I’d known for a long time that the term “scientist” had been coined in the early 19th century, but I just ran across a first-hand account of the event by the fellow who came up with it, William Whewell. The context is this: many in the science establishment of the day had been chafing at the premier British institution, the Royal Society, which had grown stodgy and was infested with politicians, bishops, and other such hangers-on, and they formed a new institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As part of the process of establishing their identity, they struggled with coming up with an appropriate noun to describe their membership.
Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past… This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen* could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.
‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity as a philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [Whewell!] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’ — and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’—but this was not generally palatable.
That is so familiar: the deference to a classical scholar, poet, and ‘metaphysician’ (although, actually, Coleridge was no dummy and did provide thoughtful contributions), and the use of French as an insult. I would warm to the analogy with ‘atheist’, but apparently, that comparison almost sank the word. To be tangled with atheism…oh, my. Adam Sedgwick, the geologist and devout Anglican, was in a fury about “scientist”.
Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism!
It was a natural extension of the word, though, and was rapidly adopted — it was in the OED by 1840.
Sedgwick, by the way, was an interesting fellow despite being encumbered with an excess of faith. He was an important contributor to modern geology who named the Devonian and Cambrian. He was also an adamant creationist who vehemently opposed that whole new-fangled theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it…but Darwin was a former student, and they remained friends throughout their dispute. He also made this well known statement about conflicts between science and the Bible, which I rather like for reasons other than Sedgwick’s.
No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true… Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.
It’s a statement that is simultaneously scientific and anti-scientific. He’s saying that we should follow the evidence whereever it may lead, confident that we will arrive at the honest truth, which is good; however, he’s saying it to reassure himself and the audience that science will never be in conflict with the Bible. He was wrong. His problem was in failing to administer the same standards of truth and robust reason to his holy book that he was applying to science.
He wrote a review of Robert Chambers’ book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that was a pre-Darwin evolutionary account of the history of life. Sedgwick did not like it, no sir, not one bit.
…If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!
I would remind him that “No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true”, and that if a consequence of the examination of the natural world was a revelation that “religion is a lie,” then so be it. Atheist, scientist, there isn’t necessarily a heck of a lot of difference.
*It was initially set up as a boys’ club. Women were not allowed to be members until 1853; however, about a quarter of the attendees of the early BA meetings were women. They were only allowed to attend special sessions that had been reviewed to determine if they were suitable for women, however.