The Charles Babbage Institute is a valuable resource for HSTM students studying the history of computing. Among its collections are the archives of Burroughs Corporation, once the nation’s largest manufacturer of adding machines. This 1954 image captures a quality-control test of 10-key calculators attached to a new commercial inspection machine.
Photo credit
University of Minnesota Libraries

Historians of Science and Technology

CSE program encourages students to be thoughtful and develop a longer-term perspective

Isaac Asimov once said, “There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling with insight, that does not arise out of what went before.”

The Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (HSTM) at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus was established on this very premise—that history matters.

“Our faculty and grad students are compelled to investigate and understand the ways in which scientific ideas are influenced by, and are influencing political, economic, and ideological contexts,” said director Mark Borrello.

“In the undergraduate courses we teach,” Borrello said, “we hope to contribute a longer view and awareness of social context and implications to the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

HSTM was formed in 2007 as a result of two established initiatives coming together.

Two programs become one

The Program in the History of Medicine started in 1967 when Leonard Wilson joined the faculty of the Medical School as the first professor of the history of medicine. The Program in History of Science and Technology launched five years later when Roger Stuewer, a historian of modern physics, was hired by the college to coordinate this new effort. He was later appointed the founding director and held the position for 15 years (1974–89).

The merger’s success is evident in the fact that HSTM continues to rank among the nation’s best.

Students can pursue an M.A. or Ph.D. in two tracks: History of Science and Technology (HST) and History of Medicine.

Within the curriculum, all students are required to take two core courses during their first year of study: Historiography of Science, Technology, and Medicine (a faculty team-taught class that familiarizes students with the various approaches to the field) and Research Methods in History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (a seminar in which students present their final project to peers and faculty).

“This program is top notch and that was certainly something that drew my attention,” said Patrick Graham, a second-year grad student who moved from Portland, Oregon, for the HST track.

“As a historian of computing,” he explained, “I value the Charles Babbage Institute and its director Jeffrey Yost and archivist Amanda Wick. They are truly incredible resources, and CBI is one of the most vibrant places in the country for the history of computing.”

Borrello’s team at HSTM oversees the institute’s research and fellows program, and University Libraries maintains its vast underground collection of rare publications, oral histories, and more than 100,000 photographs.

The Minnesota Model

In addition to a top notch curriculum, HSTM stands out for its faculty structure.

Each person is a trained historian—and it has been that way since its first two professors: Stuewer, also the former director, and Alan Shapiro, a historian of the physical sciences with a special focus on Isaac Newton. All hold doctorates in the history of science or medicine. Some have extensive backgrounds as scientists. One, Distinguished McKnight University Professor Susan Jones, also earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. 

“Our program is unique, certainly in the Big Ten, and maybe in all public universities,” explained Borrello.

“Some engineering schools have historians in their midst, but here we have the Minnesota Model,” he said. “Each of us has tenure in the department of our expertise.”

The faculty are part of departments in the College of Science and Engineering, and beyond—including the College of Biological Sciences (Borrello is an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior) and School of Medicine.

For Leah Malamut, this diversity of expertise and experiences is definitely a draw.

Malamut, like Graham, packed up her bags for Minnesota two years ago. The HST track allows the Philadelphia native, who double majored in psychology and biological sciences as an undergrad, to focus on the history of biomedical research and animal models.

“The strength of our faculty helps graduate students,” she said.

“Sally Kohlstedt taught our first-year research methods class last year, and she imparted really valuable advice—not just about our specific projects, but also about becoming historians,” Malamut explained, “I found this especially helpful, as many professional conventions of history were new to me. Like many folks in HSTM, I studied science as an undergraduate.”

Almost half a century has passed since the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine was first established, but its importance remains relevant.

“There are always lessons to be learned from history,” Borrello said.

“The global problems we are confronted with—like hunger, population, and controlling a disease—aren’t just scientific or technological problems. They’re not problems we can just innovate toward an answer. A historical perspective can give us an awareness that’s deeper and richer, and potentially lead us to better or more sustainable solutions.”

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Story by Pauline Oo