In Memoriam: Ronald Rainger

Ronald Rainger28 June 1949 — 25 May 2016

Ron Rainger passed away on 25 May 2016 in Lubbock, Texas after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was sixty-six years old and left behind his marital partner of thirty-three years, the former Judy Greaves of Portales, New Mexico. They enjoyed a close and devoted relationship that always included an assortment of loving and attentive dogs.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Ron developed a life-long passion for western landscapes and for the game of tennis. He graduated from Willamette University (Salem, Oregon), where he excelled in academics and in athletics, having served as a stalwart member of the university’s tennis team. He entered graduate school at Indiana University in 1971, receiving his PhD from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in 1982 under the supervision of Frederick Churchill. Prior to his long and distinguished career at Texas Tech University (1983-2007), Ron taught at Santa Fe Preparatory School and the University of Arizona. Toward the end of his career, he also served as a Program Officer at the National Science Foundation from 2004-06.

Ron’s scholarly career was initially directed toward fin de siècle American science (geology and paleontology), an area to which he contributed importantly with An Agenda for Antiquity (1991), a careful study of the scientific work of Henry Fairfield Osborn. While working on the book, which demonstrated the centrality of geology to American biologists’ studies of evolutionary arguments, Ron collaborated with his close friends and colleagues Jane Maienschein and Keith Benson to produce the books The American Development of Biology (1988) and The Expansion of American Biology (1991).

In the mid-1990s, Ron’s interest shifted toward the history of oceanography. He was one of the small group of scholars central to the creation of this new specialty area, serving as an early participant in the important Maury Conferences and as one of the early incumbents of the Ritter Memorial Fellowship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). Ron studied the organization of professional oceanography and the social and political context of the science in addition to the conceptual and technical development of physical oceanography. Ron brought all these interests to bear on the career of Roger Revelle, the prolific researcher and administrator who fostered mutual dependence between oceanographers and the U.S. Navy during and after World War II, directed the SIO, had a hand in the founding of UCSD, and documented the role of the greenhouse effect in climate change. Ron was working on a Revelle biography when he first developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and, regrettably, the full work was never finished (though Ron did publish a series of important articles on midcentury oceanography). Perhaps as a way to deal with his limitations, he then narrowed his historical interest to the history of the teaching of evolution in Texas after his retirement from Texas Tech. And while he had conducted several archival investigations and interviews on the subject, the project also remained unfinished.

In addition to his central role in the development of the history of American biology and the history of oceanography, Ron’s career was characterized by his steadfast commitment to the craft of historical research. Preferring to detail carefully the actual work of his subjects, he embedded his work deeply within its historical setting. At a time when the history of American biology was dominated by scholars investigating the history of genetics and related areas, especially as these areas embraced experimental methods and looked forward to biology’s ascendance in the twentieth century, Ron chose to examine the field’s descriptive orientation from its natural history roots, investigations that have often been treated in pejorative terms by historians. Ron, however, insisted that careful attention to the practice of biology in the 1920s and 1930s revealed the continued centrality of descriptive approaches, especially their productive contributions to evolutionary studies. Similarly, his interest in Roger Revelle was conducted during a time in which many historians of science turned away from “great man” history. While Ron appreciated the diversity of approaches that have come to characterize our field, he remained keen to understand how some individuals could operate as central figures in a field of scientific research. Sometimes this was through scholarly work and sometimes this was due to the individual’s administrative skills; in Revelle, Ron found a scientist who contributed in both arenas.

Ron also leaves behind a rich legacy of service to the field, to younger scholars, and to his students. As NSF Program Chair he relished the opportunity to play a role in supporting others’ research, and he was known to be generous far beyond his formal role by lending assistance and hospitality to those visiting D.C.-area archives and giving extraordinary, selfless help to dissertation-writers whose projects overlapped with his own interests. At conferences and colloquia, at workshops such as the Dibner Institute seminars at Woods Hole, and in venues like the HSS’s own Earth and Environment Forum, Ron’s wit, wisdom, and humility proved magnetic and made him a mentor to students from other institutions. At Texas Tech, meanwhile, he was awarded the Hemphill Wells New Professor Excellence in Teaching Award in 1986, the Outstanding Graduate Teacher Award in the Department of History in 2001, and the University’s President’s Excellence in teaching Award in 2001.

But what may eclipse all of Ron’s scholarly and pedagogical skills was his deep commitment to friends and colleagues. He was universally loved by those who had the good fortune of being counted among his wide-circle of friends. Equipped with an infectious and self-deprecating sense of humor, Ron was a great companion who loved to laugh and enjoy others. Additionally, he was extremely thoughtful. He remembered birthdays, constantly kept in contact with those who were experiencing challenges in their lives, and often dropped notes or gifts to his friends, apparently for no other reason that to remind others he was thinking of them. He was a true mensch and will be greatly missed. But he will not be forgotten—HSS is working with the Earth and Environment Forum, one of the Society’s interest groups, to establish a prize in Ron’s name.

– Keith R. Bengtsson
Alistair Sponsel