scholarly practice

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus


Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.




John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.


Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.


Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.




Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.


The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a first-year Ph.D. student in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in book history, marginalia, news, and the various cultures of the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean.