History of the History and Philosophy of Science program


The HPS program began in 1946 at the University of Melbourne, as one of the first departments of this kind in the world. Towards the end of 1945 the University Council appointed a Senior Lecturer to run the Department of General Science and Scientific Method as it was first called. The successful candidate was Squadron Leader Clarence Edgar Palmer, MSc, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, a polymath, widely read in philosophy, whose scientific expertise was in zoology and meteorology and whose background included administrative as well as academic experience. Palmer's background, his drive, enthusiasm, energy and engaging personality were just what was needed to set up this novel multi-disciplinary department. He was housed in the Physiology Department then headed by Professor R D Wright, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Department.

The department took firm root in the Faculty of Arts. Undergraduates were required to include a science subject in their degree and General Science was attractive to students as it was often more closely related to the rest of their course than a subject from the first year of a science program. Palmer set up an ambitious year-long course. It covered both the relation of science to philosophy and scientific method, followed by a brief survey of the subject matter of mathematics and the physical and biological sciences and an historical treatment of their chief generalizations. Detailed discussion of four topics followed:

  1. Newtonian mechanics and its application to astronomy
  2. The electronic theory of valency
  3. The Mendelian theory of inheritance
  4. The neo-Darwinian theory of inheritance

Most of these topics were later developed into individual subjects in their own right.

The Science Faculty at first restricted the new subject to graduate students but later undergraduate units tailored to the Faculty were introduced.

Palmer was offered a visiting Associate Professorship with a branch of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for 1947-8, and arranged for the appointment of Gerd Buchdahl, an engineer and Melbourne graduate with honours in philosophy, as a temporary lecturer in General Science and Scientific Method. Gerd Buchdahl's appointment was made permanent from August 1948, when Palmer continued at University of California.

Buchdahl fully justified his appointment from the beginning and student numbers increased to the extent that a part time tutor was necessary in 1949. The following year, Buchdahl was promoted to Senior Lecturer-in-Charge, the Department was re-named History and Methods of Science and Diana (Ding) Dyason, then a Senior Demonstrator in Physiology, was appointed as Lecturer. This led to a greater emphasis on the biological sciences and ultimately to teaching and research in the history of medicine. Ensuing years saw the appointment of lecturers in history of chemistry and of mathematics and further appointments in the philosophy of science.

Buchdahl took study leave during 1954-5 at Oxford, exchanging duties for the year with Dr Stephen Toulmin, Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Oxford University.  Tomlin’s standing as a philosopher, greatly enhanced the reputation of the program in Australia and abroad.

A History and Philosophy of Science Department

The Faculty of Arts courses and staff within the program increased in number. In 1957 an Honours School was created and the Department’s name was changed to “History and Philosophy of Science”. The department had been closely though loosely associated with the Philosophy Department and, from this time, subjects from Philosophy were used in History and Philosophy of Science courses.

Buchdahl resigned in 1958 to take up an appointment at Cambridge. Dyason became Senior Lecturer-in-Charge in his place. She was a tremendously energetic leader and developed a strongly collegiate nature, while continuing to develop the department’s scholarly and educational aims. Staff members with different areas of expertise were appointed and new directions taken. In 1975 the University Council decided that History and Philosophy of Science should have a Chair. Dyason was a Reader and did not stand for this position. Roderick Weir Home, BSc (Melb), PhD (Indiana), who had joined the Department in 1967, became the new Professor. A scholar with an exceptional talent for teaching and organization, Home's research focus was in those days centred on the history of physics, but in general his interests were broad-ranging.

Home enhanced the interdisciplinary nature of the Department, with developments within the department and by the formation of new associations and attachments. Developed in conjunction with Gavan McCarthy, The Australian Science Archives Project established in 1985, recorded documents of past science, medicine and technology in Australia. This work was expanded in the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, established in 1999.

A second project created with Warwick Anderson, was the Centre for the Study Health of and Society (now the Centre for Health and Society) which was established jointly in the Faculties of Arts and Medicine in 1997. Professor Ian Anderson went on to develop further programs in the area of health and society such as the VicHealth Koori Health Unit.

The links between science and society were given increasing emphasis in teaching and research within the Department, so that it was appropriate that the Ashworth Program in Social Theory became part of the Department. These developments suggest that the pioneers in this transdisciplinary department would not have been disappointed in the outcome of their experiment.