We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Crombie, Alistair Cameron (1915–1996), historian of science, the second son of William David Crombie (d. 1949) and Janet Wilmina, née Macdonald (d. 1975), was born on 4 November 1915 in Brisbane, Australia. His parents, who were of Scottish extraction, had established a farmstead at the remote Maranthona, near Longreach (precisely on the tropic of Capricorn, in Queensland). After school at Geelong grammar school Crombie began his university career at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, as a medical student, graduating in zoology in 1938. Continuing his studies in England at Jesus College, Cambridge, he proceeded to a doctorate in 1942 with a dissertation on population dynamics—a fact that helps to explain his lifelong interest in the history of Darwinism. By this time he was occupying a temporary research position with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the Cambridge Zoological Laboratory. He married on 3 December 1943 Nancy Hey (1914–1993), a graduate of Girton College who undertook war work in Cambridge collecting statistics for the Ministry of Agriculture; she was the daughter of Donald Hey, a wool manufacturer, of Helperby, Yorkshire. In 1944 they both became converts to Roman Catholicism, she first and he later ‘with difficulty’.

At Cambridge, Crombie studied philosophy informally with C. D. Broad, who helped to turn him in the direction of the history and philosophy of science. In 1946 he was appointed to teach and direct research in those subjects at University College, London, then one of the main centres in Britain for the teaching of the history and philosophy of science. While there he helped to found the British Society for the History of Science (1946), of which he was made president in 1964. He was also a founder of its Philosophy of Science Group, which later became an independent body as the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. He was the first editor of its journal, the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (1949), and was later a joint founder and editor of another influential journal, History of Science (1962).

In 1953 Crombie was appointed lecturer in the history of science at Oxford, where there were already plans afoot to teach the subject to undergraduates in science, history, and philosophy. He moved to Oxford in 1954, after a year as visiting professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. He soon established an influential seminar in the history of science; although originally intended for philosophy undergraduates, it quickly became the centre of gravity of the subject for people from other faculties. It was always well attended by a number of notable senior scholars, several of them visitors to Oxford from elsewhere. First held in the Old Ashmolean building, and later in All Souls, the seminar was moved in 1969 to Trinity College, when Crombie was made a fellow there.

The ambitions that had prompted the rapid growth of the history and philosophy of science in the 1950s changed in many respects during the following decade. Crombie found himself faced with the disparate wishes of three very different social groups, for whose needs it was impossible to cater simultaneously. Some of the most regular attenders at his weekly seminar (for many years run jointly with J. D. North and later Wilma Crowther) were from the natural sciences. They valued the subject for its bridging function between ‘the two cultures’, one of the reasons why the intellectual net was cast very wide. Crombie's broad outlook did not, however, always fit comfortably with the needs of the various honour schools that called on his services. He established successful undergraduate courses for the faculties of history and the natural sciences, but he left the teaching to others. The scientists, the historians, and the philosophers all had very different interests and expectations, and—despite the efforts of such enlightened colleagues as Friedrich Waismann, William Kneale, George Temple, and his nearest colleague in the philosophy of science, Rom Harré—it proved impossible to hammer out the notion of a single discipline that could hold the allegiance of those in the university whose support he most needed.

Some opposed the subject on the grounds that it was an administrative inconvenience. Crombie's earlier concern with medieval science, combined with his low-key Catholicism, was presented by some as a sign of a Catholic plot to infiltrate the curriculum. Others had their own plans for academic dominion, and Crombie was not always a good judge of the territorial ambitions of his colleagues. He was happiest creating a focus for research at an advanced level and was not greatly attracted to undergraduate teaching, nor was he successful at that level. His idea of a diploma in the history and philosophy of science, meant as a prior qualification for doctoral work, had limited success. It introduced many now senior historians of science to the field; but again there arose the problem of enforced breadth, and not a few students from the direction of history and the then fashionable social sciences made known their displeasure at the idea that they should be obliged to study philosophy of science. When the Oxford chair in history of science was eventually created and filled (1971–2), the part Crombie had played in building up the subject counted for little on a committee that had a narrower view of the field than his. To the great surprise of most outsiders, he was passed over. He nevertheless continued to act as a magnet to scholars from elsewhere who knew him either personally or through his writings, and, as far as reputation was concerned, the subject in Oxford continued to be associated with him more than any other person.

