Hist. of Sci. Prof. To Bid Farewell

Unnamed photo
M. AIDAN Kelly

Professor of the History of Science Everett Mendelsohn has been on the faculty since 1960. He is retiring at the end of this semester.

When he retires from his full-time teaching position at the end of this academic year, Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn will have spent nearly 50 years as a member of the Harvard faculty, making his mark as one of a group of scholars who studied the relationship between science and society. It took him a far shorter amount of time—the twenty or so years of life that led up to his study at Antioch College, where he joint concentrated in biology and history—for Mendelsohn to realize that scientific advances could not be studied apart from their historical context.

“I had this sense from the very beginning that science was too important to be left to the people in laboratories,” he said, summing up a philosophy that he would impart to generations of students and fellow scholars.

Mendelsohn’s retirement had been planned for more than a year.

According to Professor of the History of Science Anne Harrington ’82, Mendelsohn was “one of the founders of the social history of science.”

“[He] was one of the first generations of historians of science who insisted you have to pay attention not just to the history of science and the history of ideas but to the history of politics,” said Harrington, who also chairs the History of Science department.

In interviews, Mendelsohn’s students raved about his ability to connect scientific developments to their historical and social context, and they praised the way in which he got undergraduates to interact with course material.

“You’d come out of [class] having felt so engaged with whatever you were studying,” said Paul G. Hamm ’07, a History and Science concentrator who has taken two of Mendelsohn’s courses.

Matthew J. Stern ’08-’09, another concentrator, who took Mendelsohn’s junior seminar on the atomic bomb, stressed that while Mendelsohn could teach the “nuts and bolts” of scientific progress, he could also make his students “really understand what it was like to be a scientist” in whatever period he dealt with.

According to Stern, Mendelsohn taught about “things that he knew because he didn’t just read about them, but because he lived them.”

“He’d always tell stories about how funny Watson and Crick were, all the quirky little things they’d do in the lab” Hamm said.

Mendelsohn, who is in his 70s, will not fade into retirement. He will continue to teach a freshman seminar on the atomic bomb, and he is working on material about cloning as a social and political phenomenon, which may become a book. (His working title? “The Historian and the Clones.”) He will also continue a longtime fascination with the Middle East, embarking on a project this October to study the efficacy of non-governmental efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I made the decision [early in my career] to spend a few hours of every week of my life making the world a better place,” said Mendelsohn, who is a pacifist.

Oren S. Harman, an assistant professor in Israel who studied under Mendelsohn seven years ago, wrote in an e-mail that “Everett believed and believes in human beings. In their capacities for harmony and good deeds and in their genuine spirit for the making of a better world.”

Mendelsohn’s belief in the human capacity for harmony and learning doesn’t just apply to foreign conflicts: it begins with his own department.

“The sciences have a real responsibility to make sure that the enlightened citizenry can understand what science is about,” he said, emphasizing that Harvard’s science faculty should take care to speak to non-science people to “increas[e] their confidence that they can and should gain an understanding of what’s happening in the sciences.”

Harrington—who first came into contact with Mendelsohn as an undergraduate—called the list of Mendelsohn’s former students a “who’s who” in the field of history of science.

“He has mentored an enormous number of scholars in the field,” said Harrington, adding that as much as anything else, Mendelsohn’s ability to inspire generations of students will serve as his legacy long after he steps out of the classroom for the last time.

—Staff writer M. Aidan Kelly can be reached at makelly@fas.harvard.edu