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Book Review The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists. Second Edition. Edited by R. Porter

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BOOKS
The whirring sound you hear is Copernicus rotating in his grave.
In the preface the editors discuss their
selection criteria. With regard to 20th century candidates, many of them still living,
they are “guided by lists of prizes and
awards made by scientific societies ...”
and in addition the “compilers and editors
have used their own judgement in choosing what is important or useful”. However, it is sometimes rather difficult to appreciate the basis of such judgements.
Whereas one will look in vain for chemists
such as H. Meerwein, A. Katchalsky, S.
Winstein, G. Olah, J. A. Pople, E. Wiberg,
W. Reppe, T. Nozoe, G . Schwarzenbach,
or G. Wilke--to name but a few at random-we are told at great length about F.
Hurter whose only claim to fame (according to the authors) is that he became chief
chemist at Holbrook Gaskell & Henry
Deacon’s alkali factory. Or take Lyon
Playfair, 1st Baron, on whom I stumbled
by accident. “As a politician he was reasonably successful” we are told, but as a
scientist he was obviously a failure, nothing of relevance being reported. Even
some physicists, such as W. Kossel, G .
Wenzel, T. Koopmans (who, admittedly,
gained his Nobel prize in economics), or
even such an important contributor to the
quantum theory as Friedrich Hund (!)
were not considered worthy of inclusion,
in contrast to Erno Rubik (his first name
is given as “Erno”) whose invention of a
toy, the Rubik cube, earns him a longer
entry than those of many living scientists.
In a section entitled “Chronology” the
authors have compiled year by year what
they consider the most important discoveries in the fields of mathematics, physics,
chemistry, biology, and medicine. During
the last 40 years, roughly the span of an
academic lifetime, chemists and in particular organic chemists must have been
sound asleep. Whereas scientists working
in other fields seem to have produced
noteworthy results practically every year,
chemistry is mentioned only ten times. Of
these ten entries, three refer to fullerenes
and three to the depletion of the ozone
layer by chlorofluorohydrocarbons. The
remaining four mentions concern the discovery of crown ethers by Pedersen, the
preparation of rare gas compounds by
Bartlett, Prigogine’s work on irreversible
thermodynamics, and the discovery of
quasi-crystals by Shechtman. The latter’s
name is misspelled “Schectman”, and although his important work is deemed
worthy of mention in the chronology, a
biographical note devoted to Shechtman
is lacking.
These shortcomings may be regarded as
nothing but nagging criticism of points of
21 68
6
minor importance, but they do not inspire
confidence in the reliability of biographies
of scientists you know little or nothing
about. In this connection, my major criticism is that the encyclopedia does not
contain a single reference to primary o r
secondary literature. Not only are we not
told the sources of the information given,
but the reader is offered no help at all if he
or she wants to follow up or complement-and
check! !----the short biographies provided. Thus, if you want additional information, you must do what you
would have done anyway without the encyclopedia, namely go to the library to
search for reliable works of reference and
biography.
Edgar Heilbronner
Herrliberg (Switzerland)
The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists. Second Edition. Edited by R.
