AFTER an absence of eight years the American Association for the Advancement of Science returns to Washington for its annual meeting. In 1903 the presiding officer was the chemist, Ira Remsen, who still guides with consummate skill the fortunes of the Johns Hopkins University. At the present meeting a botanist, who for forty years has faithfully attended the gatherings of the Association, will preside over its proceedings. Charles Edwin Bessey was born in Milton Township, Wayne County, Ohio, on May 21st, 1845. His ancestry on his father's side is of French origin; for the Besses, as the name was formerly written, were Huguenots who fled from their native country to England and then about the middle of the eighteenth century Jacob Bessey came to America, settling near Doylestown, in Pennsylvania. In 1832 his grandson Adnah moved with his parents to Wayne County, Ohio, where later he married Margaret Ellenberger, of German descent, and there the son was born. Young Bessey received his earliest education in the public schools of Ohio, and after preparing for college in the academies in Seville and Canaan he entered the Michigan State Agricultural College in Lansing where he was graduated in 1869 with the degree of Bachelor of Science, and where three years later he received a Master's degree. His intention on entering college was to become an engineer but he was advised to specialize in botany, which advice he reluctantly accepted. After much reflection, on so informing the president, he was told: “Well, Bessey, I am glad of it, but you'll never be rich,” and then a moment later, “Yes, I am glad of it, but you'll never be rich.” After graduation he was able to study his chosen specialty at Harvard, where he was fortunate in coming under the influence of Asa Gray from whom he acquired the foundations of the knowledge of systematic botany, especially in its philosophical aspect. Preferment in those days was naturally in the direction of teaching and in 1870 he was called to the chair of botany in the University of Iowa where he continued for fifteen years, serving also as acting president during the year 1882. He accepted a call to a similar charge in the University of Nebraska in 1884, where he has since remained, being also head of the department. During 1885-1891 he was acting chancellor of the university, and again held this high office during 1899-1900 and during 1907-1908. He was dean of the Industrial College of the University of Nebraska during 1884-1888 and again since 1895; also during 1888-1891 he was dean of the College of Literature, Science and Arts of that university. While botany has been his favorite study it has not been his only interest ; for as he says: “In Iowa I began at once to write for the agricultural papers, telling people how to plant and what to plant; telling them about weeds and grasses; telling them also about insects and their bad habits; for entomology was one of my studies at that time.” He joined the Iowa State Horticultural Society and read a paper on harmful insects, and took part in the first Farmers' Institutes held in Iowa during the winter of 1870-1871. On moving to Nebraska he was equally interested and at once began to collect information on the grasses of the State, reading a paper on the subject before the Farmers' Alliance; also presenting papers before such organizations as the Fine Stockbreeders' Association, Dairy Men's Association, Beekeepers' Association, State Agricultural Association, and the State Teachers' Association. His literary activity has been very great; for besides many contributions to technical journals and papers read before scientific organizations he was for years botanical editor of the- American Naturalist and has held a similar relation to Science. He was the editor of the botanical contributions, most of which he wrote himself, that appeared in the later editions of the New Universal Cyclopedia. Also he edited McNab's “Morphology, Physiology, and Classification of Plants” (1881). His principal works in book form are: Geography of Iowa (1876) ; Botany for High Schools and Colleges (1880) ; The Essentials of Botany (1884) ; Elementary Botanical Exercises (1892) ; Elementary Botany (1904) ; Plant Migration Studies (1905) ; and Synopsis of Plant Phyla (1907). In honors, he has received elections to the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi societies, organizations in which membership is restricted to those who have done something. The degree of Ph.D. was conferred on him by the University of Iowa in 1878 and that of LL.D. from Iowa College in 1898. It may also be mentioned that he is a trustee of Doane College and he is a member of the Schoolmasters' Club. Prof. Bessey is a member of many scientific and educational societies, as shown by the following list of organizations, in all of which he has been a prominent officer. lie is a life member of the Botanical Society of America and was its president in 1896-1897 ; also he is a member cf the National Educational Association, serving it as vice-president in 1896; and he is a member of the American Microscopical Society, of which he was president in 1902. His connection with the American Association for the Advancement of Science began PROF. CHARLES .I!;. BESSEY President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. with his election to membership at the Dubuque meeting in 1872. He was advanced to the grade of fellow in 1880, and has served the Section of Botany as chairman with the rank of vice-president, at the meetings held in 1890, 1902, and 1908. His long