a student assistant during his first years at Harvard, he learned enough Chinese to pick his way through texts. But it was Arabic that above all drew his attention. He taught himself the language by reading classical texts, and he benefited from tutors like the great Islamicist Duncan Black Macdonald. He was able to write Arabic tolerably well, and he was highly regarded by the community of Arabic scholars in Europe and beyond it. Sarton’s thoughts on Islamic science are quoted today.

In spirit, George Sarton belongs to an intellectual tradition that valued reasonable discourse and advocated social justice. The tradition embraced such diverse figures as Romain Rolland, Henri de Man, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein, and finds a concrete reference point in the foundation of UNESCO. It is no accident that Sarton was friendly with early directors at UNESCO, Julian Huxley and Joseph Needham. (Huxley and his wife were close friends as well of Sarton’s daughter, May.) From a certain perspective, Needham’s vast study of science in China is an extension of Sarton’s project, just as Sarton extended Paul Tannery’s aims. It is also significant to observe that one of the greatest sociological thinkers of the past century, Robert King Merton, known for his normative defense of the scientific life, cut his scholarly teeth as Sarton’s student and published his first major work as a monograph in Osiris, Sarton’s periodical companion to Isis.

Sarton was the first scholar to lecture on the history of science from the invention of handsaws to quantum statistics. More than fifty years after his death, his writings appear in the scientific and scholarly literature. In his retirement and during the decades following his death, Sarton’s generalist approach to history of science was overshadowed by the work of philosophically-minded commentators and hyper-specialists. George Sarton was only too aware of his failings. Proud of the artistic success of his wife and daughter, he had from the outset a realistic appreciation of the magnitude of his own star. “When people ask 50 or 100 years hence what I did,” he wrote in 1922, “I hope they will be told, ‘He founded the history of science, he established it as an independent and organized discipline.’” In this role across the first half of the twentieth century, he is without peer.

Lewis Pyenson
Sarton Chairholder 2005-2006

Author of The Passion of George Sarton: A Modern Marriage and Its Discipline (Philadelphia, 2007) [=American Philosophical Society, Memoirs, 260]