Donald Cotter Research

Associate Professor; Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology, 1993; Mount Holyoke College, 1994-present.

My primary project involves the life and work of Alexander Smith, a Scottish chemist active in the United States between 1890 and 1919. Although an active research chemist throughout his career, Smith achieved his greatest professional success, and most enduring legacy, as a teacher, administrator, and textbook author, and was regarded by many of his peers as the pre-eminent educator among chemists of his generation. The high-water mark of his career came in 1906 with the publication of his "phenomenally successful" freshman chemistry text. Through this text, Smith exerted at least as much influence as any of his peers over one of any discipline's critical requirements: the development of institutions and apparatus for professional reproduction through education and training. Smith's career thus offers a fascinating and unique standpoint from which to view the coalescence and maturation of chemistry as a discipline in the United States in the early years of the 20th century. The period was one very much like our own in many ways -- for example, the research agenda for many chemists was driven by a single, economically powerful industry; the country at large and the scientific community were politically strained by foreign wars that exacerbated strong differences in national identity and nationalistic fervor among American civilians; the nature and purpose of higher education was a matter of wide-spread and politically charged public debate. And yet, the scientific community of the time was very different from our own: it was small, fragile, and had yet to achieve a secure place in the economic and social hierarchies of American life. Alongside powerful intellectual upheavals in the physical sciences, large-scale social forces like these strongly influenced the evolution of the chemical profession in both academic and industrial settings, and played themselves out dramatically within the microcosm of Smith’s life and career.

Student projects related to this work are possible, primarily during the academic year, for those whose interest in the sciences is complemented by a strong grounding in the humanities. This work involves reading in the primary and supporting scientific literatures of the period, close analysis of textbooks and other educational material, and the examination and interpretation of archival source materials such as manuscripts and personal letters. Archival travel is not only possible, but will likely become necessary for students who become seriously engaged with the work. Nearby repositories of interest include those at Columbia and Cornell Universities. Above all, a student interested in this work should love to write.

I am also interested in the electronic translation and preservation of archival sources. In collaboration with Jennifer Gunter King in the MHC Archives, and Shaoping Moss in Instructional Technology, I am developing a set of editorial principles for constructing a searchable, hypertext version of the Emma Perry Carr papers. This work involves use of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an application of the Extensible Markup Language (XML). Students interested in this work need not have computer science training, though a familiarity with markup languages such as HTML is certainly helpful.