History of Science Professor Everett Mendelsohn Remembered As ‘Colossus’ in His Field


{shortcode-71496f06dbcf4e7fd51a7303a24604fb32b6a0a2}n July 2005, Harvard professor Everett I. Mendelsohn traveled to Beijing to witness the next chapter of the field he dedicated his life to expanding: the history of science.

At the International Congress of History of Science that year, New York University professor Matthew G. Stanley — a panelist for one of the conference’s discussions — greeted Mendelsohn in the audience, sparking conversation among the panelists as he returned to his seat.

“Oh, you know Everett too?” another panelist asked him.

After answering that Mendelsohn had been on his dissertation committee, Stanley was amazed to learn that Mendelsohn had in some way or another shaped the careers of the majority of the panel — a moment he felt encapsulated the eminent historian of science’s impact on the field.


“Somebody else said, ‘Wait, he was the person who introduced me to the history of science in the first place.’ And then, somebody else said, ‘Oh wait, he was the person whose work I first read that got me excited about the field,’” Stanley recalled.

“It was amazing that none of us had ever met each other before, but all of us were deeply and totally indebted to Everett for the course of our careers,” Stanley added. “Everywhere around me in the field of history of science are people who were touched by Everett and whose careers he shaped in all sorts of amazing ways.”

Mendelsohn, a Harvard professor emeritus known for his pioneering work studying the history of biology and the relationship between scientific progress and its social and historical contexts, died on June 6 at his home in Cambridge. He was 91.

The cause of death was a stroke, according to members of his family.

Mendelsohn served on Harvard’s History of Science faculty for 47 years before retiring from teaching in 2007. At Harvard, Mendelsohn advised more than 45 Ph.D. students and served as Master of Dudley House from 1997 to 2002.

Mendelsohn is survived by his wife, Mary B. Anderson; his sister, Bernice Bronson; three children from his previous marriage with Mary Maule Leeds, Daniel, Joanna, and Sarah Mendelsohn; Anderson’s son from a previous marriage, Marshall Wallace; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

‘Harvard at its Best’

Mendelsohn joined Harvard’s History of Science faculty in 1960 after receiving his Ph.D. from the department earlier that year. As a professor, he was known for shaping the field through his own scholarship but also through a virtually unmatched gusto for teaching and advising.

According to History of Science professor and former Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds — who took a course with Mendelsohn during graduate school — Mendelsohn was a professor who she felt “represented Harvard at its best.”

“He was an amazing teacher. He was engaging. He was thoughtful. He would push you to think hard about the answers to his questions,” Hammonds said. “He was also remarkably kind and generous and thoughtful and I would actually say one of the best teachers, colleagues, mentors that I had during my time in graduate school at Harvard.”

Hammonds said she was grateful to have Mendelsohn as a mentor in her life, adding that she “simply would not be a historian of science without his mentorship.”


In 1998, Harvard’s Graduate Student Council established the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award in Mendelsohn’s honor — an award presented annually to faculty members “who provide excellent and exceptional mentorship to graduate students.”

Mendelsohn had a reputation for taking on a large load of graduate student advising, mentoring “several cohorts of graduate students in particular in the history of biology,” according to Virginia Tech history professor Mark V. Barrow Jr.

“It felt like he was advising as many graduate students as most of the other faculty combined in the History of Science Department and willingly did that,” said Barrow, whose Ph.D. was advised by Mendelsohn.

MIT professor Jennifer S. Light ’93, also one of Mendelsohn’s former Ph.D. students, said that when she was unable to find an adviser for her research interests at Harvard, Mendelsohn agreed to become her adviser despite having no previous experience with the topic.

“That was pretty miraculous because it meant I could stick around the program — and I’m a pretty independent student, so I figured out how to make my way through — but I had someone that I could lead on for all the kinds of things a graduate student needs,” Light said.

Light said “that really stuck with” her and that when she — as a professor — came across a graduate student at MIT in a similar situation, she was inspired to do the same for her and “pull an Everett Mendelsohn.”

