21 November 2012
“The Natural History of a Sustainable Institution:
The Nova Scotian Institute of (Natural) Science Since1862”
Dr. Suzanne Zeller, Department of History,
Wilfrid Laurier University
The November meeting of the Society was a joint meeting with the Nova Scotia Institute of Science with 80 members of guests in attendance to partake in the celebration of the Institute’s 150th anniversary.
The evening’s speaker was Dr Suzanne Zeller of Sir Wilfred Laurier University who is well known as an historian of science in Canada and the author of Inventing Canada a 1987 book on Science in late Victorian Canada. Dr Zeller is working on a history of the Institute and has been extensively studying the Institute’s Transactions, as well as its minutes.
The impetus for starting the institute was the 1863 provincial exhibition in which the geology of Nova Scotia was prominently displayed. The monopoly of the GMA having ended in 1858 there was also some desire for a Geological Survey of the province as an industrial incentive. In her analysis she fitted the Institute into a wider and global evolution of sciences as they were practiced in different eras. Started in the era when natural history was dominant, the society initially was named the NS Institute of Natural Science.
During this period the Institute’s publication of its Transactions resulted in an exchange of publications with like societies around the world. The legacy of this library of publications is found in the science collections of the Dalhousie University Library. A name change in 1899 dropped natural from the name and moved the organization into a period that favored analytical science. It was also during this period that the federal biological labs appeared on the scene in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and added greatly to the local scientific community. It was also the period when the scientific organization of natural phenomena was of great interest and Nova Scotia schools, under the direction of AH MacKay did annual recordings of dates like that of the first snow, the first robin and so on.
Experimentalism is the current mode of science as characterized by Zeller’s analysis. Despite being a provincial institute, local topics are not dominant in the Institute’s publications, particularly as it moved towards experimental science. Over the period of the publication a number of tensions or analytical frameworks were noted: city articles as opposed to country ones; expert authors and lay ones; articles based in a scientific discipline or articles looking at a genre or wider frame than a particular discipline; and national interests vs regional ones.
The ability of the Institute to transcend changes in popular scientific engagement has allowed it to continue to exist and to find relevance over a wide period of changes in science modes and popular understandings.