Science at UW-Madison

Sources for its History

Through December 2021

Exploring the history of any one scientific field at UW-Madison would be a daunting prospect; much more so teaching and research across the sciences here over some 170 years. This exhibit focused instead on the variety of sources, from University Archives and elsewhere, that can illuminate such a broad subject.

Framed print entitled “New Science Hall, Chemical Laboratory & Machine Shop. State University, Madison.” From the collection of the late Prof. David Woodward. The controversy regarding the construction and funding for these buildings is detailed in appendix A of The buildings of the University of Wisconsin by Jim Feldman, available in UW Digitized Collections.

The exhibit highlighted

  • science departments’ own histories, published in paper form or online
  • campus maps and historical markers recording the construction of laboratory facilities and teaching buildings connected with the sciences (and notable campus faculty after whom some buildings were named)
  • university budgets and their effects on science departments, including salary “waivers” imposed during the Great Depression
  • research and writings of scientists turned UW presidents or UW-Madison chancellors
  • campus publications designed to spotlight scientific accomplishments and their relevance to the Wisconsin Idea
  • influential science textbooks produced by campus faculty
  • campus library collections for the sciences and systems for managing scientific literature
  • archival collections documenting interdisciplinary facilities like the Synchrotron and Biotron
  • accounts of research funding and the significance of WARF
  • typewritten letters, telegrams, and born-digital documents at the intersection of scientific research and national politics.
Prof. Elizabeth McCoy of Bacteriology. University Archives, biographical files; also available in UW Digitized Collections, S08142. For more, see Eric Hamilton, “UW’s Elizabeth McCoy was a pioneer of 20th century microbiology,”

And there are many more stories to be told and discoveries to be made — in paper files, online sources, oral histories, photograph collections and other media as preserved in University Archives, Special Collections, and elsewhere; in materials made widely available through UW Digitized Collections; in stories in campus publications and news; as well as in the published record of scientific research held in campus libraries or made available online. Through this exhibit we hoped to encourage further exploration of the wide array of relevant sources. A checklist of the exhibit is available.

Science Hall. Undated picture postcard. University Archives. 9/1 (436 photo collection), box 250, folder 4.

The exhibit, curated by Robin Rider, could not have been undertaken without the collections of University Archives and the generosity and expertise of colleagues there.