Porter. Oxford University Press, New
York, 1994. LVII, 891 pp., hardcover
$ 85.00 (also published in Great
Britain as The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography,
Helicon, Oxford, 1994, Z 50.00) .ISBN 0-19-521083-2
In the mid-1980s Peter Bedrick (New
York) published and Harper & Row (New
York) distributed a six-volume set, The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, edited
by David Abbott, with volume titles Astronomers (1984), Biologists (I 984),
Chemists (1984), Physicists (1984), Mathematicians (1986), and Engineers and Inventors (1986). Now Roy Porter, Associate Director of the Wellcome Institute of
the History of Medicine, London, and 34
other contributors have produced the second edition of this reference work in one
convenient volume, which includes entries
on men and women from ancient times to
the present day in the above fields of science plus geology, ranging in length from
seven lines (al-Sufi) to three pages (Sir
Isaac Newton). Arranged alphabetically
from Abbe to Zworykin, the entries not
only provide basic biographical information in a historical and scientific context
but also discuss the significance of the scientist’s contribution and show how the
scientist’s personal, social, political, religious, and artistic concerns affected his or
her life. The work also contains a
short general introduction and succinct
(6-7 page) historical reviews of the seven
fields (in the case of chemistry, a panorama recounting highlights from contributions of the ancient Egyptians to the discovery of buckyballs), along with 107
illustrations (but unfortunately no por-
VCH Verlugsgesell.~cliuflnzhH. 0.69451 W(+dieini, 1995
+
traits). Useful but unusual features for a
biographical dictionary are an extensive
(77-page) glossary of about 2000 items,
and appendices listing Nobel laureates for
chemistry, physiology or medicine, and
physics through 1993 and the grounds for
their awards. A detailed 47-page index
(3 columns per page), with names of the
biographees in capitals, facilitates quick
access to information. British spelling is
used consistently, and although the coverage is international, a surprisingly large
amount of space is devoted to British scientists, some of whom are only minor figures.
Some closely associated scientists, 25 in
all, are grouped together and discussed in
single entries, e.g., Beadle, Tatum, and
Lederberg; Crick, Watson, and Wilkins;
Fischer and Wilkinson; Hall and Hkroult.
Many, but by no means all, Nobel laureates are the subjects of entries. Psychiatrists and psychologists such as Adler,
Eysenck, Freud, Jung, and Piaget are included, as is Nicolas Bourbaki, the collective pseudonym for the group of mathematicians who have been publishing collectively and anonymously since the late
1930s. Although almost a third of the contributors to this volume are women, only
19 women are discussed, including wellknown scientists such as Rachel Carson,
Goeppert-Mayer, Hodgkin, Meitner, McClintock, and Yalow, and lesser-known
ones such as Hyman and Morgan. Obviously, additional efforts are required to
include women scientists in biographical
dictionaries such as this and others.
Unlike the 18-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), which is the
standard in this genre, the volume under
review here includes living subjects such
as science popularizers David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan. Although Lysenko,
Mendeleev, and Pavlov are included, Russian scientists such as Borodin, Butlerov,
Chugaev, Kurnakov, Lomonosov, Vernadsky and Zinin are missing, as are some
important chemists of other nationalities.
The extent of coverage is still not always
commensurate with the scientist’s contributions, a defect noted by at least one reviewer of the “Mathematicians” volume
of the first edition (D. V. Feldman, Choice
1986, 23, 1651). For example, Lavoisier
rates only a page, while lesser figures, in
chemistry and other fields, receive equal
or greater coverage. Although touted as
“updated and expanded,” the entry on
Henry Gilman (p. 277), who died in 1986,
and the passing mention of Robert Mullikan, who died in 1986 (p. 440), d o not
reflect this fact.
OS70-OR33/95:34/9-216R $ 10.00 ,2510
Angew. Chem. I n l . Ed. Engl. 1995, 34, No.
