Science Service, Up Close: George Sarton, Watson Davis, and “Panache”

George Sarton For historians of science, the name “Sarton” resonates like a deep-throated bell. Isis, the international journal that chemist and mathematician George Sarton (1884-1956) founded in Belgium in 1913, is now the premier publication of the History of Science Society. The field he envisioned is flourishing as well as continually responding to changes in science and its social context.

The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 had threatened to upend Sarton’s life and career, yet the indomitable scientist and editor persevered, eventually reestablishing the journal in the United States. And by 1921, Sarton had gained a reputation for insightful and occasionally acerbic critiques, never shying from commenting on contemporary politics, science, and literature, including the type of popularization being initiated by Science Service. When one of Edwin Emery Slosson’s essays came across Sarton’s desk, the fellow editor responded, therefore, with a typical sprightly letter commenting on the tendency to pander to (rather than challenge) audiences.

“I have read your paper with great pleasure,” Sarton wrote on January 20, 1921, and “I heartily agree with you on most of what you say – not on everything however. For inst., you are distressed ‘to see so much good copy going to waste all the time’ etc. – This does not distress me at all – for the main trouble with the American reader is that he has to read too much anyhow. You remark that the weeklies and monthlies of fifty years ago contained more science than those of today. I am not surprised at all. For these magazines were read more slowly, more sedately than those of today. The despote [despot] of American literature is the ‘tired business man’ – who wants to understand everything without spending any amount of intellectual energy. Now believe me, the law of conservation of energy holds good in the intellectual sphere as well as in the material one: The returns are proportional to the expenditure. No effort, no results.”

“The tired business man is not satisfied with a clear and elegant explanation,” Sarton observed contemptuously, “he wants ‘pep’ – it is necessary to nudge him in the ribs or to kick him to keep him awake. Clearness is not sufficient, the facts must be distorted to keep his attention; a portrait of reality will never do – a caricature is needed ... You say that the American editors are looking for stuff in the style of [John] Tyndall, of [Charles] Darwin or of [Jean Henri] Fabre. I seriously doubt it. I believe that if fragments of these men were sent to the editors over my signature (or yours) they would be politely refused. The editor would not or could not give the reason – but I can give it: he would feel that these articles are too plain, too dull for his reader – His majesty, the tired businessman.”

George Sarton “But forget all that,” Sarton consoled Slosson in closing, and “just remember that your paper gave me great pleasure and that I would gladly sign a great deal of it with both hands!”

By January 1924, Sarton and a group of influential historians, scientists, and intellectuals had founded the History of Science Society, and established a permanent connection between Isis and the society. Sarton also continued to pay attention to the fledgling news organization and on February 10, 1924, he sent a handwritten note to Watson Davis, saying “Allow me to congratulate you for the success of Science Service. I was skeptical at first but was wrong.” Later that spring, both Slosson and Davis expressed their support for Sarton's work by ordering the first five volumes of Isis for the Science Service library and joining the History of Science Society.

In November of 1925, Davis captured Sarton’s panache and lively intellect in two memorable photographs. As the historian I. Bernard Cohen summarized after Sarton’s death in March 1956, “In the intensity of the passion with which he addressed himself to each topic, one could almost see the ‘light that comes from the eyes.’” 

Related Resources

Science Service Records, circa 1910-1963Record Unit 007091, Smithsonian Institution Archives 

History of Science Society, HSS Online 

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