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Everett Irwin Mendelsohn, 91

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on April 2, 2024, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Everett Irwin Mendelsohn was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

Everett Mendelsohn was a huge force for good, not only in the history of science but also as a dedicated pacifist, a talented negotiator, and a remarkable mentor and teacher.  From 1953, when he joined the History of Science program at Harvard as a graduate student, to his retirement as a professor in 2007, he was one of the most well-known figures around the University, appreciated for his progressive outlook and lively intellectual insight.  His scholarly research focused on the history of biology, a somewhat arcane subject when he took it up.  Biology was then rapidly becoming the big science of our day, however, and Mendelsohn was one of the first to see that historians and sociologists, as well as scientists, could promote responsible scientific advancement.  Throughout his life, he would link science with society.  Not the least of his achievements was that he founded and was long-term editor of the Journal of the History of Biology that provided a forum for countless young scholars.  He was equally well known in Washington, D.C., as a talented negotiator who held a life-long affiliation with the Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee.  He liked to say that he was the only Jewish Quaker that he knew.

Mendelsohn was born on Oct. 28, 1931, in Yonkers, New York, the only son of a Jewish immigrant from Romania.  His parents valued education and social justice.  He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where he excelled in science.  This was followed by Antioch College, Ohio.  A major influence at Antioch was Oliver S. Loud, a Harvard College graduate in organic chemistry who leaned towards Marxism and introduced Mendelsohn to ways of thinking about science that fitted his own progressive outlook.  It was Loud’s influence that brought Mendelsohn into the history of science, via an interest in science and society.  Mendelsohn entered Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) in 1953, joining the proto-department of History of Science and Learning under I Bernard Cohen.  That same semester, he was called in to see the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, McGeorge Bundy.  Apparently, Mendelsohn had been identified as a Marxist sympathizer on one of the lists circulated by right-wing groups.  Dean Bundy asked Mendelsohn if he was a communist.  Mendelsohn said that he was not, but that he was a socialist.  Bundy did not pursue the matter and later apologized for the incident.

A radical reputation did not hamper Mendelsohn’s career.  In 1957, he was elected to the Society of Fellows.  He completed his Ph.D. in 1960, with Thomas Kuhn on his graduate committee.  That same year, he was appointed as Instructor in the History of Science, and, in 1965, he began to offer what would become a near-legendary, upper-level course, Social Sciences 119, titled “The Social Context of Science.”  This course — unprecedented at Harvard — was listed in the General Education program and covered hot topics such as the atom bomb, eugenics, the history of racism, genetic engineering, evolution, and chemical weaponry.  By probing the moral world that his students would inherit, he dramatically furthered James B. Conant’s vision of a liberal education suited for an age of science.

In the classroom, Mendelsohn had a gift for gathering together the threads of a discussion and distilling deeper insights.  “Let me see if I can pull together what I am hearing here,” he would say.  Then he would show students an elegantly synthesized version of their contributions so that they would all find themselves amazed by their collective thoughtfulness.  This gift translated well into the many committees and action groups on which he sat.  He was courtly and persuasive on committees, sometimes pleasingly wicked, steadily pressing the administration for diversity and better facilities (e.g., day nurseries), especially for graduate students.  He and his wife Mary B. Anderson became joint faculty deans of Dudley House in 1997.  It is perhaps no wonder that the GSAS now annually offers an award named in his honor, the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award.

Mendelsohn was invited to join several national committees, including the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy of the National Academy of Sciences, and he contributed to a number of reports on issues facing the future of the biomedical sciences.  At one point, he worked with colleagues in Harvard Medical School on the study and definition of “brain death.”  He discussed these issues, and more, in class.

In the world at large, Mendelsohn worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation.  In the late 1960s, he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the deployment of nuclear weapons.  On behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, he visited Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia between December 1967 and January 1968 and experienced the beginning of the Tet Offensive.  Later, he participated in structured dialogues seeking solutions to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.  These actions laid some of the groundwork for the Oslo Accords.  He was equally active in nuclear disarmament and arms control, serving (among other roles) as president of the International Council for Science Policy Studies, as a founding member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Science, Arms Control, and National Security, and as a founder and first president of the Cambridge-based Institute for Peace and International Security.

From 1971 to 1977, Mendelsohn served as chair of the new Department of the History of Science.  By then, his wide-ranging interests had brought him many friends here and overseas.  He held visiting appointments at Churchill College, Cambridge (1968–69), the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (1978), the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Cnam) in Paris (1989), the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS) in Uppsala (1994), and a series of appointments in Germany.  His impact was recognized in a festschrift published in his honor in 2001.  A special issue of the Journal of the History of Biology was issued in 2023, full of affectionate recollections from former students.  He is deeply missed.

Respectfully submitted,

Evelynn Hammonds
Anne Harrington
Janet Browne, Chair