History of science writing


William E. Ritter, first director of Scripps Oceanographic Institute.

The unconventional ideas behind the founding of the Science News Service and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

By Bill Kovarik

The two men would seem to be unlikely allies. The famously cantankerous, barely educated newspaper publisher, on the one hand, and the zoology professor with a Harvard Ph.D. on the other,  didn’t appear to have much in common when they met in the summer of 1903.

But somehow they got on famously, and their collaboration changed American science, creating two of its most important 20th century institutions: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Science News Service.

Historians would later write that publisher Edward W. Scripps loved the ocean and was fascinated with science, and that led him to help start the oceanographic institute.  But there’s more to it.  Scripps’ rough-hewn unpublished musings (which he called “disquisitions”) show clearly that he was no lofty theorist, and that he  relied on William E. Ritter as a scientific agenda setter.

Newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps

Ritter was a charming and articulate scientist who had been leading summer lab classes and gathering marine specimens on the California coast when friends brought Scripps by Ritter’s lab for a visit in the summer of 1903.

What fueled this friendship was a powerful idea the two men shared – a joint vision of a way to improve American life through an understanding of science and man’s biological destiny.   Scripps and Ritter were determined to improve the human environment and to use their institutions to advance the cause.

“Peace is possible; famine unnecessary; disease reducible; [and] individual wealth and comfort can be increased enormously,” Scripps wrote,  and then as an afterthought, added that instead of enormously,  “my friend Professor W.E. Ritter would say infinitely.”

Who was E.W.  Scripps?

E.W. Scripps (1854 – 1926) was a self-educated  and famously cantankerous newspaper publisher who, beginning in 1878,  built a chain of regional “penny press” daily newspapers into a diversified media company that survives with his name today. *

At the height of his career, Scripps was almost as well known as Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst.   He came of age at a moment of great opportunity in newspaper publishing, when the voice of the working man was not often reflected in small town newspapers. Using the formula also adopted by Pulitzer and Hearst, the Scripps chain would start up a small “penny” newspaper and run sensational anti-corruption stories in the Progressive muckraking style. Unlike Pulitzer,  who stuck with St. Louis and New York,  Scripps aimed for small Midwestern cities and had fairly good business sense. His newspapers stayed profitable even through the depression years when Pulitzer’s NY World newspaper folded and Hearst’s empire began crumbling.

Scripps was original in another way.  Before Hearst got the idea for San Simeon, Scripps built a small personal California retreat,  called Miramar,  just north of San Diego.  The ranch was nowhere near as lavish as Hearst’s palace, built several hundred miles north and two decades later.  Also unlike Hearst, Scripps was genuine in his concern for ordinary working people, and he helped Lincoln Stephens and other muckrakers fight civic corruption,  taking risks and occasionally losing advertisers. Unlike Hearst the conservative  Republican,  Scripps was a Democrat. But he avoided radicals, and, for example, did not like the IWW when it created a series of protests in San Diego.

Scripps had a reputation for cantankerousness. In fact, a 1951 collection of his writings was entitled “Damned old Crank.” He was a young crank,  too. A famous incident early in his career involved accusations by a competing publisher of harboring a mistress.  Scripps called a press conference to answer the charges and produced – to everyone’s astonishment – the mistress herself. Both made a full confession and then said, in effect, so what?

The scientific question that bothered Scripps was simple but huge, and he often posed the question in an unvarnished form:  “What is this damned human animal anyway?”

As a zoologist, Ritter was not interested in the human animal. But after meeting and collaborating with Scripps, Ritter saw a way to “improve the quality of the millions of human animals living in the United States.” (Pauley, 2001, p. 210)

Science and journalism at the turn of the century

American science was emerging at this moment in history, but few publishers understood what that meant, and partly as a result, few in the public understood it either.

The classic story about blinkered journalism was often told by automotive inventor Charles F. Kettering, the head of research at General Motors.  Kettering’s story was that on Dec. 17, 1903,  the Wright Brothers sent a telegraph home from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to their parents in Dayton, Ohio saying that they had achieved heavier-than-air flight and would be back in time for Christmas. An editor at the Dayton paper was shown the telegram and said that he was glad the family would be together again – and then turned to other work, completely ignoring the heavier-than-air flight story, which, apparently, he believed was impossible.    

As it turns out, Kettering’s story was completely off base. In fact, the Dayton paper printed a news item  based on that very telegraph on  Dec. 18, 1903,  the day after the first flight, and many other newspapers and magazines covered the event that month and the next.  The story reflects the careless disdain for the capabilities of the press.  It fit a stereotype that was all to convenient for major polluting industries like GM.

Yet the stereotype was not unfounded. One of the biggest scandals of that winter of 1903 – 04 took place  in New York, where editors at newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst hired a bacteriological firm to investigate contamination of oysters, ice and milk. The headlines led to reforms, but the hysteria would soon lead to something of a witch hunt for a woman they called “Typhoid Mary.”

