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BJHS Themes 2018

Isabel Zilhão, Kristian H. Nielsen and Melanie Keene win bid for BJHS Themes 2018

26.10.2016 | Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen

Worlds of science for young people, 1815-1985


The history of science for children and young people is a topic rich in fascinating stories and deep insights into the ways in which science has been communicated, performed and appropriated outside its own “comfort zone”. This collection of essays takes a wide approach to the historical construction of worlds of science for children and young people in terms of historical time span, geographical location and modes of communications. The papers on which this collection is based were all presented in two themed sessions at the 6th ESHS Conference, Lisbon 2014. They relate to the overall of the conference – communicating science, technology and medicine – by emphasizing how, across ages and spaces, agents, audiences, means, aims and agendas behind the complex process of communicating science have varied considerably.


Today, much attention is given to making science appeal to children and your people. In a recent comment in the New York Review of Books, political scientist Andrew Hacker calls it “STEM Frenzy”, noting that it has a deep impact not only on the ways in which science is being presented to children, but also on the scientific enterprise itself. Like many others, Hacker traces the origins of STEM Frenzy to the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 with its subsequent impact on educational policies in many Western countries. However, as historians of science would agree, the production, distribution and interpretation of science-related material for children and young people has much longer and much more diverse historical background. We as historians of science need to reach a broad scholarly audience with interesting and telling stories about the ways in which science has been presented to children and young people. We also need to be able to relate how this particular way of communicating impacts broader cultural ideas about science and the practice of science itself.

There has been surprisingly little academic work conducted on the history of science for young people: with a few notable exceptions, mainly covering Britain, America and France, it is a rich topic for research which has only recently attracted the interest of scholars. In particular, though some aspects of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglophone contexts have been explored, other countries have not been the subjects of analysis. Many significant figures, publications, and stories await their historians. Therefore there is a pressing need to take an international perspective on these stories: exploring how global case-studies, comparisons and connections can broaden and deepen our knowledge of the history of science for young people over the past two centuries. This collection addresses this gap in the current literature.

The collection also showcases a number of academic approaches, from literary criticism to political history, and disciplines, including agriculture, anatomy, geology, and nuclear physics. In this way both in its subject-matter and its contributors it not only showcases the breadth of ongoing research into science for young people, but also highlights the many different ways in which young people learned about, experienced and interacted with the sciences in the past. The collection’s innovation in terms of subject-matter and regions is therefore matched by new historiographic perspectives: both its introduction and several of the chapters will demonstrate how focusing on science for young people permits the development of new analytic approaches.

This collection of essays will appeal to a wide community of historians of modern science: in its thematic, chronological, and geographical breadth, it will address many key topics of contemporary scholarship. Historians of education, childhood, of the book, of literature, and of politics will also find much of relevance in its pages. Beyond academic communities, the essays will also be of interest to current science communicators and teachers, as well as those involved in science education policy and institutions. Scientists themselves often like to revisit their own introductory experiences in what came to be their specialist subjects, and would be another potential audience for this collection of essays.


Isabel Zilhão is a postdoctoral researcher at the Interuniversity Centre for the History of Science Technology at the Faculty of Sciences in Lisbon, Portugal. She received her PhD in molecular biology before she turned her interest to History of Science in 2010. She has published in popular science in twentieth century Portugal, particularly focusing on how science, including science for young people, was portrayed by the daily press.  As a result of her growing interest in science for young people, she organized the symposium on ‘Science for Children’ which was held at the 6th conference of the European Society for the History of Science in September 2014. Her most recent publication appeared in History of Science, ‘The rise and fall of science for all: science for children voiced by a Portuguese daily newspaper (1924–1933)’, 52(2014), 454-488.

Kristian H. Nielsen is associate professor in the history of science and science education at Aarhus University, Denmark. He takes a special interest in the history of science communication directed at children. He has published in journals such as Annals of Science, British Journal for the History of Science, Historical Studies of the Natural Sciences, History of Technology, Public Understanding of Science, Science & Education, Science as Culture, and Science Communication.

Melanie Keene received her PhD from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, before taking up a Junior Research Fellowship at Homerton College in 2009; in 2013 she became Graduate Tutor at the College, responsible for arts, humanities and social sciences postgraduate students. She has published extensively on science for children from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, in particularly focusing on British ‘familiar science’. Her first book, Science in Wonderland, was published in 2015, and investigates Victorian fairy tales of science. From 2009-14 she edited Viewpoint, magazine of the British Society for the History of Science, and has extensive experience with the Society’s Outreach and Education Committee. She recently became Treasurer of the History of Education Society.