She also recalled Mendelsohn’s awareness of social problems in academia. When Light accepted a spot in a graduate program at another school, Mendelsohn warned her that the professor she planned to work with had never graduated a female Ph.D. student. She attended the program for some time before returning to Harvard due to a negative experience and expressed her gratitude for Mendelsohn’s input.

“It was apparently widely known that this program was not great if you were a woman and he was the only person bold enough to say anything about it — and of course, he did so in an incredibly diplomatic way,” Light said. “He was incredibly helpful in terms of my navigating the challenges of academia in that era.”

Stanley, the NYU professor, said that to other experts in the history of science, Mendelsohn “was a colossus.” In 1968, Mendelsohn founded the Journal of the History of Biology and served as its editor-in-chief for over three decades.

“He was the person who made it possible to do the history of biology or the history of a life science,” Stanley said. “So, he had to invent an entirely new journal to do that and then train an entirely new generation of historians to think in those terms.”

“Those are subfields that dominate the history of science today. If you open up any history of science journal, it’s full of biology and environmental science and so on and that can all be tracked back to him,” Stanley added. “We would be in a totally different intellectual space if not for his contributions.”

In addition to his work in the history of biology, Mendelsohn studied how scientific development was intertwined with its context in society. Discussing Mendelsohn’s retirement in 2007, History of Science professor Anne Harrington ’82 called Mendelsohn “one of the founders of the social history of science.”

“[He] was one of the first generations of historians of science who insisted you have to pay attention not just to the history of science and the history of ideas but to the history of politics,” Harrington said at the time.

‘The Department’s Social Conscience’

Outside of the classroom, Mendelsohn was involved in a number of social causes and was known for being an outspoken faculty member who sought peace in Vietnam and the Middle East, supported nuclear disarmament, and advocated against apartheid in South Africa.


Mendelsohn co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Science, Arms Control, and National Security and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Committee on International Security Studies.

Mendelsohn was involved as an activist and organizer since his undergraduate days at Antioch College, where he — along with fellow classmate Coretta Scott King and others — was involved in the local labor movement. “I made a commitment to myself then, to work towards those goals I saw for society,” Mendelsohn said in a November 1973 interview.

“He was greatly admired for his decency and integrity and widely seen as the department’s social conscience,” History of Science professor Allan M. Brandt wrote in an emailed statement. “He inspired generations of students to see the socio-politics intrinsic in scientific investigation and policy.”

During the Vietnam War, Mendelsohn traveled to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. During this trip, Mendelsohn spoke to civilians and a “high official” of the National Liberation Front.

“Seeing the war at first hand, meeting people who had been involved in it, people who have suffered from it, meeting people who have opposed it on the scene, gave me a series of new insights,” Mendelsohn said in a February 1968 interview.

In more recent years, Mendelsohn was involved in peace efforts in the Middle East — doing conflict resolution work in the region, at first through the AFSC and later through the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to serve as a mediator between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

According to his wife Mary Anderson, Mendelsohn was “involved in a number of off-the-record conversations between people who had prominent positions in both societies” and would visit the region as often as two or three times a year.

Marshall Wallace, Anderson’s son from a previous marriage, said Mendelsohn was involved in the Middle East peace efforts “because he felt it was important for the world to do that” and that this work was “part of his encouragement” to his family “that if there was something that needed to be done for the world, that we should go out and do it.”

Outside of his activist efforts, Mendelsohn was also politically active — campaigning for Henry A. Wallace during his 1948 presidential bid. According to Anderson, Mendelsohn used to tell a story that — while he and singer Harry Belafonte were both supporting the Wallace campaign — “he played the guitar for Harry as he sang sometimes at various campaign events.”

Marshall Wallace said that Mendelsohn’s social work inspired other members of his family — including Wallace — to become politically active and “willing to put [themselves] out there.”

“He really did set an example for how one should address life,” Wallace said.

Correction: August 8, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Allan M. Brandt as an emeritus professor. In fact, Brandt is a full professor.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Jo_Lemann.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.