Murdoch, History of Science Professor, Dies at 83

John E. Murdoch, a professor of the history of science and an expert in the field of medieval medicine, died of unknown causes Thursday. He was 83.

Since joining the Harvard faculty in 1963, Murdoch has come to be recognized as one of the preeminent figures in the field of scientific history, although his specialty was ancient Greek and Medieval Latin scientific philosophy. Just last year, the History of Science Society awarded him the George Sarton Medal, considered to be one of the field’s most prestigious honors.

Mark J. Schiefsky, a Classics professor who knew Murdoch as a colleague but also as a thesis advisor, said that he saw Murdoch for the last time earlier last week at a departmental meeting, during which Murdoch had been deciding what to do with the collection of former Harvard professor George Sarton’s papers and books.

Schiefsky said that during one of his first visits to the history of science department, he decided to take a peek at the graduate seminar bibliographies on display and had been amazed at the “range of sources” Murdoch had collected.

As a student interested in ancient Greek medicine, Schiefsky said that he “knew immediately that this was the person to be working with.”

After earning his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Murdoch taught at Harvard from 1957 until 1960, when he left for a three-year stint at Princeton University. When he returned to Harvard, he became the chair of the History of Science department, a position he held twice in his career.

“He is a welcoming, modest, nice person,” Schiefsky said. “When he starts to actually talk about stuff, you realize that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge there.”

Schiefsky, who became a full professor in 2007, said he learned many valuable lessons about teaching after teaming up with Murdoch and Barry C. Mazur to offer a seminar on Archimedes, a course Murdoch taught every other year since 1963.

“I learned how one should really try to let students come up with a lot in these seminars rather than trying to give them too much,” Schiefsky said. “[Murdoch] had a very good way of eliciting responses from the class rather than bombarding the class with his own knowledge.”

For Schiefsky and members of the history of science department, Murdoch’s death was a shock.

“It was quite a sudden thing,” Schiefsky said. “He loved his life, being active in the University, teaching, researching, being a good citizen. He never wanted to retire. In the end, he didn’t.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be