A short history of the Academy, 1927 - 1940

The International Academy of the History of Science can legitimately trace its origins to the winter of 1927-1928. For in the issue of the journal Archeion for November-December 1927 appeared Aldo Mieli's first appeal to his colleagues working in the history of science for an active and organic participation in the business of the international organization for history in general. (Aldo Mieli, 1879-1950, was at that time a Professor in the University of Rome ; political circumstances forced him to move to Paris, then to Argentina, where he died.) The VIth Congress of the Historical Sciences was then in preparation by a committee formed in the United States (The International Committee of Historical Sciences) for assembly at Oslo in August 1928. The steps taken by Aldo Mieli resulted in the establishment, within the framework of the Congress, of an International Committee of the History of Science, to which its progenitor was already attaching the name of Academy.
In a century within which everything to do with science ages very rapidly, fifty years give the International Academy of the History of Science a respectable antiquity and justify the fifth Permanent Secretary in speaking as its historian. To recall the essential elements in a chronicle which has ill resisted the test of time, to report the most important facts - such are the two poles of this memoir in aid of glancing backwards, which the historian intends always to be useful.
In this perspective one must necessarily pay particular attention to the origins of the Academy. If the development of the history of science began as far back as the end of the nineteenth century, it was only after the First World War that the birth of progress of specialist journals effectively brought into the open the ambiguity inherent in publication ; its beneficial quality when serving to communicate the results of intelligent scholars working on topics of importance, its harmful effects when spreading error and mediocrity. More sensitive to this negative effect, Aldo Mieli thought fit to write in the article just quoted : « The third-rate authors who fill up the journals with their anecdotes and trivialities unworthy of the name of history of science have not hitherto had to fear lest their little bits of nonsense should be judged as they ought by a competent tribunal ». And while Mieli's colleagues, the editors of great international journals of scholarship, readily fell in with his anxiety to promote a serious cooperation between the historians of different countries, he himself was especially inclined to conceive of the organisation's operating as an agency of control and regulation.
Yet Aldo Mieli rejected, for the organized profession of the history of science, the simple formula of an association based on the voluntary membership of individuals, each paying a subscription. For, he argued, it would be sufficient for the dislike of this simple arrangement to repel a few eminent historians of established reputation, and cause them to stand aside from it, to remove from the organisation all its value, by their absence. He thought that voluntary membership alters its significance when it is solicited as an acceptance of the recognition of the individual's merit, and as an honourable responsibility, and on the other hand on « an elite of historians of science to be chosen according to the rules and procedures of the great Academies ».
The resolution passed on 17 August 1928 by the Congress of Historical Sciences gave him satisfaction, but in directing the functions of the Committee of selected scholars to visions that were both more modest and more practical, that is, « to developing closer relationships between historians of science » and to « facilitating their studies, notably by publishing or assisting the publication of working tools, such as bibliographies, which they lack », manifestly, the majority of the other six founder-members (Abel Rey, George Sarton, Henry E. Sigerist, Charles Singer, Karl Sudhoff, Lynn Thorndike) did not follow Aldo Mieli to the extent of forming a « competent tribunal » and rather looked forward, with reality and wisdom, to the effective service of historical research in a field that was still very new.
It is to this effective service that the Centre International de Synthèse, then recently founded by Henri Berr in the historic Hôtel de Nevers, 12, rue Colbert, Paris, gave most important assistance by providing a durable seat for the organisation which has continued to the present .
At Oslo, the founders had foreseen a fairly large organisation consisting of 30 Effective and 50 Corresponding Members, and had joined to themselves, on 1 March 1929, fifteen new Effective Members to prepare for the future, and in particular to prepare for the first International Congress of the History of Science planned for 20-25 May 1929, at Paris, and dedicated to the memory of Paul Tannery. In the course of this Congress, Statutes were adopted, with a strong academic bias, the election of new members being justified uniquely by the quality of their writings. However, despite pressure from Aldo Mieli - meanwhile appointed ‘Permanent Secretary’ - the name Academy did not receive the favour of the majority.
It was not long before the Committee in its evolution encountered problems stemming from the ambiguity of its origins. Although the system of scientific cooptation enjoyed, at the time, excellent possibilities for smooth functioning, because of the restricted number of specialists in each country who were therefore able to know each other well, it soon appeared that the countries that were strongly represented at the beginning were likely to increase their representation, in the most natural way in the world, at the cost of countries that were already under-represented. Accordingly, it was decided from the month of May 1930 that the Effective and Corresponding Members in each particular state should constitute a National Group . It was explicitly provided that such Groups, independently of the International Committee, had complete liberty to adopt the forms and the statutes that they deemed suitable, and that they should endeavour on the one hand to include other members than those participating in the International Committee and on the other to obtain grants from their respective governments. What was in question, then, was, at the same time, integration of the national representative memberships, with authority to organise reserves of competent scholars, and to contribute to the resolution of financial difficulties.
In this respect the operation met with an early encouraging result. At the Second International Congress of the History of Science at London in 1931, the Committee could congratulate itself on grants provided by five governments (France, Spain, Germany, Hungary and Greece) but Aldo Mieli could not put through a modification of the Statutes aimed at formalising the name of Academy and increasing the number of Members to 40 Effective and 80 Corresponding, while reserving 92 Memberships to national representatives . In the following year, 1932, only the Spanish Republic renewed its grant. Only at the fourth annual meeting of the Committee, at Paris in May 1932, was the alteration of the Statutes at last allowed, with an even greater increase of membership (50 Effective, 100 Corresponding), but without any mention of the reservation of places by national groups . Accordingly, if the historian may seize upon 16 May 1932 as the official recognition of the International Academy of the History of Science, it is nevertheless evident that this recognition, so ardently sought by Mieli, was effected without clear statement, still less resolution, of the practical problems raised by three years of existence.
Beyond all doubt, the continuation of the sub-title ‘International Committee of the History of science’ suggested that the Academy, a learned society of men and women, felt the need to rely upon an assortment of national groups - as much for financial reasons as for the regular recruitment of future Academicians - but this suggestion remained in a state of confusion. At the Fifth Annual Assembly at Warsaw on 23 August 1934 they had to confess that the Academy's coffers were empty, and to allow the national groups a consultative voice in the business of an Institution of which they remained independent .
The consequences of this state of affairs were to be oppressively felt right up to the Second World War. The Third and Fourth International Congresses (Coimbra, Sept.-Oct. 1934 ; Prague, Sept. 1937) owed their being uniquely to the activity of the Portuguese and Czechoslovak national groups. Settled at Paris now for several years, the Permanent Secretary, Aldo Mieli, could count only on the generous assistance given him particularly by the Centre International de Synthèse ; confronted with the various national groups, each election of new members was, for him, a delicate diplomatic negotiation.