and valued connection with this foremost scientific organization in the United States gained for him the well deserved recognition of an election to its presidency at the meeting held in Minneapolis last December. Opinions and Beliefs in Science AS scientific experiments cannot be reproduced, authority necessarily remains our principal guide. In a remarkable book which bears the title “Opinions and Beliefs,” the well-known French scientist Gustav Le Bon shows how large a part mere hearsay plays in scientific investigation. A scientist never publishes results which he does not suppose to be exact, but the influence of suggestion is so strong that even regarding very precise facts, an intelligent person may come under an illusion and take the visions of his imagination for realities. One of the most striking of this kind is the mischance to which nearly all of the members of the Academy of Sciences were victims about forty years ago. On the faith of an eminent mathematician, the assembly inserted in its proceedings about a hundred letters supposed to be written by Newton, Pascal, Galileo, and others. These had been made entirely by a forger of little education and were full of vulgarities and errors but the names of their celebrated authors and of the scientist who presented them caused them to be accepted. Most of the members had no doubts about their authenticity up to the. day when the forger avowed his fraud. When the prestige had vanished, the style of the letters was pronounced wretched the same persons who before had praised them The recent adventure of the N-rays is even more typical, and brings out not only the role of prestige, but also of suggestion and mental contagion. Here we have to do not merely with experiments which are taken as faith by those who have no opportunity to verify them, but also with observations declared to be exact by a very large body of scientists who claimed to have repeated them. M. Blondlot, a leading professor of physics, observed, as he thought, that many bodies gave out special rays, which he called N-rays. These were detected mainly by their action on phosphorescence. Their wave-length could be measured very closely. What is most singular is that most of the French scientists working in this field repeated his experiments and saw exactly what was suggested to them to see. For two years the Academy proceedings were full of reports from scientists such as J. Becquerel, Broca, and Bichat on the wonderful properties of the rays, and Prof. D'Arson-val, among others, delivered lectures upon them. The French Academy wished to recompense such an important discovery, and delegated a committee headed by M. Mascart to make an official examination of the author's researches. The committee were much impressed, and thus a prize of $10,000 was awarded to the author. During this time, however, foreign scientists who did not come under the prestige of the French savants, tried in vain to repeat the experiments. Then several of them decided to go to the author's laboratory to observe them. They soon found that he was the victim of a most complete illusion, for he would continue to make measurements of the supposed deflections of the rays, even when the “deflecting” was surreptitiously removed. The matter was carefully examined by a number of scientists, with the result that the specter of the N-rays was laid, once for all. A few years ago an assistant in Prof. Lipp-mann's laboratory at Paris claimed to have discovered that an electrified body in movement did not deflect the magnetic needle (contrary to Rowland's experiment), a result which would have been of the highest importance for the theory of electricity. The author was not well known, but as the work was done in the presence of Prof. Lippmann, he had the benefit of his authority, and the question was discussed by physicists until a foreign scientist proved that the conclusions were erroneous and showed the reason why. In the case of the exact sciences the truth comes out sooner or later, as we have to do with real measurements and close observation. It is not the same, however, for sciences which are in a less developed stage, such as medicine; here it is very difficult to verify results, for we do not know what effects are to be attributed to suggestion or to the remedy itself, so that the errors persist for a much longer time. To enumerate them would be to go over all the history of medicine and show that theories, remedies and reasoning change every quarter of a century. About fifty years ago, the treatment of pneumonia by blood-letting was considered in France as one of the fine conquests of medical. art, and its value appeared to be proved by statistics, which showed a mortality reduced to 30 per cent. Thus the remedy held its place until a doctor who visited a homoeopath', hospital at London found that the mortality there did not exceed 5 per cent. This was a revelation. Instead of using diluted remedies, none at all were used, and soon the mortality in France fell to the same figure. To-day, instead of weakening the patient by blood-letting, he is strengthened by alcohol stimulants. This is a good example of the change in expert opinion. There is no need to multiply the examples, and it seems evident that the greater part of our scientific opinions should not be termed knowledge, but rather belief.
Charles Edwin Bessey
The New President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
This article was originally published with the title "Charles Edwin Bessey" in Scientific American 105, 27, 594 (December 1911)