In Memoriam: Alison Winter

Alison Winter19 November 1965 — 22 June 2016

(Written by Robert J. Richards, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Chicago)

Alison Winter, professor of history at the University of Chicago, died on June 22, 2016. Alison was my student, my colleague, and my friend. I first met her when she was an undergraduate at the University. She came to my office to inquire about joining the new undergraduate major that had recently been inaugurated in History, Philosophy, and Social Study of Science and Medicine. She said that her father, a mathematics professor at University of Michigan, wanted her to major in science. She wanted to major in English literature. She thought he would accept history of science as a compromise. That compromise would become a passion.

In class, Alison was a delight, though, I have to admit, a particular kind of delight. I remember her distinctly in one of my classes, a course on the history of psychology, focusing on William James. The writing requirement consisted of four short papers. On each of the first two, Alison received an A and her friend, a psychology major, received a B. As she later told me, he asked her how she did it. She said something like, you have to focus your writing. She then bet him that she could analyze one page of James’s Principle of Psychology and get an A. The papers were returned, and she got an A and he another B. She dared to tell me that story only after she had graduated. Then she retold it on several later occasions with great glee.

After graduation, Alison was determined to undertake further study in England; I suppose the pull of English literature was still quite strong. She moved there and took a job as a barmaid while writing fellowship applications. She was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship, among several others, to attend Cambridge University in history of science.

The kind of approach to history of science that prevailed in the Cambridge department was not my cup of tea, a bit too sweet, I thought, with social constructivist approaches. Alison knew my feelings, and arranged for me to give a talk to the Cambridge group, who apparently had been forewarned. The questions after my talk were politely hostile, but the real debate came in the King’s College Pub after the lecture. During the interchange with faculty and students, Alison kept replenishing my beer. She would be objecting to something I said, and simultaneously filling my glass. I fear that toward the end, my arguments lacked a certain sharpness.

Alison got a plum of a first job at Cal Tech the year after she finished her Ph.D., and she received tenure there four very short years later with her first book, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago, 1998). When we had a job opening, we tried to recruit Alison and Adrian, and the Dean recognized that we could get two rising stars, and with some effort we were able to persuade both of them to join us, which they did in 2001. The next year, Alison won a Guggenheim Fellowship as a mark both of her scholarship and the promise of her proposal. The promise was realized in her second book, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (Chicago, 2012), which won the University of Chicago Press’s Laing Prize.

Alison and I began teaching together on a regular basis in the mid-2000s. It was a seminar for majors in our undergraduate program, a course called “My Favorite Readings in the History and Philosophy of Science.” Well, half were my favorites and the other half Alison’s—our lists did not overlap. We continued our wrangling in that class, with Alison goading me, and I usually taking the bait. You could never get angry at Alison, since she always smiled sweetly as she pushed in the blade a bit further. I think we supplied ample amusement for our students. Alison had many devoted students, both graduate and undergraduate, students who never doubted her concern for their welfare, which is why she would protect them against my epistemological onslaughts.

Alison was diagnosed with a glioblastoma just before Christmas 2015. We were scheduled in the winter term to teach together again. She insisted upon taking part, which she did from her hospital bed by Skype, for at least half the course, till it got to be too much.

Alison’s effort to continue teaching in the face of a devastating illness reveals a remarkable individual, a woman of courage and tenacity and love of her students and of our common pursuit. In the depths of her illness, her spirits, at least when friends were around, were remarkably high. She kept notes on her illness, and with the help of a former undergraduate student in our program, she hoped to write an article about her ordeal, ever the scholar.

During her stays at home, in the hospital, and in the hospice, Alison received family members and colleagues from the university and the many friends from throughout the U.S. and abroad—a testament to the person she was. She leaves parents, stepparents, a brother, her devoted husband, Adrian, and four extraordinary children: David, Lizzie, Zoe, and Ben. If you should come to know the children, you would see Alison’s talents and her spirit yet alive.