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Gasman's Response to Richards' Sarton Medal

Open letter to the American History of Science Society concerning the recent award of the Sarton Medal to Professor Robert Richards. The editor of the journal of the Society, Professor Bernard Lightman, declined to publish the letter although he agreed to send it on to the Awards Committee, but there has been no response from them. An ever expanding Cordon Sanitaire has been raised around Professor Richards not only by the History of Science Society, but also the University of Chicago Press as well as the University of Chicago, thus shielding him from any criticism about the quality of his research on Ernst Haeckel.

Daniel Gasman
Professor of History Emeritus
John Jay College and the Graduate Center -- CUNY
March 9, 2012

Professor Bernard Lightman
Editor, ISIS

The announcement by the HSS [Annual Meeting, November 2011] that Professor Robert Richards of the University of Chicago has been awarded the Sarton Medal for contributions to the history of science is a cause not for celebration, but for concern. One must assume that the medal would not have been conferred upon a historian who has misrepresented evidence to the point of fabrication, verbally abused fellow historians over many years, threatened legal action if criticism of him was pursued, intimidated journal editors who published material critical of Richards, and bewildered whole fields of research about Ernst Haeckel. [See details in: /ISAR/academic-controversies; and 6/10/09]. Professor Richards has yet to justify his assertions that Haeckel subscribed to a tragic sense of life similar to that of Miguel de Unamuno when in fact Unamuno was centrally engaged in polemics against Haeckel's Monism; that Haeckel was not racially anti-Semitic when in fact the sources that Richards relies upon reveal clearly Haeckel's racial opposition to the Jews; that Haeckel did not support the creation of an authoritarian state when in fact Haeckel stated just the opposite; and that Haeckel was not a supporter of Aryan inspired eugenics nor the idea that politics is applied biology when in fact he supported such positions; and the list of gross misrepresentations by Richards goes on and on.

The reverence heaped upon Richards for having been selected to deliver the Ryerson Lecture at the University of Chicago in 2005 hits an especially raw nerve. Richards' analysis was intended solely to discredit my interpretation of Haeckel and his links to National Socialism which, of course, is perfectly acceptable, but the lecture itself turned out to be conceptually, intellectually, and factually flawed. In his remarks, Richards gallops roughshod over basic scholarly restraints aimed at securing accuracy and truthfulness in historical research.

It would be instructive if the awards committee of the HSS would seek to enlighten the intellectual community about how the problems raised concerning the veracity of Richards' research have been resolved; and if not, then some explanation is needed as to why the Sarton Medal has been permitted to metamorphose into a consolation prize for suspect scholarship -- a dubious exercise that parallels the recent puzzling conferring of the prestigious Laing Prize for Richards' mostly fictional biography of Haeckel by the University of Chicago Press as well as his promotion to distinguished professor: distinctions that are highly problematic.

Rather than conferring honors, one should evince skepticism about apparently misconceived recognition that calls into question the integrity of the history of science as well as the basic competence of the current leadership of the HSS.

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