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Australasian Association for the History,
Philosophy and Social Studies of Science

Issue No. 48, August 1994 (ISSN 0158 9040)

Edited by Tim Sherratt on behalf of AAHPSSS.

Robert Mortimer Gascoigne (1918 - 1994)

News of the death of Bob Gascoigne, on 3rd April, brought back a flood of memories to at least one of his former colleagues. Bob was the first contact my wife and I, two very raw and nervous Poms, had with one of the natives after the Canberra berthed at Circular Quay on our first arrival in Sydney a few days before Christmas, 1964. Fast up the gang-plank, as we tied up, was the reassuring, soon to become very familiar, stocky frame of Bob Gascoigne. Bob promptly scooped us up, drove us round to see some of the local sites, including - presumably taking care of all possible eventualities - Sydney's favourite suicide spot, the Gap, and then introduced us to the pleasures of the Australian pub, with its strange measures, the middy and the schooner. Bob's practical good sense and kindness smoothed out many of the wrinkles of those first days, and come Christmas Day Bob and Betty invited us into their home at Wahroonga for Christmas Dinner with the family.

Particularly in those early years at Kensington, I had considerable contact with Bob. Amongst his many virtues was that of being an excellent listener. I quickly developed the habit of dropping into his room in order to use him as a sounding board for this or that scheme for the betterment of colonial education that had occurred to me. I am sure that he was much bemused by the enthusiasm of his young English colleague, but he always listened with good humoured indulgence. Frequently, he would see his task to be that of gently pointing out the defects in what I had been saying or the impracticalities of my proposal, but sometimes he would conclude that what I was saying was right and should be acted upon. It was absolutely characteristic of Bob that on these occasions decision was instantly translated into action. Saying something like 'Well, shall we see if Jack is free?' he would proceed to lever himself out of his chair and, despite the fact that I had usually started to have doubts myself before he was fully vertical, we would make our way round to the office of our Head of School, Jack Thornton. For Bob the reaching of a decision - which he only did after carefully weighing any matter -always carried with it the moral imperative that that decision be promptly acted upon. He almost never spoke, to me at least, on any matter of religion, but it was through such habitual responses that one could discern what it was that governed his life and thought. Bob was a deeply committed Christian within the Roman Catholic tradition.

Bob Gascoigne was born on 16th March, 1918 of old Australian stock, English on his Father's side, Irish on his Mother's. One of his sons remembers as a child hearing him singing Irish folk-songs, learnt from his Mother's family, while doing the washing up. Bob was educated at Gosford High School and Sydney University, where he obtained First Class Honours in chemistry (1940). The following year he obtained an M.Sc., again from Sydney, in organic chemistry. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he wished to enlist, but found that, as he was engaged on war related research into developing a substitute for quinine, he was in a reserved employment category. Nevertheless, he did eventually succeed, in 1942, in enlisting in the A.l.F. - apparently illegally- and served in the Pacific, with the rank of Lieutenant, operating radar. Demobbed in 1946 he took up a lectureship at Sydney Technical College in chemistry. 1948, however, saw a move to the University of Liverpool, where he remained for four years with an ICI scholarship undertaking research for a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. It was in England that he married Betty and that their first son, John, was born. Meanwhile, in Sydney, the Sydney Technical College found itself the nucleus of the New South Wales University of Technology (later renamed the University of New South Wales), founded in 1949. This development was to mean that departments were moved from Ultimo to Kensington.

Back teaching organic chemistry with his Ph.D. (1951), Bob's interests were none the less leading him towards the humanities and HPS. As a devout Catholic scientist, Bob was convinced that his faith and his science were in no way in conflict and it seems to have been principally his desire fully to comprehend the relationship between the two which led him to a deep study of Catholic theology and philosophy. Bob was particularly attracted to the Dominican tradition. He read the works of such Thomists as Gilson, Maritain and Pieper extensively and for many years was a Dominican tertiary. With the approach of the Second Vatican Council he took an active role, as a layman, in the ferment of discussion unleashed by Pope John XXIII's aggiornamento of the Catholic Church and contributed to journals such as Manna. It is within this context that his latent interest in HPS began to blossom. With the establishment of the Faculty of Arts at Kensington a possible second career opened up for Bob, who had been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1954. As a response to protests about the University requirement that Arts students do two years of a science, the Professor of Philosophy, John Thornton, offered a more palatable alternative in the form of a subject called 'Scientific Thought' (inevitably, universally known to students as 'Sick Thought'). Jack rounded up enthusiastic supporters from around the University to contribute to this new venture, and so it was that Bob found himself, in 1960, assisting in the teaching of Scientific Thought. In 1963 Jack recommended that Bob be transferred to what was shortly to become the School of History and Philosophy of Science.

