Adam Apt's introduction of Janet Browne

Charles Darwin was prolific.  So prolific was he, indeed, that he has given us two significant anniversaries for 2009: his 200th birthday, and the 150th birthday of his most important book, On the Origin of Species. This evening, we celebrate not only the holidays, but also, through Darwin, the beginning of a rational understanding of our own origins.

 

Our speaker relieves me of the humbling responsibility of introducing the great Cambridge graduate. Janet Browne has herself written a magnum opus, a biography of Darwin, that defines her to much the same degree that the Origin defines Darwin in the popular imagination.  Her book extends over two large volumes, Voyaging, and The Power of Place. Like all of her subject’s books, hers were the culmination of decades of patient accumulation and synthesis of a prodigious mass of heterogeneous information.  To give you some idea of the scale of this enterprise: ‘The Complete Works of Darwin Online’ claims to have indexed more than 33,000 records. Professor Browne was for some years an associate editor of Darwin’s correspondence, which at last count comprised more than 15,000 letters exchanged with more than 2000 correspondents.

 

As Darwin drew together two sciences, natural history and geology, so has Professor Browne drawn together two disciplines, zoology and history, and combined them with an art, biography.

 

Having made her career in England, Professor Browne in 2006 undertook her own voyaging and came ashore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She now occupies a chair in the history of science at Harvard, the research base of one of Darwin’s most fervent supporters, Asa Gray, and one of his most fervent detractors, Louis Agassiz, both of whose work provided critical evidence for Darwin’s theory.

 

Professor Browne, a past president of the British Society for the History of Science and editor of its journal, has achieved what the History of Science Society (based in this country) considers its trifecta of sponsored lectures, having delivered the Society’s distinguished lecture in 2005, the George Sarton Memorial Lecture to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Hazen Lecture in the History of Science. The volumes of her biography have won a number of awards, including the W. H. Heinemann Prize of the Royal Literary Society, and the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society.

 

The rivalry of our two universities puts me in mind this evening of the rivalry of those two American institutions, Huxley College and Darwin College, in the film, Horsefeathers.  And although there are those in this world who instinctively align themselves with President Wagstaff of Huxley College, who sings, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it,’ Professor Browne will remind us very much why we are for Darwin.