George Sarton is known as the "father of the modern history of science". He certainly earned this title. He wrote many works on medieval history, originated the History of Science program at Harvard, and was the first editor of Isis, an important journal of the history of science. But he has been accused of letting his personal bias against Christianity affect his work. If this is true, it is very important. Even today, many highly educated people fall victim to myths about the church and science, and myths about the history of science (see The Galileo Myths). These myths have survived decades or even centuries longer than they should have. Could George Sarton be one reason for this. If so, George Sarton's editorial record at Isis is worth a closer look. George Sarton was editor of Isis from 1913 to 1952.
The early editions of Isis have a clear pattern. The was good coverage of the great seventeenth century physicists, especially Galileo and Newton,and little on their predecessors in Medieval Europe. The takeaway is that there was nothing from these predecessors that was worth studying. That takeaway is wrong. And all the pieces were already there to tell George Sarton and other early historians of science that it was wrong.
The seventeenth century saw many advances in many areas of modern science (see Galileo Contemporaries Timeline). One area in particular was the study of motion, kinematics and dynamics. Galileo developed his Law of Free Fall and Galileo and Newton both contributed to an understanding of inertia that is still taught today. Neither Galileo or Newton started from scratch. They were beneficiaries of work that had started three centuries earlier at the University of Oxford and the University of Paris. When Galileo's Law of Free Fall was first published around 1560, it was derived using theories and proofs that had been proposed by the Oxford Calculators and the Parisian doctors. When Galileo presented his theory of impetus, he was improving upon the impetus theory of Jean Buridan, a Parisian doctor. When the scientists of the seventeenth century used mathematics to represent physical concepts, they were continuing a calculatory tradition begun by the Calculators and Parisian doctors.
So what's the problem with Isis overlooking a few obscure medieval academics from Oxford and Paris. The problem is that they weren't obscure and that their calculatory tradition had spread throughout Europe. By the time Galileo was born, the work of the Calculatores was widely taught and widely published. The image above is from a book published in Galileo's teenage years (see here). It illustrates a projectile trajectory based on Buridan's impetus theory. We know Galileo knew of the Parisian doctors works from his own class notes.
The Calculatores and Parisian Doctors were very well known. One Calculator, Thomas Bradwardine, was so famous that he had even been mentioned in one of the classics of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Bradwardine had received the honorary title doctor profundus from the church and one of his followers, Paul of Venice, had received the name doctor profundissimus. The calculatory tradition of Oxford and Paris had spread to what is modern day Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Poland.
Perhaps the best support for the importance of the Calculatores was the date of the first publication of Galileo's Law of Free Fall. It was published in 1560, four years before Galileo was born. In 1560, Domingo de Soto, a Spanish calculator and priest, published his Physics, which outlines the correct law of free fall. It was already in its eight edition during Galileo's university days at Pisa [_1_] . Sometimes ideas are "in the air". Previous work can make a discovery inevitable (see Modern Science).
The Calculators received sparse mention in Isis during Sarton's time as editor. There was one article (written in German) in Isis devoted to Thomas Bradwardine and none to Jean Buridan. Buridan was mentioned in a 16-page survey of physics that covered all physics over the entire middle ages [_2_] . The sparse mention the Calculatores and Parisian Doctors might be due to George Sarton's poor opinion of them. This was voiced in his own writings on the history of Medieval Science.
The pieces were there to tell Sarton that ignoring the Calculatores was a mistake. They were laid out in detail by an early historian of science, Pierre Duhem. Pierre Duhem's reward was to be made a persona non grata.
If George Sarton had a bias against the church or Christianity it would not have been unusual. It was fairly common amongst the English-speaking historians of Science in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As an editor, he would be expected to keep his biases in check. One test of his bias was the treatment of the rogue historian, Pierre Duhem. Pierre Duhem was an important physicist and philosopher of science from the turn of the twentieth century who decided to study the history of science later in life. His work was ground-breaking, shown by the fact that his works in all three fields are still taught today. In fact, Pierre Duhem is of more interest to modern historians of science than his contemporaries; including George Sarton [_3_] .
Duhem started with the same "dark age" bias as his colleagues. In studying the work of Leonardo da Vinci, he stumbled upon the work of the Parisian doctors and realized that they had made some very important discoveries in physics. He decided to challenge the status quo even though it meant few friends and lots of enemies. The decision was disastrous. Duhem's considerable body of work was referenced in barely one article per year while Sarton was editor [_4_] . Duhem died in 1916. His light would not shine until after Sarton stepped down as editor of Isis in 1952.
Sarton authored several large volumes of work on medieval science. In some of Sarton's works on science in the middle ages, Duhem and his work aren't mentioned at all and in others he is only very rarely referenced. This for a man who is now considered the premiere student of European medieval science in the early twentieth century.
One article that deals specifically with Duhem's work deserves special mention; a 1936 article by a graduate student on Pierre Duhem's work on a medieval scientist, Jordanus Nemorarius. The article attacked both Duhem's work and Duhem personally. He even implied that Pierre Duhem was not fit to understand the physics involved in his historical work [_5_] . George Sarton allowed the article to be published even though he had long known of Duhem's stature as a physicist. At the time he was considered a peer to such great physicists as Poincare. The publication of the article says as much about the editor of the journal as it does the author of the article.
George Sarton did sign an appeal for the publication of Duhem's manuscripts in 1937, but it is thought that this was more out of respect for the widow of Paul Tannery (a noted French historian of science) than for Duhem himself. Helene Duhem had been able to enlist Paul Tannery's widow in her 30 year battle to get her father's final manuscripts published (see The Real daVinci Code).