Uncovering Science Journalism’s Hidden Histories

15 Mar 2022 3:19 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Susan E. Swanberg, University of Arizona

I recently wrote the following in my academic dossier: “Journalism, that first draft of history, opens a window onto the annals and accounts of our scientific progress, problems, and paradigm shifts.” My goal as a scholar of science journalism history is to reveal and report a more complete account of the feats and foibles of science, scientists, and science journalists.

Origins of a Science Journalism Historian

The inspiration for adopting science journalism history as my academic research topic was an essay written by Boyce Rensberger, former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program and a science reporter for 32 years. In his article “Science Journalism: Too Close for Comfort,” published in Nature (2009), Rensberger explored “the progression of scientific correspondents from cheerleaders to watchdogs.”

According to Rensberger, New York Times science journalist William Leonard “Atomic Bill” Laurence was a prime example of the cheerleading journalist who was too close to his sources. In the spring of 1945 until shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Laurence wrote articles and press releases for the U.S. War Department about the development and deployment of the atomic bomb – all while he was also on the payroll of the Times. I found the story of Laurence’s conflicted roles troubling and fascinating.

In 2015, after I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, I began examining Laurence’s science journalism under a microscope. In the course of my examination, I uncovered the journalist’s previously unrecognized plagiarism of an eye-witness report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I presented this research in March of 2017 at a conference sponsored by Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

The essay I wrote about Laurence’s journalistic shortcomings was published as a book chapter titled, “Borrowed Chronicles: New York Times Science Journalist, William L. ‘Atomic Bill’ Laurence and the Reports of a Hiroshima Survivor.” My essay appeared in Legacies of the Manhattan Project: Reflections on 75 Years of a Nuclear World (ed. Michael Mays; WSU Press, 2020). 

E.W. Scripps and the Science Service

I try to keep multiple articles in the publishing pipeline, so as I was drafting and editing “Borrowed Chronicles,” I was also working on other manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, I’d learned about the Science Service, an “agency for the popularization of science” founded in 1921 by E.W. Scripps. I was delighted to learn that, in addition to a corps of male science journalists, Science Service had engaged several women to write about science – an unusual situation in the early-to-mid twentieth century. I became interested in the women of Science Service and was determined to find out more about them. I was especially interested in Marjorie Van de Water who wrote articles about psychology.[1]

As I continued my Science Service research, I discovered that issues of the organization’s Science Newsletter were available online through JSTOR. At a meeting of the American Society for Environmental History I met a scholar who told me that many Science Service materials were archived by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A visit to the Science Service archives was an obvious must! I applied for and was awarded an AJHA Rising Scholar Award in 2018, which provided funding for an archival visit. Within weeks of receiving the award, I was in Washington D.C. on a mission to find out more about Science Service and its journalism.

The Science Service/Eugenics Connection

When I arrived at the Smithsonian Institution archives, I was thrilled to find the boxes I’d requested on a cart in the reading room. I dove eagerly into the files within those boxes exhilarated at the thought of questions they could answer and surprises they might contain. Before that first day ended, I’d found (“hidden” in plain sight) evidence of the organization’s involvement with eugenics – an unscientific, nativist belief system used to justify social policies such as sterilization of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce. In a number of carefully labelled Science Service files, I found correspondence between Science Service leaders and the American Eugenics Society (AES) as well as documents revealing that a substantial number of the organization’s board members and staffers had been closely involved with the American eugenics movement. To my knowledge, nobody had written about the Science Service/eugenics connection before.

After I returned home, I examined in more detail the documents I’d scanned. Next, I searched JSTOR for Science Newsletter articles on eugenics. I found many articles about eugenics - most of which were favorably inclined toward the pseudoscience. Curious about E.W. Scripps’ personal attitude regarding eugenics, I googled “E.W. Scripps archives” and found, quite fortuitously, that there was an online digital collection of the publisher’s private papers maintained by Ohio University. In these online archives, I located pro-eugenics writings authored by Scripps. The results of my research, described in an article titled, “’Well-Bred and Well-Fed,’ the Science Service Covers Eugenics: 1924-1966,” were published in American Journalism 38(2): 202-230 (2021).

To those who might think that the topic of eugenics is no longer relevant, I would point to the harsh rhetoric we see today regarding immigrants – rhetoric that mirrors early twentieth century debates in the U.S. Congress concerning restrictive immigration laws justified on the basis of eugenics’ flawed principles of human heredity and unscientific concepts of “race.”

A Final Note

Re-inventing myself as a science journalism historian has been challenging at times, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have benefited from the knowledge of more experienced journalism history scholars. As a result, I am an enthusiastic convert to the study of journalism history. Thank you, AJHA, for your guidance and support!


[1] For further information about Van de Water, see: Swanberg, S.E. (2019). “Psychological Armor: The Science News-Letter Warns Against Propaganda (1926-1965),” Journalism Studies 20(13): 1883-1902; Swanberg, S.E. (2020). “‘Wounded in Mind’: Science Service Writer, Marjorie Van de Water, Explains World War II Military Neuropsychiatry to the American Public,” Media History, 26(4): 472-488.

Figure 1: Photo illustration - cover, and page 4 of American Eugenics Society (AES) membership recruitment pamphlet containing the Watson Davis quotation that inspired my manuscript’s title. Photo illustration by Susan E. Swanberg.


Figure 2: Bookshelves containing eugenics research materials. Photo by Susan E. Swanberg

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