As a historian of science Crombie's central interest was in the methods and modes of scientific thinking and reasoning as these developed within the intellectual context of medieval and early modern Europe. This was his outlook when writing his first book, Augustine to Galileo: the History of Science, AD 400–1650 (1952, expanded in 1959). Translated into seven languages, it became one of the world's most widely used textbooks in its subject. He took a similar approach in his Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100–1700 (1953), where he made an analysis of the question of continuity and change in the European scientific tradition from the middle ages to the seventeenth century. Crombie's view of his subject is nowhere more evident than in his monumental Styles of scientific thinking in the European tradition: the history of argument and explanation especially in the mathematical and biomedical sciences and arts (3 vols., 1994). In this he made a detailed comparative analysis of the forms of scientific reasoning developed within European intellectual culture, beginning with the Greek search for the principles of nature and argument, and adopting a similar approach to an ever wider variety of historical material.

This three-volume summary of a lifetime's work and ideals, which was well received within his profession, reveals also Crombie's abiding interest in the history of theories of the senses—echoing his earlier work in biology—and in particular the physiology and epistemology of vision and hearing, and their relation to the visual and musical arts. These are subjects touched upon in his numerous other publications—for example, in the two published volumes of his collected essays—but they run through another of Crombie's studies, one that occupied much of the last thirty years of his life. Awarded the Galileo prize by the Domus Galileana in Pisa in 1964 for an essay on Galileo, Crombie became a leading authority on that crucially important figure. His Galileo interest also made Oxford a natural place to set up the Harriot Seminar in 1967, which was done with the collaboration of several distinguished Harriot scholars and the financial support of the London mathematician Cicely Tanner.

Crombie long planned to publish two other books, ‘Galileo's arguments and disputes in natural philosophy’ and ‘Marin Mersenne: science, music and language’. His final illness took him unawares, and they were never completed. He became involved in much invigorating controversy in the course of writing on Galileo, with the result that his main theses are well known to a wide scholarly public. The essence of most of his unpublished material may be found in one form or another in his published writings. Throughout he treats of science as a rational and not merely a social activity.

Alistair Crombie was a writer of vision who influenced an entire generation, and he left his signature on the practice of the history of science in the world at large, as well as in Oxford. His circle of friends was great, nationally and internationally. He was president of the Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences from 1968 to 1971. After retirement he took up a half-time appointment as professor of history of science and medicine at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He held several other visiting professorships and lectured in many countries. He was a fellow of the British Academy and held honorary doctorates of the universities of Durham, Paris X, and Sassari. Shortly before his death he was awarded the prestigious premio europeo Dondi (jointly with his old friend Marshall Clagett) for his life's work.

Crombie was a warm-hearted and unstinting friend to a large number of younger scholars, and a generous supporter of causes that he thought worthy. Among his recreations was landscape gardening, which he and his wife put into practice over forty years in the garden of their home, Orchard Lea, Boars Hill, Oxford. He died at home on 9 February 1996, and was buried beside his wife on 19 February at Ramsgill church in Yorkshire. He was survived by a daughter, three sons, and six grandchildren.

J. D. North


J. D. North and J. J. Roche, eds., The light of nature: essays in the history and philosophy of science presented to A. C. Crombie (Dordrecht, 1985) [incl. partial bibliography] · J. D. North, PBA, 97 (1998), 257–70 · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [Sophie Plender, daughter] · J. J. Roche, The Independent (8 April 1996)


priv. coll., papers


photograph, repro. in North, PBA

Wealth at death  

£748,170: probate, 30 April 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales