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Portraits from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

The Dibner Library Portrait Collection

The scientific portrait collection in the Dibner Library was assembled by Bern Dibner. The images formed a fine research complement to the thousands of scientific books and manuscripts in the library he founded, the Burndy Library. Bern Dibner obtained most of the portraits during the 1940s from print dealers in Boston, London, and Paris. By 1950 he had about two thousand images and arranged them into ten scientific subdivisions: Botany, Chemistry, Electricity, Geology, Mathematics, Medicine, Philosophy, Physics, Technology, and Zoology. The portraits are of various types: woodcuts, copper and steel engravings, mezzotints, lithographs, oil paintings, and photographs. Many of them are images that were printed as separate items, used as gifts to send to colleagues and admirers. The exchange of portraits among scientists in the eighteenth century became a very popular form of correspondence. A number of prints also served as frontispieces of books and, unfortunately, a few of the prints in the collection had originally been bound as pages in books and removed some time in the distant past.

Bern Dibner donated a large part of the Burndy Library's collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1974 and this formed the core of the new Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. The portrait collection was part of the original gift but the image collection was eventually split between the two libraries. In the end, approximately one thousand portraits were transferred to the Dibner Library and the rest, including almost all of the over one hundred oil paintings, remained with Bern Dibner and are still at the Burndy Library and Dibner Institute of the History of Science and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The people represented in the Dibner Library portrait collection are primarily scientists, natural philosophers, engineers, and inventors. There are a handful of individuals with no direct relationship to a scientific or technological enterprise, but they have been included for completeness. For purpose of practicality, the individuals have been classified along broad disciplinary categories similar to those used by Bern Dibner.

For nearly thirty years, the portraits have resided in the Dibner Library's climate-controlled stacks, available to researchers, but not cataloged. Now, with the increased ability to provide digital access to research collections and thanks to a grant from the Research Libraries Group, the Scientific Identity site will finally allow an unprecedented level of access to the Dibner Library portrait collection.

Ronald Brashear
Head of Special Collections and Curator of Science and Technology Rare Books

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