Table of content

Isabel Zilhão, Kristian H. Nielsen and Melanie Keene, ‘Introduction: International and historiographical perspectives on science for young people’

Alan Rauch, ‘Women and the matrix of science in nineteenth-century Britain’

Richard Somerset, ‘Telling the “story of life” to children in 1830s Britain’

Gautam Chando Roy, ‘Science for children in a colonial context: Bengali juvenile literature, 1880-1920’

Isabel Zilhão, ‘Taking science to the countryside in early twentieth-century Portugal’

Bernardo Oliveira, ‘The reception of The Book of Knowl­­edge in twentieth-century Latin America’

Peter J. Bowler, ‘Meccano Magazine: boy’s toys and popular science in inter-war Britain’

Inês Gomes, ‘The evolution of science teaching in Portugal across diverse political regimes from 1836 to 1975’

Melanie Keene, ‘“Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes”: embodied anatomy for children in nineteenth-century Britain and America’

Kristian H. Nielsen, ‘The practice and politics of integrated science teaching in the global Cold War’

Author biographies (excluding the editors)

Alan Rauch is Professor of English at University of North Carolina – Charlotte. In addition to his position in the Department of English he holds an adjunct appointment as Adjunct Professor of History and is also affiliated with Women’s Studies. His research in the cultural studies of science deals primarily with the dissemination of knowledge in the nineteenth century and its impact on the novel. In addition, Rauch is series editor (with Martin Willis) of Intersections in Literature & Science, a book series published by the University of Wales Press. Rauch has also edited The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century [1827] by Jane Webb Loudon. Currently, Rauch is completing his manuscript, tentatively titled, ‘Private Reading: Public Knowledge,’ which deals with the history of private libraries and the knowledge industry in the nineteenth century.

Richard Somerset is a lecturer at the Université de Lorraine. He has published a wide variety of articles on nineteenth-century evolutionary thought and evolutionary popularisation in Britain and France. His studies of scientific popularisation have mainly addressed the theme of the interconnections between narrative form and ideological orientation, but he has also written on the role of illustration in scientific popularisation, and on the translation of popular science classics. In addition, he has produced a variety of pieces on specific authors such as Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet, George Eliot, William Morris, Bram Stoker, Honoré de Balzac and Conan Doyle, typically in relation to scientific themes. He is currently working on popular ‘histories of life’ and hopes to publish a monograph on the subject. 

Gautam Chando Roy is Associate Professor of History at Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, India. His research interest is in the social history of children’s literature, ideas of childhood, and children’s experience in colonial Bengal. His published papers include ‘The Image of the Child in Juvenile Literature of late 19th and Early 20th Century Bengal’ (2012), ‘Swadesh: a Land of One’s Own’ (2011), ‘Childhood Conditions: Moral Education in Early 20th Century Bengal’ (2005), ‘The Pathshala and the School’ (1995).

Bernardo Jefferson de Oliveira is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.  He holds a Masters’ degree in Philosophy (1989) and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science (2000) from the Federal University Federal of Minas Gerais, with the thesis ‘Francis Bacon and the Foundation of Science as Technology’, published in 2002. Since then, he has working on the history of the scientific culture in Brazil. He has held post-doctoral appointments at MIT, USA (2004) and at Université Paris 1 (2011). From 2011 to 2013, he directed the science museum Espaço do Conhecimento UFMG.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor emeritus of the History of Science at Queen's University, Belfast. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He was President of the British Society for the History of Science, 2003-2005. He has published a number of books on the history of biology, including The Eclipse of Darwinism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) and Life's Splendid Drama (University of Chicago Press, 1996). Later books include Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2009). His most recent book is Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (University of Chicago Press, 2013). A short piece on the Meccano Magazine has appeared in BSHS Viewpoint magazine (issue 105, 2014).

Inês Gomes graduated in Biology (University of Lisbon, 2004). Her PhD (University of Lisbon, 2015) addresses the natural history collections of secondary schools in Portugal. Her main objective was to use natural history teaching collections in secondary schools as a source and tool to improve our understanding of the history of scientific and pedagogical practices. She wanted to understand how these collections were created, how they were organized and used, what their meaning through time was, as well as their contemporary significance. Research interests include teaching collections, history of collections and scientific heritage, as well as history of science education and history of science in Portugal.

Article abstracts

Alan Rauch, ‘Women and the matrix of science in nineteenth-century Britain’

In this essay, I will explore the significance of selected books aimed at children in the century that is at the heart of the scientific and industrial age. Furthermore, I propose a system by which we can begin to reassemble this matrix of writers to understand them as workers in a field whose importance they well understood. There is no question that early nineteenth-century science was shaped within the social and discursive patterns of women’s writing. The commanding role that women have played and continue to play as popularisers of science doesn’t speak to the limitations faced by women interested in science. Rather, it reflects a confident engagement with an emergent sphere of influence that would ultimately be defined by the very women who constructed it.

Richard Somerset, ‘Telling the “story of life” to children in 1830s Britain’

The methodological and conceptual orientations of geology in the opening decades of the nineteenth century remained highly contested. In those early days, one strategic question which the discipline faced was the degree to which it should seek to address the issue of compatibility with the Genesis account of Creation. By studying the narrative and the communicative strategies of early providentialist popularisers of the findings of geology, this essay discusses how these deliberate attempts to find morally acceptable ways of presenting the findings of the science of geology to a youthful audience had a significant impact on the norms of the mature ‘history of life’ genre that would emerge in the late Victorian era. These early texts provided the sort of discursive space within which not just the ideas but the implications of the new science could be worked through.

