Not a good week: in memoriam

Today word passed rapidly among the history-of-science community of the sudden death of Professor Michael S. Mahoney, one of my undergraduate advisors in the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Princeton University in the mid-1970s. It was in Mike’s classes on the scientific worldview of the middle ages and antiquity and the origins of modern science that I placed my interests in science and technology in a historical context, and in his graduate seminar on problems in early modern mathematics that I was lucky enough as an undergraduate to get a taste of real humanistic scholarship, alongside an incredibly talented collection of graduate students.

For the last 10 or 15 years, Mike had been struggling along with other scholars to create the new discipline of the “history of computing and software” [UPDATE: link no longer available, but the book was published], a topic on which he once very kindly solicited some artifacts and mementos from my own software business venture of the 1980s (though these trifles do not figure at all in his much higher-level thoughts on the topic). He will be sorely missed at Princeton and among his past students and until-recent-days collaborators. UPDATE (7/30): official obituary. I will also monitor changes the websites linked above.

And it was only in today’s paper that word appeared of the death of Professor Victor McKusick, who was one of my wife’s teachers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I know that my wife saw him as a committed guardian for much of what was beautiful about the Hopkins medical tradition: exceptional science and scholarship combined with a deep and humane concern for patient care and teaching. Although I once saw him up close at a faculty event, I knew him mainly through her eyes and press coverage.

Somehow I had always linked him in my mind’s eye with another figure whom I knew much better, William O. Baker, the late materials scientist, and former chairman of Bell Labs who was also vice chairman at the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, where I worked in the 1990s. Baker and McKusick — the surnames alone speak of a different time in American science when it was predominantly a WASP enterprise, at least at the highest levels of institutional authority — were both great scientists, complete gentlemen, and so far as I can tell entirely committed to achieving a fuller diversity in American science.

Though Baker died in 2005, my tendency to link the two was oddly echoed in the obituaries: I had not realized until reading McKusick’s that another trait both men shared was primary education in a one-room schoolhouse, McKusick in Maine, and Baker in Maryland. So with two deaths this week and another one linked in my mind, it has not been a good week.

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