4 November 1940 – 27 June 2020
by Andre Wakefield
Richard “Dick” Olson, Professor of History Emeritus at Harvey Mudd College, passed away on June 27, 2020. He leaves behind his wife Kathy Collins Olson, his brother Gary Olson, his sister-in-law Tina, his dog Parker, and the many students and colleagues who benefited from his decades of devoted teaching at the Claremont Colleges.
With half a dozen books to his name, along with more edited volumes and dozens of articles and book reviews, Dick was an extraordinarily productive scholar; he was still writing until the end. The first thing that will strike you, in our era of relative professional narrowness and specialization, is the extraordinary breadth and depth of his contributions. Equally at home in Archimedes’ Syracuse, Enlightenment Edinburgh, or Cold War Cambridge, Dick seemed to write about, read about, teach about, and know everything. But he was no mere curious intellectual tourist. Underneath this vast vision across space and time, he was driven by a few great themes. Most of all, he sought to interrogate the rise and impact of scientism, which became for him the central theme of his life’s work. He produced three sweeping volumes on the subject, spanning 1982 to 2016, and he was at work on another volume at the time of his death. His work tracked and documented the rise and triumph of scientism in all walks of life. He was especially interested in the emergence of the social sciences, and his work about the pervasive nature of scientism and positivism in economics, psychology, and sociology is among the best we have. His multi-volume, multi-decade opus—really one great project—is the legacy he leaves to the history of science; those with the patience and the ability to read it will appreciate its value.
Dick received his BA in physics from Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in 1962 before going on to earn an MA in physics and a PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University. After a stint at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he returned to his undergraduate alma mater in 1976 and thereafter never left. In the decades following Dick was a force, serving as head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and later as head of faculty. More than that, Dick was an enthusiastic advocate, pioneer and builder of the Claremont Colleges Program on Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which he directed on more than one occasion. As a young historian of science at Pitzer College, I recall that it was Dick, from neighboring Harvey Mudd, who was one of the first to greet me and to welcome me to the Five-College STS program, which became an intellectual home for many of us across the Claremont Consortium, largely thanks to his efforts. He was generous that way.
Dick’s research passions spilled quite naturally into his pedagogy, where his vast reading and scope of knowledge entertained and fascinated generations of students. I sat in on some of those classes, and it was a thing to behold. Dick was a master of the big picture and the synthetic frame, connecting places and times in sometimes startling and always illuminating ways. You wouldn’t normally expect an STS administrative meeting on cross-registration to be much fun; but with Dick in the room, you’d be wrong. One minute we might be discussing the standardization of student ID numbers, and the next thing you know we would drift to William Petty’s political arithmetic. Thanks Dick.
Through all of the meetings and the administration and the scholarship and the teaching, one thing was always clear: Dick Olson was a Harvey Mudd patriot. He believed that the school had a mission, a special place in U.S. higher education. He called it “liberal education,” to distinguish it from the liberal arts education of colleges like Pitzer and Pomona, on the one hand, and from the more narrowly technical education of science and engineering schools, on the other. Taking the long view, as he almost always did, Dick found the model for an HMC education in eighteenth-century Scotland, where technical education had transformed the traditional trivium and quadrivium. In his view, American liberal arts colleges have largely abandoned that Scottish approach to liberal education, with its focus on mathematical and technical sciences. Harvey Mudd remains the one carrying it forward, and serving as a much-needed model for other institutions, such as CalTech and MIT, for how liberal education can avoid the vicissitudes of narrow, merely technical training.
Dick leaves us a multi-faceted legacy of vast-ranging synthetic scholarship, of pedagogical vision and reform, and of local collegiality and warmth. I will always remember him, walking with his dog to grab a doughnut and coffee, ready to discuss anything, but it the local STS budget, the latest fads in the history of science, or to the disputes between cameralists and physiocrats in eighteenth-century Heidelberg. Dick always seemed to be at home everywhere, and that made him especially easy to talk to. Here in Claremont, and out there in the history of science, we are poorer for his loss.
Several years ago Dick endowed an undergraduate scholarship, the Richard G. Olson ’62 Endowed Scholarship Fund at Harvey Mudd College, from the proceeds of the sale of his family’s mountain cabin in Plumas County, California, where he had spent many summers preparing courses and writing away from the heat of the Southern California summers. The family requests that any donations in his name be made to this Fund.
Andre Wakefield is Professor of History at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA.
Elizabeth Anne Wolfe Garber
1939 – 1 July 2020
by Sarah Lowengard and Joel Rosenthal
Elizabeth Garber, Professor Emerita of history 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 where 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 three-month typewriter rental. So, 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 the couple 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 focus 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 the 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 PhDs. She 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 fairly regular before Liz’s retirement and became more frequent 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.
Sarah Lowengard is a historian of science and technology at The Cooper Union and Joel Rosenthal is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Stony Brook University.
More From Our October 2020 Newsletter
- Fifty Pence Story? (with thanks to Simon Armitage)
- Perspectives on Graduate Student Unionization
- A Historian of Science Off the Beaten Path
- Innovations in Education – October 2020
- Member News – October 2020
- HSS News – October 2020
- Notes from Our Bibliographer – October 2020
- News from the Profession – October 2020
- From Our Readers – October 2020
- BONUS: These Are A Few of Our Favorite Reads