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Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Charles Coulston Gillispie, Frederic Lawrence Holmes, Noretta Koertge, Gale Publishing, editors
Publication Date: 
Electronic Book
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee considers this book essential for undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
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The original Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulson Gillispie and published in the 1970s by Scribner’s in 18 large volumes, is a standard reference for anyone interested in biographical information about scientists and mathematicians. In 1990, a selection of the biographies entitled Biographical Dictionary of Mathematicians, in four volumes, was published “under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies.” Unfortunately, both of these are now out of print.

Enter the new world of electronic resources. The Gale Virtual Reference Library, which is now an imprint of Cengage, offers the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography as a resource for libraries. It includes all of the original DSB, plus a great many updates.

Through a special arrangement with the American Council of Learned Societies, Charles Scribner’s Sons has arranged not only to provide the New Dictionary Of Scientific Biography in eBook format, but also to digitize the entire back-file of the original 18-volume Dartmouth Medal-winning Dictionary Of Scientific Biography. The resulting 26-volume eBook, the Complete Dictionary Of Scientific Biography, provides library patrons with the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of narrative scientific biographies of mathematicians and natural scientists from all countries and from all historical periods.

The old and new material is not integrated. Searching for Isaac Newton, for example, one finds two articles: the long article by I. B. Cohen from volume 10 of the original DSB and two supplementary articles by George E. Smith and William Newman which is from volume 23 of the CDSB. As far as I can tell, neither article links to the other, and the article by Smith is followed without comment by the one by Newman.

The updating process was not uniform (though one presumes it is ongoing for an electronic publication). I did some spot checking and saw updates for Euclid, Descartes and Euler, but not for Germain, Dedekind, Pascal or Gauss. There is a new entry for Weil, but not one for Mandelbrot. I saw entries for Mac Lane, Kodaira, Eilenberg, and others. Leo Corry has contributed an entry for Nicolas Bourbaki.

On Chrome, some of the pages are displayed incompletely, and to see them I need to ask the site to go full-screen. I haven’t tested with other browsers.

The resulting product is not ideal. I would much prefer having something like the Biographical Dictionary of Mathematicians on my shelves. But that is not an option for most of us, and the DSB is still the best starting place for biographical information. One of the projects I assign when I teach history of mathematics is biographical, and in that project I require students to consult the CDSB. It is important to remind them to check whether there is more than one article (original and update) and to specify exactly which resource I mean. (Alas, there are other resources with very similar titles.)

I would say that the spotty updating and the lack of integration between older and newer articles are the most significant problems with the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Nevertheless, this remains an essential resource for those interested in the lives of scientists.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME. He also writes, edits, and buys books.


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