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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.1 (2005) 115-120
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Science, Identity, and Enlightenment in the Eighteenth Century:
Four Biographical Perspectives
Anne C. Vila
Biography, science, and the eighteenth century have had a long and generally fruitful association, ever since Fontenelle penned his countless eulogies for the Paris Academy of Sciences. Until fairly recently, however, scientific biographies often carried the quaint whiff of the hagiographic, tending to take so reverent an attitude toward their subjects' achievements that they neglected the extra-personal factors that contributed to them. Although the larger field of history of science took a social constructionist turn decades ago, scientific biography was slower to move in that direction, a lag attested by the 1979 article in which Thomas L. Hankins put scientific biography on the "endangered species" list and warned that the biographical approach risked becoming obsolete in the face of the context-oriented histories of science that had become the norm ("In Defense [End Page 115] of Biography: The Use of Biography in the History of Science," History of Science 17 , 1–16). Far from disappearing, however, scientific biography soon found itself revived by scholars like Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, who, drawing their methods from sociology and social history, argued that the knowledge claims—indeed, the very identities—of famous figures like Robert Boyle were intricately embedded in the material, literary, and social practices of the larger community of early modern natural philosophers (Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life ); Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England ). A similar perspective informs all four biographies under review here: the individual portraits they present are framed with an eye to what Mary Terrall calls "the social location of science" (7), or, more broadly, the collective processes by which natural knowledge was produced, evaluated, and circulated during (or just after) the eighteenth century.
Significantly, perhaps, none of the characters depicted in these books was a bona fide scientific genius, someone who created a brilliantly original body of work on the model of Newton's Principia. Laurence Brockliss regards his subject, Dr. Esprit-Claude-François Calvet of Avignon (1728–1810), as worthy of detailed appraisal precisely because of "his ordinariness, provinciality, and limited impact on the wider world of learning" (19). The Scotsman George Cheyne (1671–1743), according to Anita Guerrini, was a "failed Newtonian" (21) and a derivative, sometimes incoherent medical theorist; yet he nonetheless managed to write two best-selling works on diet, hygiene, and nervous maladies, earn a reputation as a top medical practitioner, and cultivate connections with leading members of the British aristocracy and intelligentsia. The peripatetic Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) comes across in the pages of Terrall's narrative more as a gifted promoter of natural philosophy in fashionable French society than as an innately talented scientist, although he did make contributions to several fields of scientific inquiry. And Philippe Pinel (1745–1826), as Dora Weiner admits, drew heavily on other physicians, medical traditions, and scientific fields to develop the methods by which he reformed the treatment of French asylum patients at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.
Brockliss, in fact, asserts that his book is not a biography, at least not in the traditional sense of an account designed to uncover the personality or crucial intellectual events in...