"In 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, became the focal point of a campaign to test a controversial law, the Butler Act, which banned the teaching of evolution theory in Tennessee's public schools. The case - - - known as the "monkey trial" because of the idea that humans are descended from the great apes -- pitted Protestant fundamentalism against the encroachment of scientific method in one of the most publicized cases of the era. Played out in an emotionally charged courtroom, the case enthralled a worldwide public in a drama that continues today.
The facts of the trial, and the rationale behind arguments on both sides, have been examined and analyzed by generations of scholars. But what role did the nation's first science-news syndicate, Science Service, play in the Scopes trial and in the promotion of science ?
In a new Smithsonian exhibition, "Science in American Life," scheduled to open in April 1994, Science Service is presented as anything but a neutral observer at the Scopes trial. New research by William Bird, a curator at the National Museum of American History, points to considerable involvement by this news agency in the infamous trial and in the public debate over scientific
"Science in American Life," which is being made possible through a grant from the American Chemical Society, will examine major episodes involving science and the American public and the implications of living in a modern science-based society.
"We began with interests in the history of the Scopes trial and the promotion of science represented by Science Service," Bird says of his research for the Smithsonian exhibition. "After looking at things more closely, we realized the two could he tied together more concretely by looking at how Science Service orchestrated Scope's defense strategy and how its correspondents covered the Scopes trial."
Founded in 1921 by newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps and chemist Edwin E. Slosson, Science Service published newsletters, articles and photographs on scientific topics. Its primary aim was "to promote science as the basis for social and economic progress," Bird says. By 1935, the news service had expanded to include 11 different daily and weekly publications, including Science News magazine, still in publication.
Over the years, the news service dispatched thousands of photographs of scientists and their work, Bird says. Science Service's materials successfully presented the humanistic side of science in an effort to establish scientists as "seekers of truth," a view that gained popularity in American society after World War I.
Given its basic mission, Science Service became involved in the defense of Scopes from the very beginning and played a vital role in providing scientists as witnesses, financial aid and a flurry of news bulletins on the progress of the case.
"The Science Service was more heavily involved in the Scopes trial than was previously known," says Bird, a curator in the museum's Division of Political History. His conclusions are based on a collection of original documents housed in the Smithsonian Archives.
In his research, Bird reviewed correspondence between Science Service representatives and one George Rappelyea, a Tennessee mining engineer who initiated the challenge to the Butler Act. Shortly after declaring his intention to test the law, Rappelyea set himself up with the science news agency as its local contact.
The records also show that Science Service was solely responsible for recruiting scientists to testily as expert witnesses in Scope's defense. Still other documents show that Science Service underwrote portions of the cost of Scope's defense by noted attorney Clarence Darrow against the equally famous William Jennings Bryan.
Science Service acted as a conduit for pro-science publicity generated on behalf of Scopes by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In a news bulletin issued May 18, 1925, the "scientists of America, 14,300 strong" were rallied to Scopes' defense in a statement by Professor Michael I. Pupin, then - - - president of the science association. "The American Civil Liberties Union can count upon the Association providing scientific expert advisers in defense of Professor Scopes. This case will be a test case, which was bound to come sooner or later, and its trial will define the law, if there be any in a lawless procedure like this arrest," Professor Pupin is quoted as saying in the news bulletin.
Telegrams paid for by Science Service were wired to distinguished scientists asking for their expert testimony in support of Scopes. Each telegram was issued in the name of Clarence Darrow. As a result of this request, approximately 16 scientists-most of them biologists--- offered testimony in support of evolution theory.
Despite the efforts of some of the best experts in the field, however, the court found the 24-year-old teacher guilty of violating Tennessee's statute and he was fined $100, the minimum required by law.
"The support provided Scopes through Science Service can be considered appropriate because Scopes more than earned the support he received," Bird says. "He agree to be the accused in what became a how trial. It was in the best interest of the news agency itself to organize a successful dense. They needed Scope's test of what he regarded to be a "fool law" in order to how the public that the prohibition against the teaching of evolution theory should be abolished.
"There's no doubt the Science Service as an advocate of American scientists and ic scientific approach to solutions," Bird adds." “They satisfied a need while promoting the idea that the public understand and appreciate the leadership of scientists. One could also argue that, without Science Service, Scopes would not have had an informed a defense."scanned in - 5 / 26f / 95 -- modified: 12 / 26t / 95