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Book Notes: Quakers, Jews and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1990, Geoffrey Cantor

John Cooper

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 41, 2007 Book Notes Quakers, Jews and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900, Geoffrey Cantor (Oxford University Press 2005) isbn o 19 927668 4, pp. vi + 420, ?60. Developing an idea of Max Weber, the American sociologist Robert Merton suggested that the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century was linked to the rise of Protestantism. Alongside this approach historians have tried to disentangle the growth of modern science by making detailed biographical studies of the leading pioneers, paying partic? ular attention to their religious affiliations and views. Geoffrey Cantor in his Quakers, Jems, and Science tries yet another approach through 'an inter? mediate perspective constituted by religious communities', by examining the response of Quakers and Jews in Britain to modernity and the sciences over the period 1650-1900. The book is tightly constructed and argued, dealing first with Quakers and Jews in scientific institutions (the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science) and the different career paths of members of the two communities in science. The final chapters of the book describe Quaker and Jewish attitudes to science and their responses to Darwin's theory of evolution. Although by the mid-nineteenth century Quakers numbered half the Anglo-Jewish population, their provision of a scientific education for adults was far superior. Whereas members of the Society of Friends tended to be middle class and financially secure, Anglo-Jewry contained many poor families and paupers. From early on, thinkers within the Quaker movement had tried to understand the meaning of creation. By the mid-eighteenth century this resulted in a significant number of Quakers becoming scien? tists, particularly botanists. Cantor explains the proliferation of this interest in botany by 'the coherence between science and such Quaker values as sobriety and piety'. Moreover, he later asserts that the Quaker doctrine of individuals being guided by an Inner Light fitted in well with an emphasis on the sensory observation of the natural world and the British tradition of empiricism; in addition, Quakers had an antipathy to closed religious systems of thought and thus had an anti-theoretical orientation. Through such Quaker schools as Bootham Hall, which had a brilliantly run Natural History Society, many distinguished botanists, zoologists, entomologists and ornithologists had their first grounding in science. 291</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes A point not sufficiently emphasized by Cantor is that the Quakers were embedded in the countryside in a way that Jews were not, apart from a small exceptional group of wealthy merchants and bankers, who could afford to establish themselves on landed estates. Some Quakers were the sons of yeomen farmers, others were gardeners and seedsmen, in places including Edinburgh. The Quaker Peter Collinson (FRS 1728) was the leading importer of plants and seeds from America. A few prosperous Jewish army contractors such as Abraham Prado and Moses Isaac Levy, and the bill broker Benjamin Goldsmid (1755-1808), purchased estates where they grew exotic fruit. Jews in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nine? teenth century found it very difficult to pursue a career in science. Emanuel Mendes da Costa had a deep knowledge of minerals, fossils and shells, in which he traded to raise additional income to support his family, as his posi? tion as Clerk to the Royal Society was not remunerative enough. Following the English empiricist tradition of Bacon and Locke, Mendes da Costa stated in his Natural History of Fossils (1757) that he would describe these specimens 'according to the appearances which they exhibit to the senses'.Thus it could be argued in criticism of Cantor that members of all the religious communities educated in Britain participated in a common empiricist tradition and that the religious tie-up with empiricism was of marginal importance. Mendes da Costa also wrote the authoritative Historia Naturalis Testaceorum Brittanniae (1778), a volume adding to scientific knowledge and beautifully illustrated. Both books were published at a finan? cial loss and, because of his mounting debts, he spent two periods in prison. The two other examples of Jewish scientists cited by Cantor drifted out of the community. Israel Lyons was interested in mathematics, botany and astronomy, publishing a Treatise on Fluxions (1758) and later a new edition of Fasciculus Plantarum circa Cantabrigiam (1763). Appointed as a superin? tendent astronomer on a voyage to the North Pole, he became embroiled in a controversy when his data were challenged; his career ended in disgrace, debauchery hastening an end to his short life. Although Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) had a successful career, he spent most of his working life in India. After he qualified as a doctor in Aberdeen, he was appointed profes? sor at the Calcutta Medical College, where he published in three volumes what became the standard account of the rare plants of Asia. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the number of posts available for the teaching of science and related subjects expanded and they became increasingly open to Quakers and Jews, although fewer Jews held such posi? tions. Before the reforms of 1856 Jews received a cold welcome at Cambridge. James Joseph Sylvester (1814-97), on being taunted by an anti Semitic individual when dining in hall, threw a plate or dish at his tormen? tor. Unable to graduate at Cambridge, despite coming second in the final 292</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes mathematics examination, he received a degree from Trinity College Dublin. He went on to become a professor of mathematics. After the reforms, Numa Hartog (1846-71) was able to graduate and took the top position in the Mathematics Tripos as Senior Wrangler. However, since he was a Jew and not a member of the Church of England, a college fellowship was denied to him, leading to the repeal of such disqualifications in 1871. From University College London most of the Jewish students who gradu? ated in mathematics became actuaries or switched to a career at the bar, including such legal luminaries as Jessel and Arthur Cohen. The Jewish contribution to technology in nineteenth-century Britain was limited. Jacob (1813-44) and Joseph Samuda (1813-85) developed marine engines, but their atmospheric engine for use on the railways was not adopted on a large scale. Nathan Defries, a gas engineer, patented a bath that was supplied with hot water from a gas stove, and provided lighting for public institutions and for the wedding of the Prince of Wales. The career of the most important Jewish technologist, Ludwig Mond (1838?1909), founder of ICI, is unfortunately not covered in any detail in Cantor's book. Nor is mention made of Dr Charles Dreyfus, founder of the Clayton Aniline Dye Company and later the employer of Chaim Weizmann, so that the overall Jewish contribution to the chemical industry is understated. Here Professor Raphael Meldola is also of significance, as discoverer of several synthetic dyes and as an early Jewish supporter of evolution by natural selection. Cantor also provides a survey of Jewish and Quaker medical students in Scotland. He points out that several Jewish medical students were from the Caribbean, most of whom returned home to practise. Overall, however, in contrast to the growing numbers of Quaker doctors from the early eigh? teenth century onwards, few Jews took up a career in medicine. The coverage of Jews in the late Victorian period is sometimes cursory and Cantor fails to convey the important role of distinguished Jewish medical men such as John Zachariah Laurence, Richard Liebrich and Felix Semon in disseminating the results of German advances in medicine to a wider audience. However, the book is a substantial contribution to the history of Jewish involvement with science. Cantor concludes by showing how the Quakers' doctrine of Inner Light and their other religious values made them receptive to careers in natural history, as noted earlier, and sympathetic to the plight of pre-literate peoples. Quakers were prominent, for example, in the Aborigines' Protection Society and the Ethnological Society. Jews, in contrast, because of the dialectical arguments in their religious literature, favoured high-level abstraction, inclining them to a greater interest in mathematics and scientific theories. John Cooper 293</page></plain_text>