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Department of History
Old Horticulture
506 E. Circle Dr
Room 256
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
Main: 517.355.7500
Fax: 517.353.5599
Email: history@msu.edu
Hours: 8:00-5:00 M-F

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History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Science and technology have shaped virtually every aspect of modern life. From how we see our place in the cosmos to how we battle illness, wage wars and produce food, human life has been transformed as a result of the development of new ways of investigating the physical world. But given that science seems to go from strength to strength it may not seem obvious that historians can do anything other than follow the tidy trails of reason which lead to current knowledge. In fact, science is a rich, fascinating and important topic for historical inquiry. Historians of science seek answers to fundamental questions about the nature of science, the credibility of its claims to truth, and the qualities which distinguish it from other ways of acquiring knowledge. Historians also ask basic questions about the process of scientific discovery. What is the relationship between theory and experiment? How are experiments designed? What is the role of creativity in science? Do new breakthroughs tend to rely on individual brilliance or the collective contributions of the many? And does science advance at an even pace or are periods of revolutionary change interspersed by long periods of stasis? Modern historians have been able to show that for all the extraordinary accomplishments of science, it is neither as objective nor as straightforward as we are often led to believe. History demonstrates that the route to new discoveries is seldom straight or narrow, that the experimental method is far more complicated than it may at first seem, and that that the history of science is replete with failed theories and misconceptions. Above all else, historians have revealed many of the circumstances, social, political and physical, which shape scientific inquiries, and have explored the contexts in which the findings of science are interpreted, applied and sometimes abused. Our graduate field embeds science, technology, and medicine in their broader social, political, cultural, and economic contexts and avoids twisting past scientific ideas practices to fit today’s categories and concerns. Our students are given the opportunity to take a wide variety of courses covering different periods and fields. They are also able to take complementary classes in the history and the sociology of science and are strongly encouraged to develop a working knowledge of the sciences they study. Current Department of History faculty members in the history of science, major book publications and their interests are listed below:

Mark Largent is a historian of biology and medicine. His work analyzes the role of scientists and physicians in American public policy. He is the author of Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the US (Rutgers 2008) and Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America (Johns Hopkins 2012). He is currently working on two projects: a history of Reye’s syndrome and a study of the alternative birth community in the US. 

John Waller, a historian of science and medicine who teaches the history of disease, health care and psychiatry. He has written on the development of the British eugenics movement, the conditions of child laborers in early industrial England, outbreaks of collective hysteria, and is currently writing a study of hereditarian concepts in western history.

Rich Bellon, a historian of science who divides his attention between the Victorian world of natural history and the modern age of molecular biology. His current research project explores the impact of Darwin’s botany on the debate over evolution in the 1860s. Most of his undergraduate teaching, on the other hand, is driven by an interest in contemporary biomedical and biotechnology policy.

Georgina Montgomery, a historian of science who teaches the history of animal behavior studies, primatology, and gender and science. Georgina is currently working on her manuscript Seeing Primates Scientifically, which explores the development of places and practices for the study of natural primate behavior. She is also working on a new project about the lives of individual gorillas used for science and spectacle in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Helen Zoe Veit specializes in American history. Her first book, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina, 2013) explores food and nutrition in the Progressive Era. Her next book, Small Appetites: A History of Children’s Food, examines the history of children’s eating starting in the early nineteenth century. She is the editor of the American Food in History book series, forthcoming from Michigan State University Press.

Mark Waddell, a historian of early modern science and medicine whose research focuses on the intersections between science, religion, and imagery in Europe.  He is at work on his first book, The Crisis of Uncertainty: Jesuit Science in the Seventeenth Century, and teaches courses on science and religion, technology and culture, and gender in science and medicine.

Naoko Wake, a historian of science, gender, and sexuality, researches the intersection of medical knowledge, patient activism, and gender identity in postcolonial contexts. Naoko is currently working on her second monograph concerning Japanese-American and Korean-American survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

History of Science, Technology and Medicine Links

Women in Science, womeninscience.history.msu.edu