Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: George Sarton

George Alfred Leon Sarton
August 31, 1884 - March 22, 1956

George Sarton is considered by some to be the "father" of the history of science, having established the history of science as a discipline in its own right. His Introduction to the History of Science is a mammoth three-volume, 4,236-page work which reviews and catalogs the scientific and cultural contributions of every civilization from antiquity through the fourteenth century. He was the author of 15 other books and over 300 articles on this subject.

Sarton was born in Ghent on August 31, 1884: he graduated from the university in 1906 and two years later won a gold medal for one of his papers on chemistry. He received his PhD in mathematics at the University of Ghent in 1911. He married Mabel Eleanor Elwes, an English artist, in 1911 and their daughter Eleanore Marie (usually: May) was born the following year. Though he emigrated to England after World War I broke out, he came to the United States in 1915, where he would live for the rest of his life. He worked for the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and lectured at Harvard, 1916-18. He became a lecturer at Harvard University in 1920 and a professor of the history of science from 1940-1951. He was also a research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919-1948.

Sarton intended to complete an exhaustive nine volume history of science — which, during the preparation of the second volume, induced him to learn Arabic and travel around the Middle East inspecting original manuscripts of Islamic scientists — but at the time of his death only the first three volumes had been completed. (I. From Homer to Omar Khayyam. — II. From Rabbi Ben Ezra to Roger Bacon, pt. 1-2. — III. Science and learning in the fourteenth -century, pt. 1-2. 1927-48.) The project was inspired by his study of Leonardo da Vinci but the period of Leonardo's life was not reached before the death of Sarton.

After his death a representative selection of his papers was edited by Dorothy Stimson and published by Harvard University Press in 1962.

In honor of Sarton's achievements, the History of Science Society created the award known as the George Sarton Medal. It is the most prestigious award of the History of Science Society. It has been awarded annually since 1955 to an outstanding historian of science selected from the international scholarly community. The medal honors a scholar for lifetime scholarly achievement. Sarton was the founder of this society and of the serial publications Isis and Osiris which it publishes.

The Lunar crater Sarton is named in his honor.

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