From the 17th Century onwards, Quakers have made significant contributions to science in a wide variety of fields.
Like other non-conformists, Quakers were barred from attending Universities in England until 1871. Many were therefore self-taught or, later, attended the ‘dissenting academies,’ which allowed the sons of non-conformist families to receive higher education. Quaker schools like Bootham School in the north of England and Westtown in Pennsylvania actively fostered their pupils’ interest in science.
The early days of Quakerism coincided with the development of experiment and observation in science, and these had a natural affinity with Quaker curiosity and open-mindedness. Early Quakers were particularly drawn to observe God’s creation (as they saw it) in the natural world around them, particularly in the fields of botany, meteorology, and astronomy.
From the 17th to the 19th century there were many more Quakers working in botany, and related occupations, than would be expected from the total number of Quakers there were in Britain, Ireland and North America taken together. Botany was developing fast, and a key new 18th century tool was the Linnaean system of plant classification. Quaker botanists were among those promoting Linnaeus’s system. Others created some of the earliest botanical gardens and arboreta. Wealthier Quakers supported less well off adventurers on expeditions to collect plant specimens. Many Quakers were gardeners, and others owned, or worked in plant nursery enterprises.
Plants were known to have medicinal value, and many Quakers became apothecaries, skilled in making medicines from plants. Arising out of this, Quakers played an important role in the development of pharmacy as in independent profession. In 1841, Quakers William Allen, John Bell and Jacob Bell were instrumental in establishing the Pharmaceutical Society, to oversee and regulate the profession.
A career or apprenticeship in pharmacy was to prove a springboard to the medical profession for probably the first Quaker doctor, John Fothergill (1712-1780), and others followed. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, Ann Preston (1813 – 1872) was a pioneering woman doctor and founder of Pennsylvania’s Women’s Hospital.
Quakers were also influential in the development of psychology and mental health services. The Retreat, the hospital for the mentally ill established by William Tuke in 1796, became a model for the therapeutic community.
Other Quakers were drawn to meteorology or astronomy, making meticulous observations of the weather and the stars. In Cumbria in the northwest of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a cluster of Quakers began recording observations of the weather and of the night skies. More recently, discoveries by Quaker astronomers have contributed significant evidence supporting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
Many Quakers also worked in Engineering and as clock and instrument makers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as global exploration and trade were developing fast, better navigation was a priority: much work therefore focused on mapping the stars, and on more accurate ways of telling the time wherever you were, and many Quakers were involved in this. Others worked in heavy industries, such as mining and the railroads.
By the late 18th century, Quakers were beginning to make their mark in Physics and Chemistry. John Dalton (1766-1844) began his career as a meteorologist, and it was his observations of the weather that allowed him to develop the theory of atoms, for which he is particularly noted. Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-71) was an eminent crystallographer.
Quakers were initially cautious in their acceptance of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Attitudes tended to reflect the division, through much of the 19th C, between those who accepted the Bible as the ultimate authority and those who espoused the notion of a guiding Inner Light. However, from the late 1880s, in the UK at least, articles and reviews were appearing in Quaker journals that were strongly supportive of Darwin.
Quaker scientists have generally found little conflict between their science and their faith. The Quaker concept of continuing revelation fits well with the need for scientists to remain open to ideas and observations that challenge received wisdom. This idea was affirmed by physicist Sylvanus P Thompson at the Manchester Conference in 1895, and has been expressed in different ways ever since by Quaker scientists including Arthur Eddington and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Eddington found a close relationship between religious mysticism and the feeling of inspiration experienced by scientists on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Burnell has spoken widely about the relationship between scientific method, with its concept of the provisional nature of scientific understanding, and her Quaker faith.