Elizabeth Anne Wolfe Garber (1939 – 2020)
Elizabeth Garber, Professor of History emerita at Stony Brook University, died at
home from the complications of Alzheimer’s Disease on 1 July 2020.
Liz grew up in London and graduated from Bedford College, University of
London, with a degree in physics. She came to the US to continue her studies at the
Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University), moving to
the History of Science program from which she completed a PhD in 1966. While
studying and living in Cleveland she met and married Don Garber, who was
working on a PhD in physics. Their wedding took place just before she began to
write her dissertation and Don’s wedding present to her was a 3-month typewriter
rental. So, as she said, she just had to get it done on time. The idea that you
meet—or exceed—such expectations was typical of Liz’s approach to work.
In the late 1960s Don joined the Brookhaven National Laboratory and they moved
to Long Island, New York. Liz began teaching at SUNY-Stony Brook (now Stony
Brook University) first as an adjunct and later as a full faculty member. Her
interest in the history of the physical sciences was considered a surprise benefit for
Stony Brook’s strong programs in the sciences and engineering. When she came up
for tenure one of the referees noted that she knew “a lot about physics for an
historian.” Another early and unusual-seeming research field was the history of
meteorology; tenure referees were impressed by this and remarked on her work as
a font of information. Liz’s later interests in the history of mathematics and
mathematical physics led her to expand her research beyond history of physics and
thermodynamics into social and intellectual history of early modern Europe.
As a member of the Stony Brook faculty Liz taught an undergraduate survey of the
history of science and technology and more advanced undergraduate courses on the
history of the physical sciences and the social history of science. She served as
director of graduate studies and was the principal advisor to several Ph.Ds.
Liz was known to be a demanding teacher but one about whom few students
complained – her obvious commitment to the material she presented gave a sense
that “if she can do it, . . . I guess I can as well.” She would often announce to her
graduate classes that she would leave discussion to them . . . and then talk for the
full three hours of class time without notes and few pauses. You learned quickly
that there were no cigarette breaks in Liz’s classes.
Despite the role she cultivated as the crabby and frank semi-outsider on many
issues Liz was always a helpful and supportive colleague, especially to younger
faculty hired during her long watch. Liz was respected by her graduate students
and history of science colleagues as a no-nonsense and insightful editor. She had
famously stubborn attitudes toward technology—refusing for example to
memorize her social security number and writing early drafts longhand (the better
to cut and paste) but submitting what was essentially a typeset manuscript to her
publisher using an early version of LaTeX. The un-ergonomic characteristics of the
stairs to the History Department were another regular complaint.
Liz was as serious about her hobbies as she was about her work. She sewed and
knit many of her own clothes, the more complicated the better. As might be
expected she was drawn to projects that required mathematics to work out
patterning. She and Don were serious gardeners and their house in East Setauket
was always undergoing improvements. After Don retired from Brookhaven, he and
Liz became more active in such community projects such as greening the Stony
Brook campus and finding new uses for ageing strip malls. They were a fixture at
the classical music performances at the Stony Brook’s Staller Center for the Arts
and much of their social and community life was with non-academic friends. Trips
into New York for lectures, concerts, museum visits or meals—especially
meals—were regular before Liz’s retirement and became more so after that. Don’s
final illness coincided with her decline, but she was able to remain in the house
they loved until her own death in early July.
[This material was assembled by Sarah Lowengard and Joel Rosenthal: July 2020)