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Crombie, Alistair Cameron (1915–1996)

by R. W. Home

This article was published online in 2021

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Alistair Cameron Crombie (1915–1996), historian of science, was born on 4 November 1915 in South Brisbane, second child of Queensland-born parents William David Crombie, grazier, and his wife Janet Wilmina, née Macdonald. His father owned Maranthona station, near Longreach, and was a prominent member of the local community. Alistair spent his earliest years on the station, before boarding at the Church of England Grammar School (Churchie), Brisbane (1925–30), and the Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria (1931–34). At the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1938), he resided in Trinity College and graduated with honours and the exhibition in zoology.

Supported by the university’s M. A. Bartlett research scholarship, Crombie travelled to England in 1938 and pursued postgraduate work in zoology at the University of Cambridge (PhD, 1942)—where he was attached successively to Sidney Sussex College, Fitzwilliam House, and Jesus College—studying insect populations in competition for food. He continued at Jesus as tutor in zoology and as part of a research group in the university’s zoological laboratory that, with government funding, investigated measures to protect Britain’s World War II food supplies from insects. His research gave rise to a number of published papers during and immediately following the war, some of which were still being cited by ecologists well into the twenty-first century.

On 3 December 1943 Crombie had married Nancy Hey in her family’s parish church at Ramsgill, Yorkshire. She was a Cambridge graduate who was also undertaking wartime work for the government. In 1944 both converted to Catholicism, and their religion remained a significant part of their lives thereafter.

Having begun to read deeply in the history and philosophy of science, in 1946 Crombie was appointed to a lectureship in that field at University College, London. A founding member (1947) of the British Society for the History of Science, he joined its council in 1948 and served almost continuously for the next twenty years, including three terms as vice-president and one as president (1964–66). He also played a leading role in forming (1948) the society’s philosophy of science group, which later (1959) became the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, and he was founding editor (1950–53) of the group’s British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. In 1948 he lectured at Aachen in Germany and gave a course of lectures at the University of Oxford entitled ‘The History of the Idea of Evolution.’ Five years later, while being considered for promotion to a readership at University College, he opted instead to accept the offer of a newly created lectureship in the history of science at Oxford.

In his evolving program of research, Crombie concentrated on the medieval and early modern period. His first book, Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science, A.D. 400–1650, quickly became a classic. Published in 1952, the work went through several editions in English and was translated into at least seven other languages. In opposition to an often-expressed view, Crombie maintained that the period covered by the book had witnessed much progress in science and technology and, especially, in the structure of scientific inquiry. The latter was always his principal interest and it was the focus of his next book, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100–1700, published in 1953, with later reissues. The experimental method that became a defining feature of modern science had its origins, Crombie maintained, in thirteenth-century Oxford, in the writings of Robert Grosseteste and his successors. In support of this proposition he brought together a rich array of texts. The claim proved controversial, however, in its initial form, with critics contending that, notwithstanding his impressive scholarship, his sources did not entirely support his argument—something he later acknowledged. In subsequent work, culminating in his magisterial Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition (three volumes, 1994), Crombie modified the claim to one centred on the philosophical basis of scientific inquiry, arguing powerfully that the medieval period witnessed a profound rethinking that was fundamental to the eventual emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century.

The appearance of his first two books had catapulted Crombie to international prominence, leading to significant lecturing invitations and, in 1956, his election to the International Academy of the History of Science, over which he later presided (1968–71). In 1961 he attracted most of the world’s leaders in the field to a notable conference at Oxford, which—together with the published proceedings (Crombie 1963)—had a major impact. His standing was further enhanced when, in 1962, he and Michael Hoskin, as joint editors, launched the journal History of Science.

At Oxford, however, Crombie’s position was a marginal one and he had difficulty in establishing a place for his subject within the university’s academic programs. Backing came from philosophy, where a lectureship in philosophy of science was created in 1955, and undergraduate courses in history and philosophy of science were, in time, established for some honour schools. Crombie, however, a poor lecturer himself, left the teaching of these to others and instead took on research supervisions and promoted advanced work, introducing a postgraduate diploma course through which a number of people who later gained distinction in the field first came to it. He also instituted a weekly seminar that quickly became the principal face of history of science at Oxford.

Unfortunately, relations with the already established Museum of the History of Science, which might have been a valuable ally, quickly soured, and people elsewhere, too, found Crombie difficult to work with. While some students and others with whom he came in contact valued his friendship, hospitality and support, he proved far from adept at winning allies within the arcane academic politics of the university, and prone to making powerful enemies. Despite his burgeoning scholarly standing, it was not until 1970 that he was elected to a college fellowship, at Trinity College, and, when in early 1972 the university finally created a chair in the history of science, he was not appointed to it—astonishing the international history of science community. Even after this, however, to most outsiders, history of science at Oxford was largely identified with him, and his presence there continued to draw scholars from around the world.

History of science, in Crombie’s view, should be ‘a kind of comparative intellectual anthropology, putting ourselves into the minds of the individuals or societies we are studying and trying to understand their questions, satisfactions and discontents’ (1990, 400). Theories of sight and hearing as our principal sources of information about the world were a major focus, as was the work of Galileo, on whom he became a leading authority. Confident in his formidable erudition, he did not shirk controversy. Unfortunately, a major book on Galileo and another on his contemporary Marin Mersenne remained unpublished at Crombie’s death, even though in 1969 he and his long-term collaborator Adriano Carugo had been jointly awarded the Galileo prize of the Domus Galileana, Pisa, for a draft of the former work.

Although Crombie officially retired in 1983, for several years during the 1980s he held visiting appointments at Smith College, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. A member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina from 1972, he was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1990, and both an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1994. The Universities of Durham, Paris X-Nanterre, and Sassari, Italy, awarded him honorary doctorates. With his wife, he developed a splendid garden at their home in the affluent Oxford suburb of Boars Hill, and he also had oversight of the gardens at Trinity College. He died on 9 February 1996 at home and was buried beside his wife (d. 1993) in St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Ramsgill, survived by their daughter and three of their four sons.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Beaujouan, Guy. ‘Alistair Cameron Crombie, 1915–1996.’ Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 46 (1996): 364–70
  • Bennett, J. A. ‘Museums and the Establishment of History of Science at Oxford and Cambridge.’ British Journal for the History of Science 30, no. 1 (March 1997): 29–46
  • Crombie, A. C. Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science A.D. 400–1650. London: Falcon Press, 1952
  • Crombie, A. C. Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953
  • Crombie, A. C. Science, Art and Nature in Medieval and Modern Thought. London: Hambledon Press, 1996
  • Crombie, A. C. Science, Optics and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: Hambledon Press, 1990
  • Crombie, A. C., ed. Scientific Change: Historical Studies in the Intellectual, Social and Technical Conditions for Scientific Discovery and Technical Innovation from Antiquity to the Present. London: Heinemann, 1963
  • Crombie, A. C. ‘Some Experiments on the Growth and Composition of Populations of Phytophagous Insects Competing for the Same Food.’ PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 1942
  • Crombie, A. C. Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition. 3 vols. London: Duckworth, 1994
  • Fox, Robert. ‘Eloge: Alistair Cameron Crombie, 4 November 1915—9 February 1996.’ Isis 88, no. 1 (March 1997): 183–86
  • North, J. D. ‘Crombie, Alistair Cameron.’ In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 14, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 284–86. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
  • North, J. D. ‘Alistair Cameron Crombie 1915–1996.’ Proceedings of the British Academy 97 (1998): 257–70

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Crombie, Alistair Cameron (1915–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crombie-alistair-cameron-30778/text38125, published online 2021, accessed online 29 November 2022.

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