Hospitality in Southern Science by Dr. Robert J. Malone

Introduction: Guest Blog–Dr. Robert J. Malone

We typically have some difficulty understanding why our distinguished guest bloggers choose to put up with us and allow us to publish their excellent work (let alone return our emails). Equal parts pity and guilty, most likely. Regardless,we absolutely jumped at the opportunity to have Dr. Robert J. Malone ruminate about science in the South–his qualifications are substantial and diverse. For starters, he is the Executive Director of The History of Science Society. And, perhaps more importantly, he survived teaching an undergraduate course on southern science at the University of Florida in which a certain someone *ahem* undoubtedly served more as royal pain than helpful history major. To Dr. Malone’s credit (and as a testament to his abilities in the classroom), that someone still, to this day, remembers our class’s selection of the “most southern song,” its lyrics, and a few of the most colorful incidents found in the memoir of Dr. Gideon Lincecum, frontier naturalist and teller of exceedingly tall tales. So, with visions of giants doin’ cartwheels and a statue wearin’ high heels (is the class song coming into focus yet?), I’ll leave the rest to Dr. Malone.


Hospitality in Southern Science: Ya’ll Come Back Now

I am grateful to Matthew Hulbert for the chance to write about southern science. My objective for this piece is twofold: First, examine the role that hospitality (defined here as a host who exhibits shared interest in a guest’s specialty and who makes resources available for intellectual pursuits) played in science as demonstrated in the life of the planter/naturalist William Dunbar (c.1749-1810). The reader will notice a slight variation from the OED definition of hospitality, which is “the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill.” To illustrate hospitality’s presence in southern science, I draw on two short examples in which Dunbar hosted the botanist, William Bartram, and the ornithologist, Alexander Wilson. The second goal, a bit of a stretch, is to extend these insights to the role that an academic conference plays in the lives of historians of science.

In my day job, I serve as Executive Director of the History of Science Society (HSS), which places me more in the role of an administrator than a researcher. A major function of my office is to host an annual meeting of the Society. That yearly responsibility, along with a host of other administrative duties, leave little time to work on southern science, but my situation is not unique. A former president of the HSS, who held an endowed chair at a major research university in the United States, once told me that the staggering demands on his time (graduate students, teaching, service, letters of recommendation, grant writing, etc. – most of which, one will notice, entails interactions with others) convinced him that he could spend more time on the history of science if he was a janitor in New York, a job with limited interactions.

In my perhaps naïve belief that history can provide guidance for the future I will draw some parallels between science in the South and the social and solitary aspects of the life of historians of science — which resemble in many ways the life of southern historians — hoping to provide insights into southern science and the lives of working scholars. So let’s begin with Dunbar.

William Dunbar, of Elgin Scotland, came to North America in 1772. He was a university graduate – King’s College in Aberdeen – and his father, Sir Archibald Dunbar, provided him enough money to make the trip to America and establish a plantation. Dunbar, a lover of science, had many goals in his journey to America but one of the more important ones was to establish a great observatory. He longed to discuss the workings of nature with fellow philosophers, but his residence on the edge of the wilderness, first at New Richmond (near present-day Baton Rouge) and then at Washington (near Natchez) limited such interactions. When esteemed men of science would visit, he provided them unrivaled hospitality.

In 1775, shortly after Dunbar had settled at New Richmond, he welcomed William Bartram (1739-1823) to his home. Bartram, who was fulfilling a long-time dream of visiting West Florida and the Mississippi River, first met Dunbar at Manchac, a trading post on the Mississippi south of New Richmond. With the aid of 3 slaves (Bartram, a Quaker, did not use the word “slave” writing that the boat was “rowed by 3 blacks”) they made the ascent to New Richmond. Dunbar, who was in his mid 20s at the time, 10 years junior to Bartram, spent most of the ensuing week, showing Bartram around the lower Mississippi River before a recurring eye disorder forced Bartram to curtail his trip.

Bartram described Dunbar’s place as a “delightful villa” with extensive crops (Dunbar’s plantation records show that he experimented growing indigo, rice, flax, corn, tobacco, buckwheat, barley, and pineapples, but his main cash crop at the time was trees — for stave making). In Bartram, Dunbar found a botanical colleague, one of the foremost botanists of 18th century America, and one who could advise him on his crops. On river, on horse, and on foot, they explored the area, Dunbar devoting himself almost entirely to his guest’s needs.

