Division for the History of Science and Technology (IUHPST)

Division of History of Science and Technology

Obituary of Ron Numbers by Mike Osborne

Ronald Leslie Numbers, former president of the IUHPST/DHST (2005-2009), died in Madison, Wisconsin, on 25 July 2023 at 81 years of age. Ron was born on 3 June 1942 into a Seventh Day Adventist family of distinguished lineage and grew up in the United States and Jamaica. An insular upbringing in the Adventist church set him on a path intended to keep him within the community of Adventist institutions and believers in the doctrines of the religion’s prophetess, Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Adventist church in the 1840s. Study of the history of science and medicine disrupted this trajectory and featured in Ron’s path from religious belief to agnosticism, although he retained the Adventist tradition of vegetarianism.

Like many historians of science, Ron discovered that science had a history while at university. In his case it was while completing a master’s degree in history at Florida State University, and he soon began Ph.D. studies at the University of California, Berkeley under A. Hunter Dupree, a scholar of the history of American science and science policy. Dupree’s biography of nineteenth-century naturalist Asa Gray inspired Ron to write on the history of American science. After considering a dissertation on the physicist, chemist, and mathematician Josiah Willard Gibbs, he settled on a history of the American reception of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s nebular hypothesis. The subsequent book (1977) was one of six solo-authored books written by Ron. Three of these books were written during the four years he taught at the Adventist medical school attached to Loma Linda University in California. One of those books, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White, went through three editions and resulted in his dismissal from the university and expulsion by the Adventist community. It also caused a rift within his family. This incident shows Ron’s courage and faith in the power of historical research and writing. He had documented from archives how White’s many visions and comments on health and other matters, thought by believers to be her own, were in fact copied from health advice manuals and other contemporary sources. After leaving Loma Linda University, Ron retooled as a historian of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University with my own mentor, William Coleman. In typical Coleman fashion, Bill had Ron, by then an established and accomplished scholar, sit in on his classes and take examinations which he corrected. Ron soon moved to a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Willam Coleman followed a few years later.

Ron’s scholarship and other activities gave him skill sets which would be valuable to DHST. As for his scholarship, in an era when reception studies were popular, he enjoyed writing about the ideas of Europeans such as Charles Darwin and Laplace and how those ideas impacted American science and culture. Before serving as president of DHST, he also gained experience with international authors through editorship of the journal Isis (1989-1993) and sharpened his leadership skills as president of the American Society of Church History (1999) and the (American) History of Science Society (2000-2001). Editor or co-editor of some forty volumes, he was actively co-editing the eight volume Cambridge History of Science while involved with DHST.

Those who knew Ron have remarked on his rigorous scholarship, generosity, and distaste for professional drama. While I never took a seminar from him at Wisconsin, my fellow graduate students who did recounted his careful attention to the prose of his students and the required but painful “rip” sessions of criticism, editing, and re-writing before Ron scored papers. Although I was not his student, I count him as a mentor, and Ron was instrumental in placing me in summer positions in the History of Medicine Division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. When my university asked me to teach a class on science and religion, Ron gave advice and shared texts and other materials. His nuanced prize-winning book, The Creationists (1992, 1993, 2006), remains the definitive study of anti-evolution in America and was in some ways a return to his study of Ellen G. White and Adventist thought. According to White, God took her back in time to witness the birth of the earth which took place about 6,000 years ago. The Creationists showed how Adventist young-earth creationism, initially a minority opinion within the anti-evolutionary camp, became central to anti-evolutionary scholarship in the last half of the twentieth century. The volume also traced how science professors at the Mormon church academy in Utah, Brigham Young University, were explaining Darwin, modern geology, and Darwinian evolution to believers in local churches before anti-modernist church authorities stopped the practice.

Ron was elected president of DHST at our Beijing congress in 2005, about six years after our major funding partner, the International Council of Scientific Unions (now International Science Council), discontinued its former practice of issuing block grants to member Unions. Ron immediately shouldered the task of streamlining procedures while pondering how to fund DHST and how better to benefit its members. Thus began a protracted process of revising the DHST Statutes and Rules of Procedures with the then Secretary General, Efthymios Nicolaidis. All documents needed to be in both French and English. The process continued through the presidency of Efthymios Nicolaidis and my own. Ron discerned that the older documents referred to “members” but inconsistently defined membership. The effort concluded under Secretary General Catherine Jami. Another persistent problem recognized by Ron, and common to many international organizations of past eras, would also be solved after years of effort. DHST secured a permanent home at the Observatoire de Paris which allowed it to open a bank account which now did not need to move every time DHST elected new officers.

Ron was a stalwart in the DHST dissertation prize competitions and continued to comment on submissions even after his term of office ended. He also dispensed sage advice to DHST Council members, arguing that if there were conflicts in DHST (and there were), it was best to submit them to DHST Council and not try to solve them in autocratic fashion.

I last saw Ron in 2017 at the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology in Rio. In addition to serving as Chair of the International Program Committee, he also organized and chaired a session entitled “Science, Technology, and Medicine in Local, Regional, Transnational, and Global Context.” It was an honor to assist with the session which also featured two of Ron’s former students: my former graduate student colleague and friend Susan Lederer, current co-chair of the International Program Committee for the New Zealand Congress, and Hugh Slotten, Chair of the Local Organizing Committee in Dunedin. Ron was a kind and generous man, a great scholar, and a great raconteur. He had a talent for bringing people together and DHST remains in his debt. Thank you Ron!

Michael A. Osborne, past-president IUHPST/DHST.

This remembrance is adapted from obituaries appearing in the Wisconsin State Journal, Spectrum Magazine, a video interview conducted by the Science and Orthodoxy Around the World project, and personal recollections.

Mike Osborne, former president of the DHST