Julian Papin Scott (1877-1961) never pretended to be anything other than an amateur photographer, someone fortunate to be allowed to snap portraits of people whose work he admired. His legacy, however, is far greater than was acknowledged at the time, or he probably realized, both because of who he photographed and how he pursued that “hobby.”
Unlike candid photographs that captured significant historical moments (like the 1925 Scopes trial) or celebrities (like Charles Lindbergh), Julian Scott’s images preserve a record of life in and around scientific laboratories in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of his snapshots are blurred and ill-composed, and some mundane in their sameness. But when his camera lens captured a young woman gazing intently at a skull (Caroline Whitney) or a chemist using a Bunsen burner (Henry Winston Harper), we view a scientist in context, and the results can be arresting. Sometimes, a subject leans back in a desk chair, as if about to ask “may I get on with my work?,” which can afford clues to personalities and social attitudes. “Scientists are mostly always absorbed in their work,” Scott told a St. Louis reporter in 1927, “but when you can draw them out of it they are just like any other human beings of a high order.
As in Scott’s stunning portrait of Princeton astronomer Henry Norris Russell, many of the indoor shots project a sense of stillness and contemplation, an attribute which has much to do with the photographer’s reliance on available natural light rather than a flash attachment. The laboratory poses often feature a distinctive framing, with the image’s bottom half dominated by a polished surface or desk. This dramatic feature came about by accident. As Scott explained to a reporter, when subjects were shy or uncooperative, he would engage the person in conversation (Scott could lip-read), and then “set my camera down on some convenient bench or chair and get a picture of him in some good working or thinking pose before he realizes it.” Although the foregrounds may be slightly out of focus, the backgrounds of glassware, book shelves, calendars, wall charts, and specimens preserve a historical record of laboratory life.
Scott’s collection eventually grew to over 2,000 images and included such famous scientists as California Institute of Technology physicist Robert Andrews Millikan, Rockefeller Institute bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, and biologist Jacques Loeb. Scott’s broody portrait of celebrity archaeologist and lecturer Count Byron Khun De Prorok, who directed excavations in the Middle East during the 1920s, captured the romanticism of such adventurers. Scott also documented a few scientists before fame made them less apt to pose, such as physiologist and 1922 Nobel prize winner Archibald Vivian Hill or Frederick Grant Banting, who received the Nobel prize in 1923 for his discovery of insulin.
Understandably, Scott took many photographs of researchers, professors, and graduate students in his home town of St. Louis. Caswell Grave was head of the Department of Zoology, Washington University; Rev. Alphonse Schwitalla, S.J., was dean of the St. Louis University Medical School; Kehar Singh Chouké had moved to the United States to attend Washington University and later became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; and Beatrice Whiteside-Hawel taught histology and neuroanatomy at Washington University Medical School. Scott photographed Mildred Trotter and Caroline Whitney while they were earning their Ph.D.s at Washington University. Except for service as a U.S. Army forensic anthropologist following World War II, Trotter spent her entire career as a professor at Washington University; Whitney became the first female intern at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and taught at Washington University until her death from tuberculosis in 1928.
Scott’s camera also recorded foreign visitors to American laboratories and universities during the 1910s and 1920s. Dutch zoologist Hilbrand Boschma later became director of the Rijksmuseum of Natural History in Leiden, Holland; Emilio Erquiza Bulatao, a surgeon and University of the Philippines professor, was a Rockefeller Foundation fellow in the United States; graduate student Teikichi Fukushi later became Professor of Botany at Tottori Agricultural College in Japan; and Shinkishi Hatai, who was studying neurology at the University of Chicago, became the first professor in biology at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.
When photographing artists, Scott sometimes posed them near examples of their work, just as he had posed scientists peering into microscopes. Russian biologist and artist Eugène Gabritschevsky did research in the United States during the 1920s. British-born Stephen Haweis studied art in Paris and was known for his paintings of tropical fish.
And last, but by no means least, the inclusion of so many women in the collection, although a small fraction of the whole, has been a special gift to historians today. Thanks to the women’s history efforts at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and to digitization and online dissemination of the images, there is ever more “rediscovery” of female scientists who pioneered in their fields, inspiring long overdue recognition
It is a rich legacy for a man who claimed to be “just a Kodaker.”
- Science Service Records, 1902-1965, Record Unit 7091, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Services Records, 1920s-1970s, Accession 90-105, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "The Scientific Portraits of Julian Papin Scott, Part 1 of 2: The Photograpger Behind the Lens," by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives