By Joséphine Colic
In May this year I began a three month internship on ‘The Scientific Conference’ project. I was in the middle of my Masters on the History of Science and Technology at Strasbourg when I began an internship at the Alexandre Koyré Center, Paris, under the supervision of Charlotte Bigg and Thomas Mougey. I applied for this internship because I was interested in the focus on the Parisian universal exhibitions as exciting moments in the history of science. I also hoped that this internship could teach me about research methodology. Unfortunately, due to Covid I met with my supervisors primarily on Zoom, not face to face, and most of the research and discussion was done remotely. But during the last month of the internship I was able to go to Paris to complete my research and to meet my supervisors and the other interns.
The aim of this internship was to research how different scientific and medical disciplines thought of themselves as ‘international’, by studying the scientific congresses that accompanied the Paris Universal Exhibitions in the first three decades of the twentieth century, 1900 to 1937. My main mission was to look for signs of internationalism in the congresses, and think about how the process of internationalisation operated and materialized.
How did I go about my research? First, I read up on the secondary sources on the exhibitions and congresses. Next, I located available primary sources, including reports on records of congresses, press cuttings, and communications of the people in charge of the exhibition and congress organisers. Some of these sources were digitized; others were accessible only in archives and libraries.
To answer the objectives of the internship my research had both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. I looked up the listed members of the congresses in order to evaluate the international dimension of the participants. With the help of this referencing work, I drew up a map of the internationality of the congress membership, which helped to visualize which countries were represented (and which were not). I also counted the number of speeches made by foreign members during the scientific congresses and compared this number with the speeches made by French members.
I then looked in detail at the opening and closing speeches of the scientific congresses in order to evaluate how the international dimension was represented. It was during the large opening sessions that scientists from other countries were welcomed. I also looked closely at press documents and the administrative documents of the exhibitions, including exhibition reports which described parts of the congresses. This textual analysis made it possible for me to highlight how the different actors (congress members, congress presidents, general commissioners of the exhibition, presidents of the congress service, and members of the public) represented the international nature of their scientific and medical disciplines.
What did I find? By combining quantitative and qualitative analyses I could show that the scientific congresses of the 1900 and 1937 exhibitions claimed to be more international than they actually were.The census of the members for 1900 shows that it is mainly the great powers that are present during the congresses: Germany, the United States and Russia. The census points to the scientific interests of each country by their participation or absence in the congresses. It is interesting to see, for example, that Brazil was present in the dental congress and in the medical one, but much less in the other congresses. By contrast, other countries are less represented or completely absent, including South Africa, Colombia and many countries of Eastern Europe. In 1937, Germany was still present in some congresses but excluded from others. Other scholarly powers emerged in the period, including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which were more prominent then than in 1900. African countries were finally present in 1937, but countries like China and Japan were poorly represented. Several factors prevented foreign members from fully participating in the congress, including the limited number of languages allowed at the congresses and their respective organizations and rules. The speaking time for delegates was limited, and much time was taken up by the congress officers, who were mostly French. However, the international representation differed from one congress to another. The congresses that had been established for a longer period tended to be more open to wider international participation than the newer congresses, because stronger links were created between the members over time.
I particularly enjoyed finding visual sources, such as these images of French and foreign medical personalities during the 1937 international neurological meeting, which were published in the magazine The Medical Informant. I learnt that this type of photograph is typical of international conferences. In the newspapers, foreign scientists are often photographed next to French scientists to show the strong links that the countries maintain for scientific progress.
All in all, this internship was very informative. The supervisors oversaw my research training. I learnt how to find and work with sources in training sessions for library and archive sites (such as Bnf, Gallica, Jstor) and the digital tool Zotero. The on-site training at the Paris national archives allowed me to acquire a more solid understanding of research in practice. Thanks to this internship, I was able to learn how to organize myself and my sources, and to work independently but also in a group. The meetings with the project members showed me how an international research project is organized and how individual tasks are assigned. This internship has given me the tools for completing this research project, and also for potential future work in research.