Gautam Chando Roy, ‘Science for children in a colonial context: Bengali juvenile literature, 1880-1920’

By the late nineteenth century, confidence in British rule as the harbinger of progress based on scientific knowledge had been largely eroded: educated and socially conscious Indians now increasingly preferred to take things into their own hands to affect change. In modern Bengali children’s literature, the physical world was presented in all its quaintness – for the young to wonder at, to be amazed by, and to revel in. All of this contributed to a significantly new experience of childhood in Bengal. Not only did children’s knowledge increase vastly, but it was also a kind of knowledge that children belonging to traditional society could never have hoped to acquire. But this literature, stressing science, intellect, and reason, helped produce a bias too. It went against other kinds of knowledge and people who were the repositories of such knowledge – the old, the illiterate, the lower orders, the rural folk, and women – all of whom were portrayed as either incapable of acquiring modern scientific knowledge and disposition or as not needed to by society. Science thus became a matter of faith, too, engendering a narrowness that goes against its very spirit. Indeed, this mirrored the increasing distance between the new middle class and the rest of Bengali society. 

Isabel Zilhão, ‘Taking science to the countryside in early twentieth-century Portugal’

The popularisation of agriculture has barely been addressed within the historiography of popular science while agriculture books for children are addressed within the wider study of institutional teaching and learning practices such as Nature study and agricultural education. Building on seven books on agriculture topics written for young people and popularising articles on the subject published in the daily press, I will discuss how, why and to what ends was agricultural science a preferred topic to be communicated to the young in early twentieth-century Portugal. Whilst a scientific disposition is generally conveyed, agricultural science topics intermixed with significant economic, religious, moral and social messages are all used to mould the character of the future ‘agricultural citizen’ and reflect difficulties involved in the building of the State in Portugal.

Bernardo Oliveira, ‘The reception of The Book of Knowledge in twentieth-century Latin America’

In the early twentieth century, encyclopaedias devoted to children and young adults became special points of reference for science and technology education. Although not a part of formal educational materials, their authority as holders of true knowledge was remarkable not just for young readers but also for parents and teachers, and remained so until the nineteen-fifties. In this chapter, I analyse how an Anglo-American encyclopaedia, The Book of Knowledge, that became a millionaire multinational enterprise in the early twentieth century spread its worldview in Latin American countries. I will take the perspective that regards translations and popularisation of knowledge not as simplifications or impoverishment of original ideas, but as a fundamental mechanism for stabilisation and wide acceptance of practices and knowledge.

Peter J. Bowler, ‘Meccano Magazine: boy’s toys and popular science in inter-war Britain’

This paper will examine the origins of the Meccano Magazine in the context of Meccano’s advertising programme and its success as a popular magazine for boys.  From 1921 the editor was Ellison Hawks, the author of numerous books on science and technology aimed at younger readers, and he used the magazine as a novel way of promoting a broader knowledge of these topics. The links between model-making and real-life engineering were the initial key that allowed material on technology to be included, but Hawks’s wider interests led him to move beyond engineering and technology to general science, including natural history, astronomy, meteorology and geology. The story of the magazine thus provides a good example of how commercial activities could be adapted to a wider educational purpose by an editor committed to the spread of information about science.

Inês Gomes, ‘The evolution of science teaching in Portugal across diverse political regimes from 1836 to 1975’

The idea that a public and secular institution was needed to prepare citizens for higher education proliferated throughout Europe during the nineteenth century. However, because of local political, economic and social contexts, the underlying model of what is now meant by secondary education has developed differently in each country. Portugal was no exception to this scenario. Using multiple sources - bibliographical, documental, and material – this essay traces the origins and development of science teaching during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, in particular, examines how the political, scientific and pedagogic environments influenced the development of the curriculum between 1836 and 1975.

Melanie Keene, ‘“Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes”: embodied anatomy for children in nineteenth-century Britain and America’

Nineteenth-century children learned about their bodies from a variety of sources, including books, periodicals, objects, images, conversations, and people. At the same time, as educational philosophies increasingly emphasised embodied learning, the child’s body became a crucial pedagogic tool. In this chapter I will focus on elementary works about human anatomy, to explore cases when the body was both the object and subject of investigation. Through a close reading of elementary works about human anatomy, I will both elucidate the content and practice of anatomy for children in nineteenth-century Britain and America, and also reflect on changing attitudes towards children and their bodies, from head to toe.

Kristian H. Nielsen, ‘The practice and politics of integrated science teaching in the global Cold War’

UNESCO’s Programme in Integrated Science Teaching was launched in Paris on 17-19th March 1969. What pupils in elementary and secondary schools really needed, proponents of the integrated approach argued, was a general understanding of nature and how science works, not specialised knowledge of scientific disciplines. Moreover, pupils needed to be able to understand the place of science in contemporary society. This paper looks at teaching experiments and curriculum development projects in the USA, Europe, Asia, and Africa to gain insight into the diversity of the integrated approach across the globe. Particular emphasis will be placed on educational initiatives in developing countries in an effort to understand the role of integrated science teaching in Third World interventions during the global Cold War.