The Eighth International Congress of the History of Science Florence-Milan, 3-9 September 1956

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  • The Eighth International Congress of the History of Science Florence-Milan, 3-9 September1956Author(s): I. Bernard CohenSource: Isis, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Jun., 1957), pp. 176-181Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 16:56

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  • The Eighth International Congress

    of the History of Science


    3-9 September I956 By L. Bernard Cohen *

    THE Eighth International Congress of the History of Science was the fourth to be held since the end of the Second World War.' The Congress was

    organized by an Italian committee under the presidency of Professor Vasco Ronchi, Direttore del Istituto Nazionale di Ottica (Florence), ably assisted by Dott. Maria Luisa Bonelli, of the Museo di Storia della Scienza (Florence) and Professor Maria Timpanaro Cardini. Thirty-two nations were represented, with delegates present from every major country in which the history of science is studied, including Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain.2

    So great was the number of announced papers that the Congress had to be held in six separate sessions, devoted respectively to: The History of Mathe- matics, Physics, and Astronomy; The History of Chemistry and Pharmacy; The History of Geography and Geology; The History of Biology and Medicine; The History of Technology and Applied Science; The History of Science in General. A pleasing and notable feature of the Congress was the preparation of bound books containing mimeographed abstracts of each communication presented in the three official languages of the Congress - Italian, French, and English - which were handed out to each participant when he registered.

    * Harvard University. 'The first Congress was held in Paris in May

    I929 (see Archeion, I929, 2: i-cix), followed by the London Congress held in June-July I93I (described in Archeion, vols. I3, 14). The third and fourth Congresses were held respectively in Porto and Coimbra in September-October I934 and Prague, September I937 (see Archeion, I934, 16: 335-372; I937, I9: 390-396; and Isis, I938, 28: I35-I38). A complete account of the third Congress was published in Actes, conferences et communications (Lisbon, I936), and an English translation of the Russian papers delivered at the London Congress was published in a book en- titled, Science at the Cross Roads (London I93I).

    The fifth Congress was held in Lausanne in September-October I947. The Actes du Ve Con- gres were published in the "Collection de Travaux de F'Acad6mie, Internationale d'Histoire des Sci-

    ences," No. 2 (Paris, I948), the papers gathered together there being reprinted from their first publication in the Archives. The sixth Congress was held in Amsterdam in August I950; see Actes du VI' Congres Internationale d'Histoire des Sci- ences, published in the "Collection de Travaux de lI'Acad6mie," No. 6 (Paris, I95I-I953). The seventh Congress was held in Jerusalem in Au- gust I953; the Actes were published in the "Col- lection de Travaux de l'Academie," No. 8 (Paris, I954). An account of this Congress, by George Sarton, was published in Isis, I954, 45: 63-77.

    2 Official registrations included Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Czecho- slovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Roumania, Spain, Syria, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R.


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    The abstracts made the understanding of the different papers much simplier than it would have been merely to have heard them in their respective languages. This was but one of the many thoughtful acts of the organizers of the Congress, who set no bounds to the attention they paid to the diverse needs of all who attended. We shall long harbor a deep debt of gratitude to our Italian hosts for the pleasant and courteous way in which they saw to the day-to-day tasks, and particularly for the arrangements that they made to insure a rewarding experience to the members of the Congress, as well as to their families (for whom special tours were arranged).3 Most of all we are especially grateful to Dott. Bonelli, who was responsible for all the details, and whose radiant good humor enhanced the pleasure of everyone present.

    The inaugural session of the Congress was held in the beautiful Sala dei Dugento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and opened by Professor Ronchi, who introduced Professor Roberto Almagia, President of the Gruppo Italiano di Storia delle Scienze. Brief greetings were delivered by Professor Raymond Klibansky (of McGill University, the representative of the National Research

    'One of the difficulties that arose at the Con- gress may be mentioned here, primarily to serve as an aid to the organizing of future congresses. Despite the preparations made long in advance by the organizers of the Congress, there were a great many last-minute changes imposed by the sudden and unexpected appearance of official delegates and individuals who wished to present papers, and the withdrawal of others who found it impossible to attend the Congress. Owing to this circumstance, outside the control of the Italian group, some confusion arose as to which papers were being given and which were not. It is certainly to be hoped that in future some policy may be adopted by which last-minute papers may be gracefully refused. Of course, there is probably nothing that can be done to insure that those persons who have announced papers will actually appear. In this regard, the organizers of the Congress wisely adopted the rule that no papers could be delivered in absen- tia, and that every paper to be read had to be presented by its author. It might be helpful if the presidents of the past congresses could be prevailed upon to draw up a set of rules based upon their experience, which could be adopted by the International Union of the History of Science as a guide for the future. Another sug- gestion for future congresses which may be re- ported here is that several sessions organized round central themes of special interest might be planned.

    It is greatly to be hoped that in future it will be kept in mind that the purpose of the congress is the history of science, and not merely the ag- gregate of the history of the separate sciences. At the Italian congress, the emphasis was on the latter, at the expense of the former, and this made it difficult for any participant to attend sessions in sections other than a particular one, such as the history of mathematics. Congress members, for example, did not receive abstracts of all the papers read at the Congress, but only of those in one section. Furthermore, the re-

    arrangements of schedule (necessitated by the appearance of new speakers and the defection of others who had announced papers) were an- nounced only to members of the particular sec- tions involved. As a result, some one who had registered in the section of the history of physics did not know when papers were being read on the history of technology, the history of chemis- try, etc. Surely some thought must be given in future to the fact that historians of science are not of such narrow interests.

    Professor Giorgio de Santillana adds the fol- lowing comments: "The Congress at Florence was a little triumph of organization, owing to the work of Vasco Ronchi and Maria Luisa Bonelli. If one were to draw some lessons from it for future organizers, it would be to have Florence again for a setting and Dott. Bonelli for a secretary. Now, as to the inevitable sorrows inherited by all congresses from past ceremonials, it is quite clear that some strong and decisive action is needed to hold down the official speak- ers and welcomers. That a country should offi- cially wekome its visitors in its own language is fair and proper, and authorities will always de- liver a formal address. Thus, there is not so much that can be changed about the opening session of congresses. But when we were taken to Pisa and a speech was given for more than an hour in the most ornate Italian on the past of Pisa, we felt that something should be done to prevent a repe- tition of the occurrence. If the speaker had been really interested in his subject and not in the sound of his own voice, he would have spoken a few words and then yielded the floor to a pres- entation in French or in English. The same oc- curred aga