The brief account of Bartram’s visit is in Bartram’s words, taken from his Travels. Dunbar left no record of the encounter, and we must rely on yet another guest’s account, that of Alexander Wilson, to describe the second visit. Some 35 years after Bartram came to New Richmond, a time when Dunbar was in his twilight and fabulously wealthy thanks to slaves and cotton, he entertained Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), another Scot, who was working on what would become the magisterial American Ornithology. Wilson had met Bartram while living in Philadelphia and considered the Quaker a mentor. It is in a letter to Bartram, dated 23 May 1810 that Wilson describes his visit with Dunbar: “Mr. Dunbar, of Natchez, remembered you very well, and desired me to carry his good wishes to you.” Wilson continued in his note that he was received by Dunbar with “great hospitality and kindness,” along with “a neat bed-room.” In a letter to Dunbar, Wilson wrote that he would “never forget the pleasure … enjoyed in the sweet Society of [Dunbar’s] charming family–nor the attention of your most excellent wife [Dinah] … to make my residence agreeable.”

Dunbar was in poor health at the time — he would die in a scant 5 months — and it is unlikely that he was able to accompany Wilson on birding trips, but it is likely that he furnished the ornithologist with everything Wilson needed to illustrate and identify the birds of the Mississippi Territory.

These accounts are not unusual in the annals of southern hospitality but what makes them rare is the scientific focus of the visits. This is a small but important difference from more common accounts in which a host welcomes a stranger, usually someone of equal or higher status, and does not charge the guest for the visit. These scientific hosts afforded these travelling naturalists a means by which they could continue their work and contribute to the growing body of scientific knowledge. But measuring the effect of such hospitality is difficult… difficult for many of the same reasons when one tries to measure the impact of hospitality at an academic conference.

Such conferences serve a vital function to the profession. Even in this new age of social media, much of the historian’s time is spent alone: the solitary reading and writing in your study, in your office, in the archive. And while everyone in higher education balances priorities (teaching, committees, and service, the social part of the job), it is the result of the solitary pursuits, the publications, that still reign ascendant, at least at the research university. Which means that the priority for anyone seeking tenure at these schools is publishing her monograph.

This situation will undoubtedly change in the next 20 years and there is increasing talk that “service” should be replaced with such terms as “engagement” or “academic citizenship,” terms that better reflect the increasingly social aspect of the academic life.

The southerner, like those who work in academia, in research libraries, in museums and in federal agencies, has long been identified by the tension of isolation (much of it self-imposed) with the longing for society. A modern example of this tension in the South is the Natchez Trace wave. Unlike other national highways, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway (another southern route), the Natchez Trace is a relatively lonely drive. Drivers on the Trace will thus notice the tendency of drivers in the opposite lane to wave when passing, a practice that dramatically differs from the early days of the Trace, infamous for its thugs, robberies, and murders. (If we use the modifier “mental” for thugs, robberies, and murders, some academics will say that the early Trace resembles their departments.)

And while many scholars in the humanities may feel this tension between the social and the isolated, there are some specialties, such as the history of science, where the isolation is more pronounced. The 51 history of science graduate programs in the United States vary in size but many of them host 5 or fewer practitioners, most of them operating within the purview of general history departments. These historians’ relative isolation is magnified by the fact that many of their colleagues remain unclear about what it is historians of science do. Part of this comes from differences in training: many historians of science hold advanced degrees in the sciences (an unusual education for most historians). This sense of exotica is heightened by the fact that there is still a strong emphasis on ideas in the history of science, a practice closer to intellectual history, a field that has seen brighter days.

Southern historians can make many of the same claims about being misunderstood, and they resemble historians of science, as well as historians in a host of other specialized fields, in that their annual conference, the Southern, provides them their best opportunity to share their ideas with a receptive audience (people who “get them.”) As anyone involved in the workings of an academic society such as the HSS or the Southern Historical Association realizes, it is the solidary function, that unity of interest fostered by bringing together experts for interchange on a shared topic, that is among the more valuable aspects of a professional society. Unfortunately, solidary, like hospitality, is difficult to measure.

Annual conferences function, basically, as hospitality events, that is, a large gathering in which the host (the academic society) provides a place for its guests to gather and exchange ideas. And although the guests pay to attend, the spirit of hospitality remains. And here is the real value of the academic conference. The papers presented, the interviews, the workshops, the plenaries, the keynote addresses are all important but it is the bringing together of scholars who work in relative isolation that provides the real value, underlining the common belief that what happens between the sessions, during the receptions, over the meals, and in the elevator reflects the true value of the conference.

In this age of heightened calls for engagement, I look at Dunbar as someone whose value to science was less about publications — although he did publish — than about engaging and supporting like-minded individuals in their quest to understand the world around them. So the same can be said about academic societies as they struggle to retain relevance while their journals, once only available to members in print form, are now widely available in multiple formats. The societies, in important ways, function as hosts that welcome the wandering scholar into the social sphere. And like good hosts, these societies provide a gathering place, resources, and conviviality.

Dr. Robert J. Malone (Ph.D., University of Florida) is the Executive Director of The History of Science Society.

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