The three volumes of his monumental work Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition - a history of scientific methods - were published in 1994, when he was 78. Not only does the book represent the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship, it raises historical analysis to the status of an anthropology of scientific thought.
Crombie was Australian and attended Geelong Grammar School and Trinity College, Melbourne University. In 1938 he went to Cambridge, where he pursued doctoral work in zoology. From 1941 to 1946 he carried out post-doctoral research at Cambridge Zoological Laboratory, publishing 11 papers on interspecific competition among insects and on the physiology of their chemical sense organs. During his laboratory years at Cambridge he also studied the history of philosophy under C.D. Broad, whom he greatly respected, and was much influenced by R.G. Collingwood, especially in his conceptions of historical method. In 1946, having decided to pursue a career in the history and philosophy of science, he accepted his first academic post in the subject, a lectureship at University College London.
It was then that he encountered some of the publications of Alexander Koyre and Robert Lenoble. According to Crombie:
Contact with these captivating intelligences was like Galileo's description of the stimulation given to the ear by the musical interval of the fifth, seeming at the same time to kiss and bite, at once seducing and awakening . . . It was especially Koyre who through his series of publications and his personal influence inspired those of us in Great Britain, as also in the USA and of course in France, who took up the subject professionally just after the Second World War.
The historical and intellectual sophistication of Augustine to Galileo, published in 1952, only six years after he had devoted himself fully to the history of science, and his Robert Grosseteste, published in 1954, reveal both the fertility of these influences and the distinctive approach which he developed. For Crombie, the study of the history of science became at once a study of the content of science and of efforts to create rational methods of inquiry into nature.
While at Cambridge, Crombie met Nancy Hey and they married in 1943. Shortly afterwards Nancy became a Catholic and, some six months later, so did Crombie. They had five children. After the war Crombie spent some time in Germany rebuilding academic bridges, an experience which left a profound impression on him. He went on to spend seven years as Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at University College London, in which time he served as Editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, before being appointed University Lecturer in the History of Science at Oxford in 1953. The university had been persuaded several years earlier to create a post in the history of science by Frank Sherwood Taylor, the future Director of the Science Museum, London, who was then the Curator of the History of Science Museum at Oxford.
Sherwood Taylor was also a Catholic, and Crombie frequently remarked that the history of science as a professional subject was created largely by Catholics and Jews. Crombie found the philosophers at Oxford most welcoming, in particular Gilbert Ryle, John Austin and William Kneale. With their help, the history of science was introduced as an option into graduate studies in philosophy. Crombie also secured its introduction as an undergraduate option in Modern History and in Natural Science. Despite these efforts, the history of science remained a smaller subject at Oxford than at Cambridge. In 1962, jointly with Michael Hoskin of Cambridge, Crombie set up the journal History of Science and remained on its editorial board for many years.
In Oxford, after an association lasting some years with All Souls College, Crombie became a Fellow of Trinity in 1969. Here, he was made very welcome, and the 10 years he served as the college's Garden Master, from 1971 to 1981, gave him enormous pleasure.
He always maintained strong connections with foreign scholars, especially in Italy and France, while at home on Boar's Hill he and his wife entertained a steady stream of friends and colleagues from home and abroad. She died in 1993.
Crombie was a controversial figure at Oxford, partly, perhaps, because of his almost exclusive dedication to intellectual work, and partly because of his indelicate handling of the fabric of authority in the university. He felt keenly what he saw as a lack of interest in intellectual history in England, and he derived much satisfaction from invitations to give lectures and accept academic positions and honours in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany.
His election to the Presidency of the International Academy for the History of Science, which he held from 1968 to 1971, his appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1994, and the award of the European Prize for the History of Science in the following year were all marks of the reputation he enjoyed internationally. The seminar organised in Paris in 1995 to discuss his Styles of Scientific Thinking was particularly gratifying to him. Nevertheless, his work was appreciated in England. He received an honorary DLitt at Durham University in 1978 and was elected to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1990.
In addition to his main books, Crombie brought out two collections of his published papers and a third is in preparation. In his final months he was engaged in writing two anthologies, God and the Scientists and Shakespeare's Ethics.
Alistair Cameron Crombie, historian of science: born Brisbane, Australia 4 November 1915; Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science, University College, London 1946-53; Editor, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1949-54; Lecturer in History of Science, Oxford University 1953- 83; Kennedy Professor in the Renaissance, Smith College, Massachusetts 1982, Professor of History of Science and Medicine 1983-85; FBA 1990; married 1943 Nancy Hey (died 1993; three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Oxford 9 February 1996.Reuse content