John Howard, Pioneering Social Scientist

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In England in the 1770s, John Howard pioneered the creation of public knowledge about prison conditions. Access to prisons and jails in eighteenth-century England was relatively free. Howard’s innovation was to use that access not for personal communication but for creating public knowledge. That public knowledge consisted of Howard’s factual, written observations about prison conditions in a large number of prisons.

Howard began personally visiting prisons and jails in November, 1773. Echoing the Royal Society’s motto of ‘nullius in verba’ (follow no authority’s command), Jeremy Bentham described Howard’s prison visits:

He is set down at the door of a prison, makes enquiries under a certain number of heads which exhaust the subject, does his business and drives off again to another. His thoughts, his conversation, his writing are confined to this one object. …He is accurate to an extreme: takes nothing from report: and asserts nothing but what has come under the cognizance of his senses.^

Howard recorded names of prison administrators, their salaries or forms of income, the number and types of prisoners, fees imposed on prisoners, prison rules, sanitary conditions, access to alcoholic drinks, cell dimensions, conditions of darkness, dampness, and cold, religious teaching, and other prison facts. Despite the objective, descriptive, conceptually fragmented nature of his prison examinations, Howard, who preceded the development of social science, used the language of a criminal-court proceeding to describe his work:

The difficulty I found in searching out evidence of fraud and cruelty in various articles, together with other sources of distress, obliged me to repeat my visits, and travel over the kingdom more than once; after all, I suspect that many frauds have been concealed from me; and that sometimes the interest of my informants prevailed over their veracity.^

Howard pursued his work with the steadfast diligence of a government bureaucrat. He developed considerable expertise in prisons and prison administration. Howard’s technical expertise, as well as his theatrical skills, helped him to recognize and acquire true information:

Honest Gaolers receive him with open arms: dishonest (ones) tremble at his approach. He renders both sorts alike pliant to his purpose: the one by their hope, the other by their fear. … Practise has made him familiar with all their arts and all their ways: when he has addressed himself to any of them for the first time he has commonly been taken for a brother of the profession. He has at length acquired such a command over them, that in his last tour (for he has gone over England more than once) he has never been denied satisfaction in any single article.^

Howard did not visit prisons with an authoritative commission or for a particular, official purpose. The form of his knowledge-seeking was, however, authoritative and official in a new way. Prisons were his subject.

Country boundaries mattered little to Howard’s method. Just as he visited prisons in Britain, Howard also visited prisons in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Howard by stealth broke into a prison in Lyon, France:

All access to this prison is strictly forbidden to strangers, the transgression of the order is punished with confinement in the gallies for life. … By dint of enquiries, {Howard} instructed himself in the several turnings and windings which led to the prison; and taking advantage from his personal appearance, which was well-calculated to assist the honest deception, dressed himself at all points like a Frenchman; and, with his hat under his arm, passed hastily by twenty-four officers, and penetrated into the very apartment where the English gentleman was confined, without impediment or suspicion.^

Like a scientist seeking to penetrate the mysteries of nature, Howard sought the truth about prison conditions. Country boundaries do not delimit truth. Howard embraced the ideal of universal knowledge in his practice of visiting prisons.

Howard was extraordinarily dedicated to his pioneering subject of study. Scholarship in Howard’s time mainly consisted of studying written texts and writing additional texts. Jeremy Bentham wistfully noted that Howard had done much more than verbal work:

My venerable friend was much better employed than in arranging words and sentences. Instead of doing what so many could do if they would, what he did for the service of mankind, was what scarce any man could have done, and no man would do, but himself. In the scale of moral deserts the labours of the legislator and the writer are as far below his as earth is below heaven.^

Howard did not directly serve prisoners. He wrote verbal records of his observations of prison conditions. To make these observations, Howard personally traveled perhaps 60,000 miles, spent ₤30,000 of his own money, endured horrible conditions, and subjected himself to great health risks. Howard died in 1790 while traveling in Russia to inspect hospitals. He was acclaimed world-wide as a philanthropist, social reformer, and friend of prisoners. He would be more accurately described as a theatrical proto-social scientist who helped to create a new book of public knowledge.

Howard’s Creation of Public Knowledge in 18th-Century England

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John Howard’s early work on extreme temperatures illustrates that his relations with influential persons and authoritative institutions were central to his success in creating public knowledge. Howard, a non-conformist, studied at the Congregational Fund Academy at Moorfields for a year or two about 1740. The universities at Oxford and Cambridge at that time did not admit students who were not members of the Church of England. The Fund Academy at Moorfields was established to provide for non-conformists the equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge . The Fund Academy’s director during Howard’s time there was John Eames, a close friend of Isaac Newton and widely recognized for his erudition. Howard apparently had little academic success, but at the Academy he established life-long friendships with John Densham, a tutor; with Richard Price, a classmate; and with others among the academy’s intellectually influential circles.