Bob started off teaching the history of chemistry; however, he also developed a wide ranging subject which provided an outline account of the history of science. This later settled down for a while as the Honours component of the 2nd Year course. This centred on medieval science, but treated the ancient texts in the context of their transmission to the West. Bob was firmly of the opinion that HPS students needed to have a framework within which particular historical studies could be placed. This is something which our students tend to lack with today's emphasis on thematic studies. This is not to say that Bob was opposed to the development of thematic and contextual approaches to the history of science, but simply that he believed that one needed to be properly prepared for such studies. Indeed, early on he realised that the School needed to move away from subjects labelled 'History of Chemistry', 'History of Geology', and the like. His most significant contribution to curriculum development, however, was in the area of the social history of science. Here, Bob was very much a pioneer and he must have devised one of the very first social history of science and technology subjects taught anywhere.

Bob's initial project was to write a history of chemistry. However, his meticulous thoroughness led him to prepare for this work by carrying out a major survey of sources and their location in Australian libraries with a view to producing a union catalogue. Not surprisingly, this project turned out to be a major research undertaking in its own right, eventually becoming a massive bibliographical survey of journals and monographs bearing on the history of science in general. The years passed and still what had been intended as a preparatory survey remained uncompleted. However one consequence was that Bob acquired an extraordinary expertise and knowledge relating to all matters bibliographic. For the School of HPS there was very tangible spin off, as, for the whole of his time with the School, he was our library liaison officer and he slowly built up a fine HPS collection.

Meticulous in his research, Bob was also meticulous in his teaching. Each lecture was prepared down to the least detail and written up. He was a good lecturer and knew how to control his speed of delivery to maximum effect. This, together with his rather individual sense of humour and his efficiency in producing a constant supply of highly useful notes and extracts from source material made him popular with his students. He clearly enjoyed teaching and will be remembered not only by our own students but by students at Sydney and Macquarie Universities, where he lectured, at various times, on social history of science (for Sydney Architecture students) and on French contributions to the history of science (for Modern Language students at Macquarie).

Bob's erudition was truly phenomenal. Whatever topic within the domain of HPS arose, it always turned out that he had read all the principal works and could talk insightfully about them. David Oldroyd, whose Ph.D. Bob supervised, recalls both Bob's remarkable knowledge of fields outside his own areas of expertise and his great skill in writing; he could always find just the right words to express any idea. He was also a very tidy and organised man with probably the most uncluttered academic desk I have encountered. I remember on one occasion, wandering through his open door, witnessing him going through a rather large pile of mail. In a matter of seconds he had digested anything which he thought needed noting and shot the whole lot into his waste bin. Seeing me standing in his doorway, he pointed to his bursting bin and said 'My filing system'.

Bob was, I firmly believe, at bottom very much an HPS person. In 1993, in the wake of the Silver Anniversary of the creation of the Association, of which Bob was a foundation member, Newsletter reprinted Bob's Editorial to its very first number, of 1968. In this, he expressed his deepest conviction as to the relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science when he wrote that it was one of the Association's aims 'to invite philosophers of science to be more historically-minded, and historians of science more philosophically-minded, as well as inviting scientists to be both'. Bob himself was certainly a philosophically minded historian of science, yet there were, paradoxically, to be times when his support of the ideals of HPS wavered. On one or two occasions he even went so far as to suggest that history of science and philosophy of science should part company. There were, I believe, two different sources of his seasonal dis-ease. The first was a concern that philosophy could be used to undermine the faith of students. Before my appointment there had, I believe, been an incident (which unfortunately left an enduring bitterness amongst some of his philosophical colleagues), in which Bob attacked the teaching of first year philosophy on precisely these grounds. The second source of his disquiet was his conviction that much of contemporary philosophy of science was divorced from, and irrelevant to, the actual practice of science. I remember one occasion when Bob, on seeing the papers from an early A2HPS3 Conference held in Brisbane at which there were rather a large number of philosophy of science papers, actually threatened to cancel his membership of the Association. Fortunately wiser counsel prevailed. In transferring to HPS, Bob never ceased to be a scientist and as a scientist he expected the philosophy of science to engage science itself. When these anti-philosophy of science moods took hold, I used to argue with him that there were in fact two different kinds of philosophy of science, one (the sort to which he took exception) centred on the analysis of logical or epistemological puzzles for their own intrinsic philosophical interest, and one concerned with applying the insights of philosophy to shed light on the nature of real-life scientific theory and practice. While both were legitimate, it was the latter, I would maintain, which was the kind proper to HPS and indeed the kind I myself taught. I think he respected my views, but I don't think he was ever really convinced. These moments, however, always passed.

