Understanding the History of Science (Background and Context/Biography)

Encyclopedias and histories are useful first stops to acquire context and background for your topic. If you have a solid overview of the topic and its history it will be easier to recognize the more in-depth articles, books etc. that will be most helpful to you.

To find one, try searching in HOLLIS for your subject (see the HOLLIS tab in this guide for how to know the proper Subject terms) plus the words encyclopedias or dictionaries.  

To find individual encyclopedia articles in HOLLIS- Everything, do a Title search on your topic and then take look at "Refine My Results" on the right side of the page. Find the "Resource Type" section and choose Reference entries.

Major subject encyclopedias and other reference works

Cambridge Histories Online includes Cambridge History of Science:


The Oxford companion to the history of modern science (Harvard Login), ed. by J.L. Heilbron et al. NY: Oxford University Press, 2003, 941 p. 

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of American Science, Medicine, and Technology (Harvard Login), ed. by Hugh Richard Slotten. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

The Oxford encyclopedia of philosophy, science, and technology in Islam (Harvard Login), ed. by Ibrahim Kalin. Oxford ; NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Science, technology, and society: an encyclopedia (Harvard Login), ed. by Sal Restivo. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005, 701 p.  


Encyclopedia of the history of psychological theories (Harvard Login), ed. by Robert W. Rieber. NY: Springer, 2012. 2 v. 

The Oxford companion to the mind, ed. by Richard L. Gregory. 2nd ed. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2004, 1004 p.
Internet Archive Full Text

The Oxford handbook of the history of psychology: global perspectives (Harvard Login), ed. by David B. Baker. Oxford; NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, 645 p. 

Human Biology

The Oxford Companion to the body (Harvard Login), ed. by Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett et al. Oxford; NY: Oxford University Press, 2001, 753 p. 

The Oxford handbook of the history of eugenics (Harvard Login; print versions also in HOLLIS), ed. by Alison Bashford, Philippa Levine. NY: Oxford University Press, 2010, 586 p.), ed. by Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher. Abingdon, Oxon; NY: Routledge, 2013, 579 p. 


Cambridge historical dictionary of disease (Harvard Login), ed. by Kenneth F. Kiple. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003, 412 p. 

Cambridge world history of human disease (Harvard Login) ed. by Kenneth F. Kiple et al. Cambridge ; NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 1176 p.

Companion encyclopedia of the history of medicine (Harvard Login), ed. by W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter. London; NY: Routledge, 1993. 2 v. HOLLIS record
--This is a useful collection of essays on the History of Science. --Table of contents of both volumes in Google Books.

Companion to medicine in the twentieth century (Print only), ed. by Roger Cooter and John Pickstone. London; NY: Routledge, 2003, 756 p. 
--Articles, with references, especially on social, institutional, political, and policy aspects of medicine.
Internet Archive Full Text  --  Another copy

Medical research: a midcentury survey Boston, Published for the American Foundation by Little, Brown, 1955, 2 v. 
--A valuable overview of medical research circa 1940-1955. The first volume covers institutional and policy aspects, the second summarizes the state of research on cancer, infertility, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, rheumatic syndromes, tuberculosis, viruses, alcoholism, and schizophrenia.

Oxford handbook of the history of medicine (Harvard Login), ed. by Mark Jackson. Oxford ; New York ; Oxford University Press, 2011, 672 p. 


American National Biography (Harvard login) is the standard American source for biographies of major figures. Can do searches of occupations and limit by date.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Harvard login) is the standard British source for biographies of major figures. Can do searches of occupations and limit by date: Advanced Search Options: People Search.

Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (Harvard login) offers biographical sketches on deceased scientists to 1975, including excellent lists of primary and secondary literature.

  • Social .scientists are covered unevenly.
  • For more recent sources (post-1975) use History of Science, Technology and Medicine (Harvard login).  For new primary works (new editions, etc.) put your person in the author field. For new secondary works, put your person in the Subject field.

Dictionary of American medical biography, ed. by M. Kaufman, S. Galishoff & T. L. Savitt. 2 v. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. 
Internet Archive Full Text: Vol. 1  --  Vol. 2

Dictionary of medical biography, ed. by W. F. Bynum and Helen Bynum. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. 5 v.
--Covers 18th century through 1975.
Internet Archive Full Text: Vol. 1  --  Vol. 2  --  Vol. 3  --  Vol. 4  --  Vol. 5

A dictionary of scientists (Harvard Login), Oxford Reference. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Biographical sources for women in science 

Biographical sources for American physicians (this guide is still under development)

Additional general sources in Finding Biographical Information

Contemporary Subject Dictionaries

Contemporary subject encyclopedias and dictionaries are useful in interpreting primary sources. They can be found by an Advanced Search in the HOLLIS Catalog with, e.g., <Medicine dictionaries> [Keyword search], limited by year range.

Gould, George M. (George Milbry), 1848-1922.
An illustrated dictionary of medicine, biology and allied sciences ...
3d ed. rev.
Philadelphia, Blakiston, 1897, c1894.

Subject: Medicine--Dictionaries.
Natural history--Dictionaries.

These books are usually shelved toward the beginning of each subject class in the Old Widener system.

Doing Cross-disciplinary Research: connecting with other fields

History of science topics often explore the relations of scientific work with other fields, such as:

  • public policy
  • popular media
  • religion
  • literature

Primary and secondary sources in other fields may therefore be important to you. You might need to investigate original documents in public policy or film footage in media studies.  There are several options for finding this material:

  • To find resources in HOLLIS Databases, choose Subject and browse the resource types..

Other Research Guides

Don't forget Print!

Photograph of Albert Einstein, reading a bookIt's true that there's now a wide world of research available online. However, the vast majority of historical scholarly resources are still in print. While you'll need to consider the timing and scope of your research, you will miss opportunities and your research may be incomplete if you use only what's already been digitized.

The human subjects of your research didn't read online. Reading linked and related articles online is an entirely different experience from that of browsing the newspaper or an online journal. The medium can be significant.

Don't disregard print indexes and the crucial print resources to which they may lead.

Fall 2020: During the virtual semester our access to print resources is of course limited. During this time you may be able to locate the full text for many normally print-only materials HathiTrust or other digital libraries. (for HathiTrust, this is less common for books published in the last 10 years)



Print only resources that were on this page



Encyclopedia of American environmental history (Print Only), ​ed. by K. A. Brosnan. 4 v. NY: Facts on File, 2011. 

Encyclopaedia of the history of science, technology, and medicine in non-western cultures (Print Only), ed. by Helaine Selin. 2nd ed. Berlin; NY: Springer, 2008. 2 v.

Technology (this was the entire tech section):

An Encyclopaedia of the history of technology, ed. by Ian McNeil. London; New York: Routledge, 1990, 1062 p. (Print only)


The biographical dictionary of scientists (Print Only), by Roy Porter, Marilyn Ogilvie. NY: Oxford University Press, 3rd. ed., 2000. 2 v. 

  • A collection of short articles.