In the early 1960s, Sydney Ross, a Professor of Colloid Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, published an article titled ‘Scientist: The Story of a Word’ in Annals of Science. This became one of the most highly and regularly cited papers that the journal has ever published —an Annals of Science ‘Classic Paper’.
This examination of the paper by Sydney Ross is the first in a projected series of occasional reflections on ‘Annals of Science Classic Papers’ that have had enduring utility within the field of history of science and beyond. First the messages of the paper are examined, some well known but others, particularly Ross’s own contemporary concerns about the use of the word ‘scientist’, less so. The varied uses made of the paper by scholars are then traced before Ross’s biography is examined in order to try to understand how a figure professionally marginal to the field of history of science came to write such a significant piece. Ross’s interest in the topic appears to have been informed by a romantically tinged scientific progressivism and a deep concern with the importance of linguistic precision in science and in public affairs. The inspirations of the author and the interests of his audience have been only partially aligned, but the paper’s insights remain of broad historical interest and have wider ramifications since the denotation ‘scientist’ and its proper application are much debated today in contests over the authority of science.