Thursday 12th October 2023

The connection between Linacre College and Oxford History of Science is a long one. It goes back to 1965 when Francis Maddison, Head of the Museum of the History of Science, was made a Fellow of the College. The association with the Museum was confirmed on the appointment to the directorship of the HSM of Jim Bennett (1994-2012) and then Silke Ackermann, the current director and a GB Fellow at Linacre. Along the way, another important step in the creation of a link between history of science and Linacre was taken when Margaret Gowing arrived to take up the Modern History Faculty’s inaugural chair in the discipline in January 1973. On that occasion John Bamborough, then Principal at Linacre, and Rom Harré, Fellow and Lecturer in Philosophy of Science, were instrumental in associating the College with the new post.

This link made it important for Linacre to play a key role in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the appointment of the first holder of the chair. In the afternoon of Monday 25 September 2023, three Oxford Professors of History of Science gave brief talks in the Tanner Room: Robert Fox (1988-2006); Pietro Corsi (2006-2015), and the current professor, Rob Iliffe. They were joined by Nik Gowing, son of the first incumbent, Margaret Gowing (1973-1986), a rather unusual choice with respect to the trends in the discipline in the early 1970s, for she was appointed on the strength of her distinguished publications as an historian and archivist of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The presentation of her work and academic career was brilliantly performed by David Edgerton, whose interest in the history of science began in his time as an undergraduate chemist at St John’s in the 1970s.

After a lapse of two years, it was Robert Fox who was given the task of establishing a firm foundation for the chair and bringing together the rich but rather fragmented community of Oxford-based academics with an interest in the history of science and related fields. Of fundamental importance was the collaboration with the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, created in 1972, and, within the Modern History Faculty, the community of economic historians. On his retirement, it was Pietro Corsi who promoted the further growth of the discipline, strengthening the collaboration with both the Wellcome Unite and the Maison Française. The close collaboration with the international network of the history of science, medicine, and technology, which had already been one of the distinctive characteristics during Robert Fox’s time in the chair, was one that Pietro Corsi continued to pursue as a priority.

Clearly the discipline has changed considerably in recent decades, both in the way in which it has been taught in the History Faculty and more generally in its methodological approaches and main areas of research. A key figure in the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology (OCHSMT) since his appointment in 2015 has been Rob Iliffe, who currently also chairs the Board of the Faculty of History and is a Fellow of Linacre College. It was particularly exciting to hear about his vision for the future of the Centre and the creation of even stronger foundations for the development of the history of science, medicine, and technology in Oxford. At the end of the celebratory dinner in College the Linacre Principal, Nick Leimu-Brown, had good reason to invite more than seventy participants to raise their glasses to celebrate not only the past but the future of the chair.

The celebration continued the following day with sessions in Harris Manchester College and the History of Science Museum. Overviews of the work of members of staff and students were offered and new thought-provoking avenues for presenting the history of science to the public were discussed. The success of the initiative owes much to the vision and meticulous organisation of the chair of the organizing committee, Professor Catherine Jackson, and her assistants, Zoe Screti and Alex Aylward. The event also drew on the generous support of not only Linacre College but also the History Faculty, Harris Manchester College (which, as part of its contribution, hosted a launch of Professor Jackson’s new book), the History of Science Museum, and the Maison Française.

For the many participants in the event, both present members of staff and students, and former graduates and collaborators from the UK and abroad, it was a wonderful opportunity to recognise the College’s much-valued relation with the Oxford community of the historians of science. Ad maiora!