Howard’s election to the Royal Society in 1756 seems to have come not from any scholarly merit, but from the influence of his friends. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was the premier learned society in Britain. Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on May 13, 1756 at age twenty-nine. This was a relatively young age to become a Fellow. Howard’s nomination paper stated:

John Howard, Esqre, of Old Broad Street, London, having for some years pursued mathematical studies, and being desirous of the honour of being admitted into the Royal Society, we on our personal knowledge of him recommend him as a true lover of natural philosophy.
John Canton
John Ellicott^

A leading nineteenth-century scientific authority stated in 1873 in a celebratory history of Howard and his work:

In the year 1756 just twenty names were added to the list of {Royal Society} members. Of these nine were foreign, and eleven English. Three out of the eleven (Benjamin Franklin being one of them) had the signatures of George, Earl of Macclesfield (then the president of the Society), and of his son and successor to the title, Thomas, Lord Parker, at the head of their nomination papers. The papers themselves are not printed forms, but written documents setting forth distinctly and with discrimination the respective claims of the nominees; and in no instance are these claims other than real and respectable. And, lastly, it is well worthy of remark that no event, as far as I can ascertain, had yet occurred in the eventful life of Howard to give him such public prestige as might take the place of scientific merit;^

This authority then quite implausibly argued that Howard “had done something or other” in mathematics or natural philosophy to merit his election to the Royal Society. No evidence exists that Howard had aptitude for mathematics or that his years pursing mathematical studies produced any accomplishments. One of Howard’s friends remarked about 1794:

This honor {membership in the Royal Society} was not, I presume, conferred upon him in consequence of any extraordinary proficiency in science which he had manifested; but rather in conformity to the laudable practice of that society, of attaching gentlemen of fortune and leisure to the interests of knowledge, by incorporating them into their body.^

Many gentlemen “of fortune and leisure” did not become members of the Royal Society. Desiring the honor and having influential friends undoubtedly also mattered greatly. Most probably, Howard was elected to the Royal Society in 1756 because he desired that honor and his influential friends favored him with it.

Being a member of the Royal Society provided Howard with an important resource for making knowledge. Well before his work on prison conditions, Howard published three articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Howard’s first article was based on temperature measurements he made at his home. The article consisted of two sentences read to the Royal Society and published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1764. The first sentence provided the substance of the work:

I would beg leave to acquaint you of a degree of cold that I observed at Cardington {Howard’s residence}, in Bedfordshire, the 22d of November last: just before Sun rise Farenheit’s scale by one of Bird’s thermometers being so low as 10 and ½.^

Howard’s second article presented twenty-eight temperature readings he made in the baths and springs at Bath, England in 1765.^ Howard’s third publication provided temperature measurements in even more daring circumstances.^ While in Italy in 1770, Howard measured the heat of the ground at various points on Mount Vesuvius, a volcano. Howard explained in a letter to a close friend:

as I ascended I found it 114º, 134, 149, 167, 185, at the top 220. After I had got the better of the smoak {smoke} by standing in it a quarter of an hour, I descended into the Mouth when I again took it 2 or 3 times, where it rais’d my Thermor {thermometer} to 240º and fired some paper I put into some holes. I would fain have went lower but my guides said they durst not. As I have not heard of any person going down even the little part I did since the great eruption of Oct. 6, nor of any person taking the heat, I thought it would afford you a little entertainment.^

In all three publications, which spanned seven years, Howard presented the same type of observations. These observations were made with the same instrument, required no particular skill for measurement, and had little relevance to any general theoretical or empirical project. Howard’s thermometer work documented extremes and took science to places others dared not go. Howard’s thermometer work is knowledge because of its publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Howard’s thermometer work shows a pattern of knowledge creation similar to Howard’s work on prison conditions. In both cases, Howard recorded information in extreme circumstances not attractive for comfortable, leisurely pursuit of knowledge. Another person who dared venture into those circumstances could have easily recorded the same information that Howard recorded. Unlike other such persons, Howard’s social position allowed him to create relatively widely accessible, authoritative information — public knowledge.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about Gaol Fever

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Sheriffs and magistrates in eighteenth-century England had authority to gather information about prison conditions, but little interest in doing so. Sheriffs and commissioners of the peace were typically gentlemen from the local elite appointed as a matter of patronage. Visiting jails as a duty of office did not offer an occasion for status-displaying public ceremony. “Gaol fever,” now called typhus, linked jails to contagion and death. Sheriffs’ interests generally did not favor their visiting prisons:

some sheriffs excuse themselves from attention to this part of their duty, on account of short duration, expense, and trouble of their office: and these gentlemen, as well as gentlemen in the commission of the peace, have no doubt been fearful of the consequences of looking into prisons. … {Some jailers} have said, “Those gentlemen think that if they came into my gaol, they should soon be in their graves.”^

Jailers who wanted to avoid supervision and interference in their administration of jails had an incentive to exaggerate the risks of visiting jails. Fear of jail fever did not stop wives and children from living with their husbands and fathers in jail. But in public officials’ weighing of interests, such fears had greater effect.