The Passing of Don Beaver

I write to share the sad news that Donald Beaver, Professor of History of Science, Emeritus, passed away last weekend.

Don came to Williams in 1971 and soon after founded our Department of History of Science—“one of the college’s first interdisciplinary departments,” to quote his retirement citation. His work over the course of 45 years on campus made a significant impression on our curriculum, including laying the foundation for what is now the Program in Science and Technology Studies.

The interdisciplinarity of that program was a reflection of Don’s own wide-ranging interests. After earning his undergraduate degree in physics from Harvard and starting a Ph.D. in that same field at the University of Massachusetts, his fascination with history and philosophy drew him to Yale’s program in the history of science, where he earned a doctorate for his work on the history of quantitative measures and indicators of activity in the sciences, among other topics. Over time his scholarship would expand to include everything from commercial images of the computer to the growth of teamwork approaches in science, to the study of Enlightenment-era scientific textbooks.

After graduate school his first faculty appointment was at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where he taught in both the history and general sciences departments. Following a year at Franklin and Marshall College he was hired to teach in yet another interdisciplinary setting. This time, he joined Williams’ History of Ideas program, created by Frank Oakley and Dan O’Connor P’86 ’85, who went on to become College President and Edward Dorr Griffin Emeritus Professor of the History of Ideas; and Dean of the College and Mark Hopkins Professor of Philosophy, respectively

In a 2003 oral history preserved in the College Archives, Don recalled his early days here: “When I was accepted [at Williams]… people wanted to know where I was going to go. I said, well, I don’t want to be in the history department. I’ve been there and then I’m the resident scientist. I don’t want to be in a science department because then I’m the resident historian. I’m sort of in betwixt and between…. After I guess a year, a year and a half, I began to receive mail and see things printed as the Department of History of Science. In other words, I was a loose cannon without a departmental home and so I became a department.”

His suggestion that things “just happened” was perhaps a wry understatement: While Don was for many years the sole faculty member in his department, he worked hard to draw in like-minded people, who were attracted by his intellectual passion and far-ranging interests. As a result, by the mid-1970s our curriculum included some 20 to 30 courses that fit under the broad rubric of science and technology studies. As Don later noted on his department’s website, “No major in the history of science was envisioned, because the history of science is interdisciplinary.”

That view is still influential at Williams today. Jason Josephson Storm, current Chair of Science and Technology Studies and Professor of Religion notes, “Without Don Beaver’s foundational efforts in building History of Science and then Science and Technology Studies, we would not be in the great place we are today. STS—and the college at large—owe a real debt to Don and his vision.”

Don and his wife Olga (Ollie), who was Professor of Mathematics at Williams and helped found our Summer Science Program, were known on campus as generous hosts and mentors. Ollie, who passed away in 2012, earned national recognition for her work mentoring women and people from underrepresented groups in math and science. Don, too, was deeply committed to such work, as evidenced by his co-authored article Who is collaborating with whom? Part II. Application of the methods to male and to female networks and his ongoing research with Professor Michael Kidd from Texas A&M University on the nineteenth-century zoologist and botanist Sarah Bowdich Lee.

As for Don’s concern for his current-day colleagues, this recollection from Cesar Silva, Hagey Family Professor of Mathematics says so much: “Don was director of the Bronfman Science Center when I arrived in the mid-1980s and was very helpful advising me about the various sources of research support,” Cesar writes. “I remember a chance meeting one January in Paris, where for a moment I thought he had come to see how I was doing, as intuitively I had sensed how thoughtful he was with the junior faculty.”

A lover of languages, it was not uncommon to see Don at the college’s Spanish and German tables. He also spoke French, and learned Czech so that he could converse with Ollie and for their visits to Prague.

Don Beaver was Williams through and through: a caring teacher, an inherently curious scholar reaching across disciplinary boundaries, and someone who cared about the people of the Williams community. He will be deeply missed.

Survivors include Don and Ollie’s sons, Donald Rozinak Beaver of Pittsburgh, Penn. and James deBlasiis Beaver of Philadelphia, Penn., as well as a brother, David Beaver of Florence, Mass., and five grandchildren, Donald Beaver, Noah Weissmuller, Rachael Beaver, Morgan Beaver and Kyle Beaver. He is also survived by his partner in late life, Nancy Seasholes.

The family will announce any plans for a memorial gathering at a later date. In the meantime, please join me by keeping them and Don’s many friends and colleagues in our thoughts.