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  • Teaching What Students Should Know About the History of Science: A Review Essay
  • William R. Shea (bio)

William Bynum,A Little History of Science(Yale University Press, 2012).

When, in the not so recent past, I was given a job at McGill University, I was told by a senior professor who was making the rounds with me that he had learned, and hoped that I would learn, something important about teaching history: “When you are young,” he said, “you teach more than you know. When you are middle age, you teach all you know. When you are old (the word could still be used in those days!), You teach what the students should know.” Although I am chronologically in the third category, I sometimes feel that I have been trapped in the second. Hence my admiration for those who made it to the top like William Bynum. He has had a distinguished career as a historian of medicine, and he now uses his enviable knowledge to entertain as well as inform. His book appears in the Little History of series that Yale University press started in 2005 with E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, which became one of Yale’s all-time best sellers and set the tone of voice for subsequent volumes. Aimed at young teenagers, these books also delight parents and grandparents who are still young at heart.

The book that launched the series was written by Gombrich in Vienna when he was only 25 years old. It appeared in 1936, but shortly thereafter the publication was stopped by the Nazis, not for racial reasons, but because they considered the outlook too “pacifist.” Gombrich had moved to England by then, and after toying for years with the idea of preparing an English version, he embarked on the project after his retirement. He was still engaged in the revision and translation when he died at the age of 92, and the task of completing the work was done by his assistant. The book was an immediate success. Lucky children had it read to them, and academic historians who read it for themselves rediscovered that history can be not only a lifelong passion for truth but also a manifesto of enthusiasm and a call for tolerance and humanity. Packaged to appeal to children as well as adults, the volume is provided with French flaps, deckled edges, and woodcuts.

Bynum relates the history of science from the Babylonians to the present in forty short chapters. His heroes are mainly men and women who made great contributions to medicine and the health sciences. Teenagers who read the chapter on “Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine” or “Galen, the Emperor’s Doctor” will want to enter medical school, and they will cheer Andreas Vesalius for “Uncovering the Human Body,” and William Harvey for showing that the blood goes “Round and Round,” They will learn to praise Darwin and Louis Pasteur, and they will be introduced to contemporary research in molecular biology. The chapter “Reading the Book of Life” follows “The Secret of Life” (the structure of DNA) and offers a clear summary of the human genome project. The author rises to the challenge of explaining the project to thirteen-year-olds by sharing the excitement that surrounded the announcement, made in 2000, that a rough draft of the genome, begun just ten years before, was ready. For the first time in history, a great scientific achievement was rendered glamorous by being announced not by scientists, but by the president of the United States and the prime minister of Great Britain.

Bynum skillfully concentrates on some important episodes. For instance, he describes how Sydney Brenner, the son of a South African shoemaker, made it to Cambridge by dint of sheer intellect and hard work. Brenner’s favorite laboratory animal was a tiny roundworm called C. elegans. Only one millimeter long and having 959 cells, it might not seem like much of a pet, but Brenner realized that he could investigate its development since the cells were easy to see, and he found a way to determine what each of the cells in the embryo became in the adult. Knowing the roundworm...


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pp. 13-14
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