Professor Jim Bennett
History of Science
Year of birth
Year of death
Jim Bennett, pre-eminent historian of scientific instruments, former Curator of the Whipple Museum, former Fellow and Senior Tutor of Churchill College, internationally celebrated curator and museum director, has died in Oxford on October 28 2023, at the age of 76.
James Arthur Bennett—always Jim to his friends—was born on 2 April 1947. After an early education at Grosvenor High School, Belfast, he entered Clare College, Cambridge, taking his BA in Natural Sciences in 1969, including the Part II in History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). In 1974 he completed his PhD in the same department under the supervision of Michael Hoskin, subsequently published as The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren (1982). A year in Aberdeen as a lecturer was followed by an extremely fruitful stint as Archivist of the Royal Astronomical Society, during which Jim systematically sorted and catalogued its immense collection of papers. Jim also found time at the RAS to pursue what would become an abiding interest, producing a series of pathbreaking studies of the reflecting telescopes of William Herschel.
A move to the National Maritime Museum in 1977 confirmed Jim’s status as a curator of exceptional talent, cemented two years later by his appointment as successor to David Bryden as Curator of the Whipple Museum in Cambridge. Here he pursued the synthesis that defined his career: wide-ranging research into the material culture of scientific practice, wedded to the mounting of innovative displays, all underpinned by a vibrant teaching programme in HPS. In his Part II course on the history of scientific instruments, Jim taught his students what they came to call ‘Bennett’s Law’: if an object is on display in a museum, then it has probably never been used. This point defines both the inventiveness of Jim’s teaching and the potency of his scholarship. If instruments were worth studying, then it was in their use that they held particular value. Working in opposition to dominant modes of intellectual history, Jim studied not only what scientific practitioners wrote, but also what they did.
None of this work was done at the expense of texts. Instruments are largely inscrutable when divorced from their conditions of use, and so collections, Jim argued, need to be placed in dialogue with sources capable of revealing those contexts. His genius was in recognising the extremely mixed nature of these sources. Just as the study of working instruments required a shift in focus towards the more mundane objects typically left languishing in museum storage, so a thoroughgoing account of science as practice required a careful study of the myriad vernacular texts typically overlooked by historians of scientific ideas.
Jim’s own appreciation of these practical worlds began with his engagement with collections, and it is here that his legacy meets a parallel and second career, as a curator of extraordinary knowledge and industry. As soon as he joined the Whipple, Jim committed to publishing its collection in order to bring it into full view. Eight catalogues written by him and a range of expert collaborators provided for the first time a clear and systematic account of the major sub-categories of the Museum’s holdings. Alongside this work, Jim curated or co-curated no fewer than seventeen exhibitions whilst in Cambridge. Bringing together Jim’s own scholarship with that of colleagues and students, each linked the critical reinterpretation of objects with the generation of new insights into the nature of past scientific practice. That Jim also found time to serve as Senior Tutor at Churchill College during this period speaks to his quite extraordinary energy, as well as his commitment to his many students.
Those privileged to spend time with Jim amongst collections received a model education in the value of curatorial expertise. By the 1980s he had become a preeminent authority on a range of scientific instruments, in particular devices for surveying, navigation, astronomy, and practical mathematics, which he stressed were always best understood in relation to one another.
In 1994, Jim moved to Oxford to succeed Francis Maddison as Director of the Museum of the History of Science. He curated or co-curated a further eighteen exhibitions there, as well as working with his friend and life-long collaborator Stephen Johnston to establish a museum-based Masters course in ‘History of Science: Instruments, Museums, Science, Technology’, which ran from 1996 to 2006. It is fitting that the 50th anniversary of the British Society for the History of Science, in 1997, afforded him the opportunity to remind both universities of the importance of their museums. That any history of science was taught at these institutions, he pointed out, was a direct consequence of the establishment of major collections there by outside donation. The value gained from activating these collections was a repeated point of emphasis in Jim’s many astute essays on museology and the value of science museums. Gains made across this sector since the 1990s owe a great deal to his energy and to his selfless and always modest mentoring of a huge number of younger curators and scholars.
A plethora of awards came to Jim in later life: The Paul Bunge Prize of the German Chemical Society, for outstanding contributions to the history of scientific instruments, in 2001; the PhysicsEstoire Prize of the European Physical Society, for achievements in the history of physics, in 2018; the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, the highest honour in the discipline, in 2020; and the Royal Astronomical Society’s Agnes Mary Clerke Medal in 2023, for his immense contributions to the history of astronomy. Jim was notable for his modesty and so was not one to dwell on the influence of his work. But these awards are a fitting testament to his contributions across museums and historical scholarship—not least his central role in leading our discipline towards an interest in material practices. Of course, Jim saw the benefits and challenges of this move earlier than most, and so it is informative to return to his 2002 Presidential Address to the British Society for the History of Science, where he dwells upon “an irony of the current vogue for instrument studies in the history of science”, namely, that “historians still make little use of surviving instruments as resources for research.” If this is as close as Jim ever got to a manifesto, then it is one that remains quintessentially constructive and focussed on solutions rather than admonishments. In this respect Jim was much like the ingenious practitioners that he studied: unostentatious, thoughtful, and practical to very good effect.
Abbreviated version of obituary written by Joshua Nall, Churchill Fellow and current Director and Curator or the Whipple Museum – full obituary available at https://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/news-events/jim-bennett
Photo reproduced from History of Science Museum, University of Oxford: https://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/insidemhs/9