Everett Mendelsohn's Social Context


HIS FACE fixed in a wide smile, Everett Mendelsohn arrives early for his 11 a.m. lectures on "The Social Context of Science." The graceful, slim, veteran activist and professor of the History of Science--only eight days past his 42nd birthday--likes to chat briefly with the regulars who return to the front row seats each lecture, asking them if reserve books are accessible, flicking through their morning papers, and apologizing for missed appointments. "My face is red," he said sheepishly before one lecture last week--four students had waited in vain for him at Lehman Hall for his regular Thursday afternoon discussion over coffee. "My excuse is excellent, but my face is red." Promising to do better next time, Mendelsohn steps to the podium, and, in his unusual, clipped accent, begins to dissect the complex interactions of science and society.

Most of the students in Soc Sci 119 are science concentrators, educated in the wakes of both Sputnik and Vietnam, trying to reconcile future careers with the questions of conscience raised by pollution, electronic battlefields and computerized intimidation. Mendelsohn brings to science a relevancy offering more new questions than easy solutions, often making the dilemmas provocatively personal. "Science is done by human beings and interacts with their other functions," Mendelsohn says, "I have tried to link the history with social responsibility."

A PACIFIST as far back as the Korean War, Mendelsohn has liberally injected his view of social responsibilities into his other activities. In 1968, he visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand with the American Friends Service Committee, meeting with representatives of the NLF and North Vietnam. The three week study of Indochina's political structure and the effects of the war was extended unexpectedly when Mendelsohn's party was trapped in Saigon for ten days by the Tet offensive. "We saw the war a lot closer than we had planned," Mendelsohn recalls now. Upon his return, Mendelsohn embarked on his long, sometimes lonely campaign of putting antiwar resolutions before the Harvard faculty. Last December, during the peak of the carpet-bombing in Indochina, Mendelsohn, a vice president, and six other members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) introduced to the AAAS governing council an unprecedented "emergency motion" for a strong condemnation of the continued United States involvement in the war and the application of American science and technology to the "wanton destruction of man and environment." The resolution was passed, 80-41, in a highly unusual public intrusion of politics into science.

"A lot of people felt it was an important enough issue," Mendelsohn says in typical understatement. "We happened to be meeting in Washington at the time of the bombings. A group of us felt that occasions such as this should be used to raise the question."

Mendelsohn's interest in the far-reaching effects of science go back to his Brooklyn childhood, which he also says was the source of his accent.


His unique pronunciations have been described by one of his students as "vintage Mayflower" and by another as "pseudo-English." The Continental flavor, he explains, was picked up from his parents, both of whom were born in Eastern Europe. Regularly, though, Brooklynese pops up in his lectures--"idea" is always "ideer". And Mendelsohn says, "In many ways, I still think of myself as a New York boy."

MENDELSOHN's education at Brooklyn Technical High School and Antioch were centered around science in general, biology in particular. He also did graduate work in biology at Harvard, but says, "From the beginning, one of the attractive questions was the role of science in society--the relation of knowledge to its uses."

One of his classmates at Antioch was Coretta Scott--later to become Mrs. Martin Luther King. With her and other Antioch students, Mendelsohn worked for the still-young civil rights movement and tried his hand at local organizing for the labor movement. Upon graduation, he was uncertain whether he should work for organized labor or go to Harvard. "In 1953, the labor movement was under severe strain from the McCarthy people," Mendelsohn says now. "I made a commitment to myself then, to work towards those goals I saw for society... I hoped that it would never mean having to leave university life, but if it did, well..."

Mendelsohn and Harvard have avoided such a choice and in 1960, he was awarded his Ph.D. In 1969, after 14 years of teaching and one year as an overseas fellow at Cambridge University, Mendelsohn became a full professor. "I like what I do" he says. "I like the teaching and I like the research." He also likes Cambridge--"an exciting place"--where he has become firmly rooted year-round with his wife, son, and two daughters. But Mendelsohn has had to be always wary of academic inertia. "The University, at times, likes to fool itself," he says wryly. "It seemed so peculiar to watch the University trying to be aloof from the war and hearing ROTC marching around down by the Divinity School."

MENDELSOHN believes that his social activism and his concern for the social responsibility of science emerged independently, but his views of contemporary science carry some of his political themes. He sees an urgent need for a broader base of scientific and technological understanding and a breakdown of the notion that there is mystery to science. "I think we are in the middle of a very significant change in the way science relates to society. It has become so relevant--relevant to the very life and death of all people," he warns. Just as wider education changed the complexion of science in the 18th and 19th centuries, he says, an increased consciousness of the history of science is essential to controlling it.

Because science can be an instrument of democracy, there is a large measure of consistency in two of Mendelsohn's current projects: the New England chairmanship of the American Friends Service Committee and a lengthy study of the relations of social and intellectual bases of science. "I'd love to see a world brought into being which reflected values of non-violence, non-coercion, of inclusion rather than exclusion--one that placed man in harmony with nature," Mendelsohn says in summing up his loftiest hopes. Within such goals there is work for the activist, academic, and scientist alike. --Tom Lee

In an unprecedented political statement, the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] passed this resolution last December at the height of the carpet-bombing of Hanoi. It was introduced by Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the History of Science and AAAS vice president.