Posted by: Footler PJ8 DEC 2010
The debate over whether pharmaceutical scientists may be invited to join the Royal Pharmaceutical Society reminded me that the term “scientist” is itself a fairly recent invention.
The concept of nova scientia (new knowledge), which stressed empiricism rather than mythical explanations for natural phenomena, is said to have begun with Copernicus in the 16th century. But until the mid-19th century what we know as science was called natural philosophy, and had strong links to theology.
William Whewell, a historian and philosopher, heard members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science complaining that there was no suitable collective term to describe their work. He noted the proliferation of specific titles such as chemist and naturalist in his paper “On the connexion of the physical sciences” in a Quarterly Review in 1834 and suggested, partly in fun, that the term “scientist”, by analogy with artist or economist, might offer a solution to their problem.
In his ‘The philosophy of the inductive sciences’, published in 1840, Whewell repeated his suggestion with more emphasis, saying: “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist or Naturalist.”
Whewell had also suggested that the title “physicist” replace the French word physicien, but it took some time before either of his suggestions came into common usage.