19
BOOKS
With its coverage of 1178 scientists, this
volume compares favorably with its primary competitors. e.g., Asimov‘s BiogrcipIiie~LiIDic/ionur~j~
o f ’ S c i ( v ~cind
c ~ Technologj, (2nd revised edition, Doubleday,
Garden City, NY 1982--1510 entries,
$39.95 paperback); David, Tan, John,
and Ma rga ret M i I lar ‘s Chirnihm Concisc
Dicii(imit;i, o/’ Scirniisis (W. & R. Chambers Ltd., Edinburgh, Scotland. 1989~882 entries. $ 29.95), and John Daintith,
Sara Mitchell. Elisabeth Tootill, and
Derek Gje r t sen ’s Biogriipli ic GIc.~c*lopediri o f ’ S c i c w / i , r / s(2nd ed.. 2 vols.. Institute
for Physics Publishing. Bristol, England
and Philadelphia. PA,1994-ca. 2000 entries, J 190). However. the hallmark of an
encyclopedia is not only coverage but accuracy. and it is here that Porter’s dictionary possesses serious deficiencies. A
reviewer of the “Engineers and Inventors” voluinc of the first edition noted:
”Proofreading is rather uneven,” citing
errors which have still not been corrected
in the second edition (R. J. Havlik, Choice
1986. 24. 7 8 ) . In the new edition the English chemist Nevi1 Vincent Sidgwick’s
name is consistently misspelled Sidgewick
(pp. 486. 621). and the first names of
Bosch (pp. 86. 293) and Scheele (p. 168)
are given 215 Karl, not Carl. Other misspellings include “Marcelin” for Marcellin (Bertlielot) (p. 6 2 ) . “diamene” for
diamine (p. 119). “Encyclopedia Britannica” for Encyclopaedia Britannica
(p. 224). “C‘l.” for CI (pp. 233, 715),
“Bresslau” for Breslau (p. 293). “van
Neumann” for von Neutnann (p, 317),
“Haiidwortcnbuch” for Handworter-
buch. and “practische” for praktische
(p. 395). and the cross-reference for
Count Rumford lists him as “Thomson”
not Thompson. Diacritical marks are
sometimes missing. as in VCversunda
(p.65). Trait6 elementaire (p. 167), and
Ruiitka (p. 564). Several chemists are
consistently referred to by their first
names rather than by their more familiar
names, e.g., Johann (not Adolf) von
Baeyer (p. 382). Friedrich (not August)
Kekule (pp. 37. 232. 381, 685). Friedrich
(not Wilhelm) Ostwald (p. 686). and
Pierre (not Marcellin) Berthelot (p. 715).
However, the volume also contains errors of fact. The formula for adipic acid
contains two N atoms instead of C atoms;
that for nylon has a C - 0 bond missing
(p. 119); those for l-niethylphenylhydrazone and an indole derivative lack N
atoms (p. 233); that for benzene has a
double bond missing (p. 382); and one of
the Lewis structures for NO lacks formal
charges (p. 429). Benzene was discovered
in 1825 not 1835 (p. 224); Heisenberg was
born in Sanderau. a suburb of Wiirzburg,
not in Duisberg, a mistake also made by
Asimov (p. 327); gallium was discovered
in 1875, not 1 871. and Moseley’s work on
atomic numbers as a basis for the Periodic
System dates from the IYIOs, not the
1920s (p. 477); Alfred Werner was too ill
to work on coordination compounds after
theend ofworld War I(p. 621); Guldberg
and Waage announced their law of mass
action in 1864. not 1867 (p. 686): and
Werner considered only organic compounds, not coordination compounds, in
his Habilitationsschrift~tionsschrift(p. 715). Both in-
organic and organic nomenclature and
formulas do not adhere to IUPAC recommendations (e.g.. pp. 119, 715). These errors among the chemist entries cast doubt
on the accuracy of the entries on practitioners of the other fields, a point corroborated for biologists by another reviewer
(J. Altman, N m . S<,ien~is/,
30 July 1994.
143. 41).
Finally, as reviewers ol’the first edition
have stated. the lack of any citations to
sources of biographical information is a
serious flaw in this dictionary and makes
it of little use to the historian of science.
Yet this charge could be leveled at its competitors listed above, which also do not
contain references. Fui-thermore. Professor Edgar Heilbronner. a respected
chemist colleague, found Daintith et al.’s
Biogrtiplzicd E n c ~ ~ c ~ l o p dof’
i i Sekvi/i.sr.s
i
to
contain numerous errors (for review see
A n g w . Clzenz. 1995, this issue). Thus. the
relatively modest price of Porter’s Bio,yaphical Dictionarj. makes it ;I handy
one-volume first-step reference work for
the general public and (or high school.
college, and university students a s well as
practicing scientists with ;in interest in the
history of their fields. However, the frequency of errors will make it necessary for
the user to visit a librar] to consult other
more authoritative sources such as the
Dicrionarj of’Scienlific Biogrciphjx. both to
check specific facts and spellings and for
additional, more detailed information.
G‘coiyy B. Kai&un
Ca 1i fornia State U ni versit y
Fresno. CA (USA)
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