For the second year in a row, the History of Science Society awarded its prestigious Sarton Medal to a Yale professor.
History professor Daniel Kevles received the honor Nov. 10 at the society’s annual meeting in Denver. The medal, presented annually since 1955, honors an outstanding historian of science for lifetime achievements.
In winning this award, Kevles joins History of Medicine Department chairman Frederic Holmes as Yale’s second Sarton medalist. Holmes was last year’s recipient.
“I was surprised,” Kevles said. “It’s not something you count on. It’s something you hope for.”
The award was presented to Kevles by close friend and 1993 medalist John Heilbron, a former University of California at Berkeley professor who will come to Yale this spring as a visiting history of science professor.
“This is a career award given to a person who has served the discipline well, been a leader in the field, and shown outstanding scholarship,” Heilbron said from Oxford University, where he is doing research. “And Dan Kevles satisfies all those things very well.”
Kevles said he was especially pleased because he is one of few to have won the award for the history of American science. A majority of the medals have been awarded to historians of European, Arab or ancient science.
Three decades ago, most of the work in the history of science was focused on the development of scientific thought, methods and institutions. But Kevles said the field’s focus has shifted towards the social, political and economic implications of science.
Kevles said his ability to synthesize those two traditions has greatly contributed to his success.
In addition to his teaching and research, Kevles has made a significant impact in the field by writing for various publications, including The New Republic, The New Yorker and The New York Times.
One of his most significant works is “The Baltimore Case,” in which he examines the alleged scientific fraud of two eminent scientists, Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore and Thereza Imanishi-Kari.
“It’s the most famous case of reputed academic fraud of the last 30 to 40 years,” History Department chairman Jon Butler said. “It takes a lot of guts and extraordinary sophistication to venture into this kind of case.”
Kevles said his wide array of published works probably played a major role in the society’s decision.
“I’ve always written for a larger audience, for your general New York Times reader,” Kevles said. “So I think [the medal] was partly a recognition of that.”
With the two most recent Sarton medalists on the faculty, Heilbron said the future is bright for history of science at Yale.
“You have two good senior [professors] in harness already and a pool of highly qualified juniors to hire from,” Heilbron said. “I think the prospects are extremely good that Yale will be a power in the history of science.”
Currently, the History Department is looking to fill a junior position in the history of modern physical sciences by next fall.
Butler said the two Sarton medalists will help the history of science program recruit more top-notch faculty.
“It says that Yale likes to attract first-rate scholars,” Butler said. “And that’s our business.”