In a world drowning in images, where we swipe past photos of friends, relatives, and selves in mere seconds, a set of remarkable portraits taken in the 1910s and 1920s by Julian Papin Scott (1877-1961) deserve more considered attention. Sometimes, his subjects appear immersed in work, surrounded by microscopes, beakers, or stacks of books, as if unaware of the photographer. Other times, they stare down his lens with unflinching regard. The photographs offer far different images of scientists than conventional formal studio portraits. How did an amateur shutterbug with no scientific training or credentials persuade thousands of researchers (novices as well as Nobels) to pause and to pose?
The answer lies in a confluence of circumstances: a labor shortage because of the World War I military draft, workplace discrimination against people with disabilities, and an intelligent young man with the resources to purchase a good camera and take up a new hobby with diligence and creativity.
Born into an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri, Julian Papin Scott was the middle child among nine siblings and had been named for one of many illustrious ancestors, the fur trader Joseph Marie Papin. A grandfather, Simon Gratz Moses, served as a Confederate physician during the Civil War, and later became the first Health Commissioner of the City of St. Louis. An uncle, Gratz Ashe Moses, was a professor at the St. Louis Medical College. A grandmother, Marie Papin Moses, was celebrated in her youth as one of the city’s “reigning belles.”
Julian’s hearing was damaged by a childhood illness. He did well at St. Louis University but did not graduate, and his disability affected employment opportunities. Although he could lip-read, and maintained a positive attitude, he required a bulky, noticeable device to assist his hearing. One of his poems described listening to a symphony performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica”: “My deaf ear straining could but part of the feast enjoy— / But, who, with mortal ear, hears aught he would of music? / And perhaps the deafness pays its way, / For the more the effort, the more the gain....”
By 1910, five of Julian’s brothers had left home. William Davis Scott, Jr. (1869-1951) had married and moved to Oregon. George Eaton Scott (1871-1939) and Clarence Ashe Scott (1876-1932) were successful Chicago-area steel and foundry executives; Clayton Slaughter Scott (1880-1947) was married and working in Texas; and Jack Ashe Scott (1889-1958) was a lumberman in Minnesota. Julian lived with his widowed father, his eighty-three-year-old grandmother Cornelia Scott, brother Gratz Moses Scott (1873-1935), and sisters Cornelia Slaughter Scott (1883-1946), Mary Porter Ashe Scott (1884-1964), and Margaretta Ashe Scott (1887-1982).
During World War I, the entire Scott family volunteered to serve. John Ashe Scott joined the U.S. Navy, and George Eaton Scott became General of Military Relief for the American Red Cross. Gratz Moses Scott and the three sisters worked on St. Louis Red Cross projects, and in November 1918, Mary Porter and Margaretta Scott went to France as Red Cross volunteers.
As historian Robert M. Buchanan explains in Illusions of Equality (1999), both the military and federal government discriminated against the hearing-impaired during World War I. Julian tried engaging in Red Cross work with his siblings, but when he learned that Washington University Medical School professor Leo Loeb was having difficulty finding laboratory assistants, he offered to help the pathologist for free. “While untrained in scientific technique,” Julian explained later, “I had a rather capable pair of hands and could follow instructions.” For the next four years, Julian accompanied Loeb to laboratories around the country, spent summers at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, and began snapping portraits.
Scott’s self-deprecating description of himself as a “Kodaker, not a photographer – just a button pusher” belied an innate skill. His camera, the No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak, was relatively simple to operate, and his family’s resources allowed him to pay someone else to develop, enlarge, and copy the prints (“I believe in letting the other fellow do the work”). As each new photograph drew praise, and requests for copies, Scott began systematically documenting the people in scientific laboratories, offices, and libraries, approaching the task with an egalitarian, catholic spirit.
Even after the volunteer service to Loeb ended, Scott continued traveling to laboratories and scientific conferences, and he was welcomed each summer at Woods Hole (where he sometimes posed his subjects in a temporary gallery). Many scientists perceived portraits as visual validation of their profession and as positive public relations for the research enterprise. So, with their encouragement, Scott gave illustrated lectures and exhibited his work at places like the St. Louis Public Library (1923) and Scientific Society of San Antonio (1926). In September 1928, the Smithsonian Institution displayed 532 of his photos at the U.S. National Museum. Although the Washington Post did not consider the photographs “truly artistic,” it praised them for “a charm that a posed portrait does not always carry.”
By 1926, the collection included over 1,500 portraits, and Science Service’s interest in obtaining images for promoting science to the public led to an arrangement to manage Scott’s photographs and sell copies for fifteen cents. A majority of those photographs are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and all will eventually be available online.
Scott then began a decade of exploration, perhaps encouraged by his younger brother’s new travel magazine, The Miami-Palm Beach-Havana Gimlet. Julian sailed to Cuba in 1928, Japan and China in 1929, and Japan again in 1931; he toured Europe in 1932, made a trip around the globe, and spent nine months in Africa in 1937, visiting laboratories along the way. Back in the United States, he continued advocacy work with the American Society for the Hard of Hearing, raising money for local chapters through illustrated lectures about his trips.
In February 1944, Julian Papin Scott was diagnosed with “paralysis agitans,” the term used then for Parkinson’s disease. He survived until April 19, 1961, outliving most of his siblings. And thanks to digitization, over a century after he first snapped a shutter, Scott’s photographs have a new life contributing to the history of science. Because he documented people inside their laboratories, women as well as men, graduate fellows and visiting researchers dreaming of fame as well as celebrities posing mid-thought, we have invaluable glimpses of the communities behind laboratory doors.
Part Two on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, will discuss some of Julian Papin Scott's techniques and approaches and the people he chose to document.
- Science Service Records, 1902-1965, Record Unit 7091, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Services Records, 1920s-1970s, Accession 90-105, Smithsonian Institution Archives