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Archives of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, 1936 - 2006

Reference Code: GBR/0265/UA/HPS

Scope and Contents

The archives cover most areas of activity to varying degrees. There are relatively large groups of records relating to teaching, learning and research, to the development of the discipline, that is, in the 1960s and 1970s especially; and small quantities only relating to accommodation and finance. Minimal if any professional secretarial assistance was provided until the mid 1970s to support the handful of academic staff teaching and researching the field. This was reflected in the comparative disorder of the surviving records. For instance, there are gaps in key records series such as minutes and papers of the governing committee, later syndicate, in the 1950s and 1960s and those that survive may be found in the undifferentiated sequence of Committee Secretary's papers rather than in stand-alone minutes files.

The archives include those of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine.

Most records of the Whipple Museum and Library have been retained by current administrators.


  • Creation: 1936 - 2006


Conditions Governing Access

Within the archives of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, personal records are closed to scholars for 80 years from the date of creation under data protection legislation. Restrictions are clearly indicated as part of individual catalogue entries.

Biographical / Historical

The Department of History and Philosophy of Science developed around the Whipple Collection of Scientific Instruments and Books as a result of sustained initiatives to bring teaching of the subject to scientists and others.

Scientist advocates Joseph Needham (1900-1995) and Walter Pagel (1898-1983) launched a lecture series under the auspices of the Faculty Boards of Biology, and Physics and Chemistry in 1936. In the same year, the Cambridge Philosophical Society organised an exhibition of the University’s historic apparatus, models, manuscripts and images. Local industrialist Robert Steward Whipple presented his own collection together with an endowment fund in 1944, on the condition that the University set up a museum for the lot, fully integrated with teaching and research. Accommodation was provided in Corn Exchange Street 1951-9 and Perse Hall on Free School Lane from 1959 onwards.

In 1946, the History of Science Committee was established, chaired by historian Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) and given broad control of teaching and collections. Its name changed to the History and Philosophy of Science Committee in 1956 on amalgamation with the Committee of Management for the subject History and Philosophy of Science in the Natural Sciences Tripos. The department was created in 1972, as a department under the direction of the General Board, governed by a Syndicate. The Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which had been established the year before, became a sub-department. In 1996 the Syndicate was replaced by a Board. The Wellcome Unit closed in 1998.

Initially, from 1951 onwards, teaching was part of Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos. In 1959, a Certificate in History and Philosophy of Science taught to third year undergraduates was created and with the reform of the tripos in the mid-1960s this became a complete Part II within the Natural Sciences Tripos. A course for postgraduates, begun as a Diploma in 1971, became the MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science in 1977. As an interdisciplinary field, the nature and content of courses, lectures and research have been vigorously debated among academics in both Humanities and Sciences down the decades.

The first lecturer in Philosophy of Science was Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) of the Department of Philosophy, appointed in 1953. He was replaced in 1957 by Gerd Buchdahl (1914-2001). Of pre-eminent importance in the development of the discipline, Buchdahl was Secretary of the History and Philosophy of Science Committee from 1959-74 and, from 1972, the first Head of Department. He was made a reader in 1966 and retired in 1981. Other individuals appointed to lectureships in the 1960s and 70s included Mary Hesse (1924-2016), Robert Young (1935-2019), Peter Harman (1943-2014) and Nick Jardine. The first part-time curator of the Whipple Museum was A. Rupert Hall (1920-2009). Michael Hoskin (1930-2021) replaced him in 1959 and was succeeded by David Bryden in 1969.


12 linear metre(s)

Custodial History

The records were transferred from the department on 14 December 2022.


The records were appraised in accordance with the University's records retention schedule. Duplicate records of governance (e.g. Philosophy Faculty minutes) and redundant personnel records (e.g. unsuccessful job applications) were destroyed.

Related Materials

Further records relating to the department are among the subject files of the General Board of the Faculties. There are also records in the personal paper collections of Herbert Butterfield and Joseph Needham at Cambridge University Library, see MS Butterfield C1-C115 and MS Needham B1-B388.


J.A. Bennett 'Museums and the Establishment of the History of Science at Oxford and Cambridge' in British Journal for the History of Science, 30 (1997), pp. 29-46.

Anna-K Mayer 'Setting up a Discipline: Conflicting Agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936–1950' in Studies in HIstory and Philosophy of Science Part A volume 31, Issue 4, December 2000.


Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom