Society for the History of DiscoveryMember Reflections
The Society is fortunate to have captured the reminiscences and reflections of several founding and early members. These essays provide a personal link back to the past and describe people, places and events in the establishment and development the Society.
Please click below for these stories.
Having been asked to present some personal reflections on the Society, through my long association with it, I will resist the instinctual reflexes of an old timer to regale you with mere memories of past events and personalities and try instead to focus on what I perceive to be the Society's values and accomplishments. For those of you who are new to our group and may not have heard the story of our beginnings, I will relate it briefly. It all began in Lisbon in the summer of 1960 at a conference on discovery and exploration commemorating the quincentenary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. At an intermission in the proceedings, Steve Slessarev, Thom Goldstein, and I met over a bottle of wine and concluded that we should have an organization in North America which would encourage research into the history of discovery and exploration. It was decided that Thom would place a notice of this idea on a bulletin board at the December 1960 meeting of the American Historical Association, inviting interested parties to meet at a small restaurant across the street from the convention center in New York. Seven people showed up. Inevitably there will be some autobiography in what follows, for I am the observer as well as a sometime participant in the life of our beloved Society.
When he was asked to participate in a Liber amicorum, or book of friends, Gerard Mercator sent a portrait, “most willingly, if it pleases you, but reluctantly as far as I am concerned, as I feel ashamed to exhibit myself, as if I were of any importance, among famous men.”1 I know the feeling. But in reading about Mercator I was impressed by his circle of colleagues, among them Abraham Ortelius, John Dee, Gemma Frisius (his math tutor), and Petrus Apianus. In the Society for the History of Discoveries (SHD) I have enjoyed the company of distinguished people. I want to talk about a few of them.
I’m honored to be asked to give you some reflections on my years in SHD, and it gives me great pleasure to do so. There have been a lot of them since I first joined in 1971.
First, some background. I’m sure you are all familiar with the basics—how, at an international meeting in Lisbon in the summer of 1960, to celebrate the quincentennary of Henry the Navigator, Jack Parker, Steve Slessarev and Tom Goldstein met over a bottle of wine and decided there should be an organization in the US to encourage research into the history of discoveries. Jack put up a notice that December at the American Historical Association annual meeting asking anyone interested in the idea to meet for further discussion. Which is where I first learned of the Society as my late husband, Professor Oswald Backus, was one of a group of seven at that restaurant who launched the Society for the History of Discoveries. Ozzie used a mailing list of colleagues he had to reach out to other possible members, and a fledgling group was assembled. And, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the rest is history.”
The title for this paper was suggested by Ed Dahl. It is autobiographical, as he requested, and could also be titled, informally, “A Trip down Memory Lane.” My assignment from Ed is autobiographical, personal, and selective—even, impressionistic. This account covers more than eighty years. I hope no one will be offended if their name is not mentioned; and I also hope it doesn’t turn out to be what my grandchildren call an “ego trip.” This is one person’s view of a good deal of institutional history, and is not, I know, the last word on the subject. About one third of the period covered is from before I was involved with the Society for the History of Discoveries (SHD).
When Ed Dahl commissioned me to participate in this plenary session, I asked him what he wanted me to talk about. He responded by saying that I needed to “go into discovery-exploration theology” more deeply. More deeply? My goodness, I have never read a word about discovery-exploration theology in my entire professional life. Yet, Ed assured me that his charge was right down my alley. Even though I do not intend to be at all theological, I would over the next half-hour or so like to present some unconnected thoughts and ideas that have accumulated over the past forty years during which time I have read, taught, and written about geographical exploration and discovery. Inasmuch as this plenary session is designed to generate discussion, I hope you will have much to say when I finish.