Around this time, Joseph  Pulitzer’s World newspaper was running a column called “Wonders of Science” that focused on exciting and miraculous discoveries. Cures for cancer, especially if they involved radiation or colored lights, were particularly favored. The news about the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet, as described by one editor, involved the following elements:  a picture of a pretty girl, a “good nightmare idea like the inhabitants of Mars watching (the comet) pass,” pictures of scientists and “a two-column boxed ‘freak’ containing a scientific opinion that nobody will understand, just to give it class.”

If science was even mentioned in a newspaper, “it was in terms of magic or miracles, if not mere ridicule,” said historian David J. Rhees.  “It was standard practice to assign the staff humorist to cover local scientific conventions.” The humorists would typically comment either on the  length and luxuriousness of the beards worn by the assembled scientists or on  the titles of papers which contained the longest and least familiar words, Rhees observed.

Despite the sensationalism, a new approach to science news was emerging, or perhaps more accurately, returning. One of the country’s earliest and most famous editors, Benjamin Franklin was both a publisher and a scientist, and covered environmental issues with a concern for  “public rights.”   In the early 19th century, newspaper editors like Hezekiah Niles made a point of covering science seriously and thoroughly.  In the mid-19th century, scientists who were also popularizers, especially Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and John Fiske often wrote in the popular press about topics like evolution. By 1872, Popular Science Monthly was founded by Edward L. Youmans.

The sensationalistic media of the 1890 – World War I era reflected, in part, the sensibilities of the new emerging working class. The more science influenced their world, the more it was sold with sensationalism. Yet at the same time,  serious journalists began working for reform.

Carr Van Anda led the science news reform movement and rose to the top editorial position at the New York Times in 1901, in part because of his  advocacy of serious science coverage.  He became famous for his understanding of physics and math, even at one point correcting one of Einstein’s formulas that had been badly transcribed.

By the 1920s, Walter Lippmann, the last editor of Pulitzer’s World, would advocate a place for science at the heart of American life, alongside — or even instead of — religion.

Scripps, however, was the first publisher of this era to see the impact of science on America and was appalled by the news coverage which produced only a “vast quantity of misinformation.” The real “adventures,” he said,  “dramatic as they are, seldom find their way into print.”

Scripps and science

Scripps had an “enormous belief in science as an instrument for human welfare,” his friend William Ritter wrote in an obituary that appeared in Science magazine in 1926.  “I have often said that I never knew a professional scientist whose faith of this sort was more alive and confiding than was that of Mr. Scripps.”

This faith in science was not blind. It came, in part, from Scripps belief the humans were greatly influenced by their environment.  At the time, most people believed that heredity was the predominant influence, and the hereditary argument was often used as a foundation for racism, eugenics and fascist politics.  Scripps, on the other hand, was an “environmentalist,” a term that was understood at the time to mean that one believed that humans are shaped by their environments, and can intelligently improve their own conditions. This led Scripps to egalitarian philosophies such as democratic politics and a strong belief in science education – both in formal education and through the informal education available in newspapers.

When he met Ritter in the summer of 1903, Scripps education was “shamefully unconventional, “ although “almost unparalleled in area and depth” Ritter said.  Challenged by unconventional  ideas about the human animal, Ritter responded with wit and professorcraft,  thinking he would help Scripps as a teacher. Instead, they became lifelong friends and, in some respects, Ritter became the pupil.

“I must confess that at the time I failed to perceive either the magnitude or the scientific and philosophical soundness of his scheme,” Ritter said.  “He soon reached the conception that biology as a science might be considered the parent stem of all the social sciences. He decided that since here [in San Diego] was the germ of an institution for researching the science of biology … he [would] help us financially … Had the phrase scientific humanist become current in his day, it would have fitted him well.”

By 1907,  Scripps helped Ritter set up a permanent research station on 170 acres donated (at Scripps urging) by city of San Diego from old Mexican land grant.  Permanent buildings were set up in 1910.  By 1912 the institution was officially the University of California’s Scripps Institute for Biological Research.

Scripps, however, called it “bugville.”

Nearly every day, Scripps dropped in on Ritter unannounced at the institute.  Poking his head through a door, Scripps would remove his cigar and demand of Ritter:  “What is this damned human animal anyway?” Ritter would drop everything and begin talking, sometimes for the rest of the day. Their conversation could encompass anything on earth or in the oceans.

“Ritter started out  as early as 1901 with the idea that the biological station should be involved in physical, chemical, hydrographic and biological research, “ said historian Oliver Knight, “but Scripps conceived a broader role for it.”

Broader and extremely unconventional, in fact, as is evident in this from Scripps:

“The ideal institution that I had in view was not a school of instruction but a school of research and compilation, and (to make a bad use of the word commonly made) of generalization.  … I am convinced that modern civilization is the outgrowth of philosophy, religion and of codes of ethics, of customs and institutions that were founded upon known data far inferior in quantity and in quality to what science can furnish today.  This data is not only inferior in quantity and quality but much of it, perhaps the greater part, is false data. As a result of this condition of affairs, the lives of most human beings are unhappy….

