A Response to Roberta Marx Delson’s “Some Brief Reflexions on…the Pan American Scientific Congress of 1915” (2016)

In the “Revista de Historia IberoAmericana” (april 2016; https://revistahistoria.universia.net/article/viewFile/2067/1907), Prof. Roberta Marx Delson of the American Museum of Natural History cites my book, “Science Still Born: The Rise and Fall of the Pan American Scientific Congress, 1898-1916” (2006). She states that ‘essentially the criticism of Fernos [of the PASC is of]… not begin sufficiently ‘scientific’.” (p98, footnote 26).  This article is a brief comment on her [mis]characterisation.

Prof. Delson provides an unfair depiction of my views, suggesting these to strictly be a criticism of US foreign policy.  In the book I had simply observed that, statistically speaking, if you look at the history of the Latin America wide scientific congresses, there is a distinct change in the percentage of the papers dedicated strictly to natural science, as opposed to social sciences, politics and the such; the latter substantially grow as a percent of the total.  The book clearly states that the change had preceded US entry, and in this, it did not seek to attribute this change solely to the first participation of the US in 1915, what was the fourth such congress. 

Prof. Delson also seems to portray my piece as an ‘attack on US scientific policy’, whereby she concludes the opposite, in an overly effusively positive characterisation.  Again, this simplifies the nuance of the international dynamics which were occurring at the time, as depicted in the book.  There can be no doubt in any historian’s mind, that the entry of the US into the american scientific congresses was propelled by the Second World War, in that the US sought to strengthen its relationship at the time.  In this, there can be no doubt that political factors were predominant in the exenditure of public funds and determinations of scientific policy.

In this regard, one of the points in the book was to precisely analyse the consequent impact which many leading US researchers in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and so forth had on the development of science in latin america.  Each and every US presentation was analysed and described in detail, and—with regard to those in chemistry and physics, these were further expanded on by an analysis of Chile to trace their eventual development.  Briefly (but fairly stated), I conclude that Chile, as a case study of Latin America as a whole, was not yet “intellectually receptive” to the adoption of industrial synthetic ammonia (Haber-Basch process) and much less to the emerging atomic physics at the turn of the 20th century.  A thorough analysis of the social circumstances surrounding its adoption was provided in the book, and helped account for this limitation.

To conclude, any work regarding science and international relations cannot  be subject to such oversimplification, as prof. Delson does, which does a disservice to such complex and nuanced events.  This is not merely an issue of whether the cup was ‘half full or half empty’, but to analyse in detail the causes and impact which such policies had.



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