The 1970's brought changes in the zeitgeist, with the development of a shift towards social studies of science and moves to integrate HPS with the new field of science policy studies. At Kensington, the M.Sc.Soc. was created, through the efforts of John Saunders, and in 1977 a science policy expert, Jarlath Ronayne, took up his appointment to the Chair of HPS. Early on Bob was inclined to be supportive of moves towards incorporating policy studies into HPS. I remember, for example, that he was very interested in the Liberal Studies in Science program at Manchester. However, after spending a years' sabbatical at Sussex University, he became totally convinced that HPS and science policy studies simply didn't mix and from then on he became the School's strongest opponent of moves to combine the two fields. I was on leave when Bob decided to retire in 1978 and never discovered whether the changes of the late '70's in the discipline and the School had influenced his decision.

Retirement was, however, to usher in a remarkable climax to Bob's career. We saw very little of him after his retreat to Wahroonga, although he was an Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School between '79 and '84. Bob's scheme of producing a union catalogue had never been completed and, in any case, the project had in reality been overtaken by the march of time. He was, however, able in retirement to put his bibliographical research to excellent use by producing a series of extremely useful reference works, published by Garland (New York and London). A Historical Catalogue of Scientists and Scientific Books: From the Earliest Times to the Close of the Nineteenth Century appeared in 1984, and was followed by A Historical Catalogue of Scientific Periodicals, 1665 - 1900, With a Survey of their Development, 1985 and A Chronology of the History of Science, 1450 - 1900, 1987. Thus what had started as a preparatory exercise became an end in itself and yielded a set of tools of value to anyone engaged in research in the history of science. The great project completed, Bob was able to turn his attention to that great vision which had given meaning to so much of his life. For Bob, there was no conflict between science and theology; the scientific understanding of the natural world was in perfect harmony with Catholic teaching concerning the Creator and Creation. He was one of those scientists for whom the practice of science was a way of reaching out towards the Creator through the scientific study of the wonders of the creation. In his last work, Bob's three principal intellectual interests - science, history and theology - came together as he set out to show that evolutionary theory and the scientific reconstruction of the history of the evolution of the universe, life and humanity were in accord with Catholic Christian theology. Essentially a late twentieth century work of natural theology, The History of the Creation: A Christian View of Inorganic and Organic Evolution (1993), is a remarkable, and extraordinarily clearly written, digest of what science has to tell us of the processes and products of evolution. It is a work which should have been offered to the critical judgment of scholars in the different fields it spans and which should have reached a wide audience. It is a depressing indictment of the publishing world that a publisher could not be found for the book, and it had to be published privately. It is particularly difficult to understand why no publisher would step forward since The History of Creation is, in fact, a highly effective antidote to fundamentalist theology and so-called 'Creation Science'.

Bob Gascoigne was a very private man whose devotion to the concerns of his large family was always paramount. Stoic by personality and conviction, he never turned for sympathy from colleagues in the many personal trials he had to face. He had little personal ambition and always strove to execute to his best ability whatever task his hand found to do. A man of strong beliefs and deep faith, he was none the less respectful of the beliefs of others and had a revulsion of any form of intolerance or moral coercion. Deeply moved by the creation, and always inquisitive as to its workings, his kingdom was not, however, of this world. He fell asleep on the day of his Saviour's Resurrection, Easter Sunday, 3rd April 1994, exactly 48 years to the day after his appointment as a lecturer at Sydney Technical College. Bob was always a man for order.

Bob leaves behind his wife, Betty, their children John, Robert, Mary, Catherine and Elizabeth, and grandchildren Nicholas, Michael, Miriam, Robert, Eleanor, Catherine, Sophie, Adam and Liam. It must have been a joy to Bob that both his sons embarked on academic careers in areas dear to him; John writes history of science and teaches in the School of History (regrettably not his Father's School) at UNSW and Robert teaches religious studies at the Catholic University. Perhaps one of the grandchildren will make a career in organic chemistry.

- Guy Freeland, S&TS, UNSW

Published by the AAHPSSS on ASAPWeb, 17 August 1995
Prepared by: Tim Sherratt
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 September 1997

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