“I would have a school for the study of life – and perhaps life extends far and away beyond the borders of that field which the term biology is supposed to cover.  I would have a school of life, the organization of which would be divided into three departments, the lowest, the elementary department of which would be engaged in what is called research. The second department would consist of one or more men who would record, correlate, assemble and segregate into groups the facts generated by the first department.

“The third department would consist of men who would generalize all the information gathered and recorded and there from make deductions which would be passed out to the world as authoritative and as the last word so far uttered concerning what is actually known in order that the people might govern their conduct individually and as social organisms according to so much of nature’s law as had been discerned.”

This third stage would be no mere public relations department.  The public mission of science was the raison d’etre for the scientific research, the driving force behind the the institution.   Scripps wanted it all to be so original that it would not even have a library, and in 1906 he advised Ritter against buying a collection of books. “The library you should covet should be the one that is yet unwritten and uncatalogued.”

Some of the ideas were too much for the University of California, and around 1915 the academics insisted on a more conventional form of organization.  Scripps blamed “a bunch of wooden-headed visionless university men” for tearing up his plans and accused them of having “burned down our temple to roast a little pig.”

The Science Service

Since the “elementary” department at “bugville” was in place to do the basic research, Scripps  began thinking about other ways to further the public mission of science.  After recovering from a stroke in 1918, he and Ritter planned with several national science academies to begin an institution “to translate and interpret science” for the American public. A non-profit organization was endowed by Scripps and was called the Science News Service. It began distributing the Science News-Letter in 1922. (Both the Science Service and Science News are alive and well in the 21st century).

The science newsletter was often dry and formal,  rather in the style of science popularism of the era, and not strongly calculated to appeal to the public.  Its editor, Edwin Slosson, was a chemist and a literary critic, not the popularizer Scripps might have wanted, although he came highly recommended from the scientific societies.  Astronomy and archaeology were the most popular topics for the news letter.  Basic sciences were also covered.  The most controversial topic of the times, the Scopes trial in 1925, was also extensively covered, although other science controversies – such as   leaded gasoline and radium – were not well covered.  Scripps may have been chagrined when the Science Service also began featuring coverage of the Eugenics movement, which billed itself as an attempt to keep the white race pure.

Overall, however, Scripps saw the Science Service as guarding democracy.

“It’s useless to think of making the world safe for democracy without thinking of making democracy safe for itself. And the only way of making democracy thus safe is to make it more intelligent. But since to be intelligent is utterly impossible without having much of the knowledge, method and the spirit of science, the only way to make democracy safe is to make it more scientific.”

Ritter later said:

“Nothing stands out more sharply from Scripps writing and sayings than his concern with the moral problem and with evidence that the moral problem is really part of the grater problem of the nature of man himself. In this he allied himself with those few of the great thinkers, from Aristotle and Confucius to Shaftesbury, Voltaire, Dewey and Santayana, who recognize the problem of morals as an aspect of the problem of human nature and hence of all nature .”

— 30 —


Phillip J. Pauley, Biologists and the Promise of American Life, (Princeton, N.J., Princeton Press, 2000).

Charles McCabe, ed., Damned Old Crank: A Self-Portrait of EW Scripps from His Unpublished Writings (New York: Harper 1951)

History and current status of the Scripps media group.  Today the chain has around $1.5 billion in operating revenues and is the 10th largest newspaper group in the US with major properties in  Cincinnati (its HQ), Denver, Boulder, Evanston, Albuquerque and other small cities. Group newspaper circulation is around 1.3 million daily and 1.9 million Sundays ( including the joint Sunday edition published in Denver. ) The chain also owns 10 TV stations, United Media syndicate, the home and garden cable channel and a number of magazines and other properties.

David J. Rhees, A New Voice for Science, The Science Service Under Edward E. Slosson,    (Masters Thesis, University of North Carolina, 1979).

CBS Radio Talks, 1939 – 1959 (Text of talks delivered by Watson Davis on scientific topics)

Climate Clips, Snopes, Oct. 2016.
Further links & reading:

Science Journalism in the Digital Age, by Jennifer Weeks, Chemical Heritage, summer 2014.   Once a low-profile beat, science reporting has become in recent decades a forum for controversy. Many science journalists regularly field stinging criticism of their work, some of it harshly personal. No one welcomes insults or persistent harassment, but most experienced journalists say rude feedback is part of the job… Whatever the motive, pressure on science journalism reflects changing attitudes toward the underlying science. Scientific evidence is not treated as objective, impartial knowledge but as just one more kind of information. The result is that doubters challenge mainstream scientific views with their own counter-narratives.    Is civil discourse about science controversies still possible? The jury is out.