Science Service, Up Close: Idiosyncratic Discoveries

My laptop's dictionary illustrates the word "idiosyncrasy" with colorful examples, attributing distinctive modes of behavior to regal figures (a queen who imperiously demands a certain food) or referencing odd places that demand unorthodox responses (how major baseball sluggers exploit the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park). The origins of the word provoke distinctly idiosyncratic daydreams. In Greek, idiosunkrasia referred to one's own private mixture (idios + sun + krasis), to the modes of thought or behavior unique to an individual.

The Science Service collections are, without question, idiosyncratic, but their foibles and oddities are collective as well as individualistic. The mixture unites thousands of different correspondents and ways of seeing the world – all ages, all sorts of motivations, all walks of life.

By the mid-1930s Science Service had become ever more engaged in educational activities directed at young people. That interest stimulated the organization's Science Clubs of America, "Things of Science" projects, and involvement in the Science Talent Search competition. Long before such formal activities, however, students had sought help by writing letters, just as today's students email Smithsonian Institution archivists, historians, and curators.

In 1935, a high school senior Viola Anderson wrote this letter to Science Service:

Viola Anderson to Science Service, April 13, 1935, Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-

52 Anderson Avenue

Staten Island, New York

April 13, 1935


For my Senior Speech in High School, I have to select a topic which interests me. I have always been curious about the subject of idiosyncrasies.

Would it be possible to get any information on idiosyncrasies? Unfortunately, I have been unable to secure material, and the extent of my knowledge is my observations. I would appreciate any information you could possibly give me.

Sincerely yours

Viola Anderson

As we enter Women's History Month, it would be nice to imagine that Viola Anderson grew up to be a scientist. Such an inquiring mind befits a budding researcher. The letter she sent to Science Service in 1935 is well-written. Perhaps she became an author, a dramatist, a poet, a philosopher. Do you recognize the little girl who knew that observations alone would not suffice and asked for more information?

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