John E. Murdoch, one of the world’s top scholars of ancient and medieval science, died Thursday (Sept. 16) at age 83. He had been a member of the Harvard faculty since 1963, and professor of the history of science since 1967. He also taught at Harvard Extension School for six decades, and was a member of the School’s administrative board for more than 30 years.
Murdoch was a renowned scholar of ancient Greek and medieval Latin science and philosophy, with a particular interest in the concepts of infinity and continuity throughout early science. He was the author of “Album of Science: Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (1984) and co-editor of “The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning” (1973). He also penned more than 60 scholarly essays on ancient and medieval science.
Last year, Murdoch received his field’s highest honor when he was awarded the Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society, honoring lifetime scholarly achievement.
“John took a hard-headed approach to the study of the hard sciences in the Middle Ages, always looking closely at what the texts said,” said longtime colleague Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science emeritus at Harvard. “He took things seriously and took nothing for granted.”
“John was also known for his very close work with his graduate students,” Mendelsohn added. “He pushed them hard, but was with them all the time.”
A native of Milwaukee, Murdoch received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in philosophy, with a minor field in the history of science, in 1957. He taught at Harvard from 1957 to 1960 and, after teaching three years at Princeton University, returned as associate professor of the history of science in 1963. He served as chair of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science from 1966 to 1971 and 1974 to 1975.