Charles Gillispie, trailblazer in the history of science, dies at 97

Oct. 9, 2015 4:45 p.m.
Charles Gillispie

Charles Gillispie

Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

Charles Gillispie, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton University and a trailblazer in the study of the history of science, died Tuesday, Oct. 6, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was 97 years old.

Gillispie, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1947, was also a professor of history of science, emeritus. He was an expert in the life and setting of scientific technological activity in 18th-century France.

With his Princeton colleague Thomas Kuhn, he also gave impetus to the founding of the history and philosophy of science as an academic discipline. Gillispie established in 1960 what is today the University's Program in History of Science. Gillispie was also the driving force behind the Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Scholarship, which is one of the highest awards given to Princeton undergraduates. He served as chair of the Department of History from 1971 to 1973 and transferred to emeritus status in 1987.

"He was 'old school' at its best, from his uncompromising scholarly standards to his unparalleled devotion to the bow tie and plaid," said Emily Thompson, who studied under Gillispie as a graduate student at Princeton and is now a professor of history at the University. "He tempered the precision of science with the grace of the humanities, bridging the two cultures with intelligence and style. He is missed."

Raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Gillispie earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry and his master's degree in history from Wesleyan University. "Chemistry was my duty. I could do my duty and did. History was my joy, however," Gillispie wrote in a 1999 retrospective on his career in Isis, a journal sponsored by the History of Science Society.

During World War II, he served with the Third Army in Europe as a captain in a heavy mortar battalion. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1949.

Gillispie created his first course in the history of science in 1956, titled "The History of Scientific Thought From Galileo to Einstein." The momentum continued to build toward the creation of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, today's Program in History of Science.

He also taught courses including "Scientific Revolution," "Science in Modern History" and "Science in American History" to undergraduates, along with many graduate seminars.

"Our program is still animated by Charles' intellectual rigor and the vigorous discussions that flourished under his leadership," said Angela Creager, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science.

Gillispie was founding adviser for the Sachs scholarship, which was founded to honor Sachs, who died at age 28, and funds study, work or travel abroad for two new graduates each year. Gillispie, who was a mentor to Sachs, played an important role in the program for more than 50 years, and continued to read all the applications and meet over lunch with each recipient well into his 90s. The scholarship program has "succeeded beyond my wildest hopes," he told the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2010.

Among his many publications, Gillispie was editor-in-chief of "The Dictionary of Scientific Biography," a landmark series that contained more than 4,500 essays on scientists and mathematicians of all periods and nationalities. Published in 16 volumes between 1970 and 1980, it was awarded the American Library Association's 1981 Dartmouth Medal for outstanding reference works.

His other seminal publications include "The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas" and "Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime."

"Charles Gillispie was a towering figure in the history of science, and he nurtured any number of junior scholars over the years," said William Jordan, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and chair of the Department of History. "Most recently, he returned to a biographical subject, Lazare Carnot, on whom he had published in 1971. A young Italian scholar, Raffaele Pisano, asked him to cooperate in writing a substantially enhanced book on the same subject, which would update Gillispie's work and integrate Pisano's on Lazare Carnot's equally important son Sadi Carnot into the whole. Their jointly authored — and huge — book of almost 500 pages, 'Lazare and Sadi Carnot:  A Scientific and Filial Relationship,' appeared in 2014 when Gillispie was 96!"

Gillispie's numerous honors included the International Balzan Prize for History and Philosophy of Science in 1997, the History of Science Society's George Sarton Medal in 1984 for lifetime scholarly achievement, Princeton's Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities in 1981, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 and, on his retirement, election as an honorary member of the Princeton Class of 1960.

He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Wesleyan in 1971 and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Princeton in 2011.

"Charles loved science, and the history of science, and he never lost that love, right to the end," said James Byrne, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton and is a humanities tutor in the history of science at Quest University in Canada. "Long after he'd retired, Charles still came to program seminars in the History of Science at Princeton to give graduate students feedback on works in progress and to participate in the lively discussions that make the History of Science program at Princeton so distinctive. He didn't have to be there, but he was, he clearly loved it, and he made a difference."

Gillispie was married to Emily Clapp Gillispie for 64 years.

Memorial donations may be made to the Daniel Sachs Class of 1960 Scholarship Fund.

A memorial service at the University will be scheduled later.