Everett I. Mendelsohn, a longtime Harvard professor who, as a scholar of the history of science, explored how the development of science was influenced by historical and cultural trends and vice versa, died June 6 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 91.
His wife, Mary B. Anderson, said the cause was a stroke.
Professor Mendelsohn’s long association with Harvard began in 1953, when he was a graduate student in biology, and has continued for more than half a century. In 1960 he was awarded a Ph.D. in the history of science at the university, and after a year as a junior fellow, he began teaching. He retired in 2007.
During that time, he became known for lecturing on a variety of topics—genetic engineering, the environment, the making of the atomic bomb—and for encouraging students to study how science has affected global events and everyday life.
Everett was one of a new generation of social historians of science who insisted that it was not enough to pay attention to the inner intellectual story of science. Ann HarringtonFranklin L. Ford Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, via email. “The field also needed to be concerned with how science shaped and also helped shape the conditions of the social world.”
Professor Harrington added: “There was a strong ethical dimension to this work, at least for Everett.” “For years, he taught an undergraduate course simply called ‘Science and Its Social Problems.’ Using historical methods to highlight some of the ethical challenges and ambiguities of science seems today an obvious step to make; it just wasn’t obvious back then.”
Professor Mendelsohn had a special interest in the relationship between science and war and, as a lifelong pacifist, was active in groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the American Association for the Advancement of Science of the Committee on Science, Arms Control and National Security (of any was a founder). In February 1968, shortly after returning from a month-long trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he painted a dim view of the military situation that ran counter to the official line of the US government.
“I think we’re getting so badly bombed militarily,” he told The Boston Globe, “that every single one of the defenses is breached, from one end of the country to the other.”
in Extended interview With The Harvard Crimson the same month, he also described the toll on civilians caused by the war, which he witnessed during a visit to a hospital in Quang Ngai.
“When we moved past the medical ward into the severe casualty ward, I saw the full horror of the war itself,” he said.
A group of doctors sent to South Vietnam by President Lyndon B. Johnson the previous year had reported finding only a few cases of civilians being burned by napalm (“A greater number of burns appear to have been caused by the careless use of gasoline in stoves,” the group’s report said). But Professor Mendelsohn said he saw dozens of napalm victims in the hospital.
Recently, Professor Mendelsohn has devoted his attention to encouraging dialogue that might lead to lasting peace in the Middle East. His family said, in a prepared obituary, that he considered the lack of progress on that front “the biggest failure of his life.”
Everett Irwin Mendelsohn was born on October 28, 1931 in New York and raised in the Bronx. His father, Morris, was a salesman for a company that imported candy from Europe, and his mother, May (Albert) Mendelsohn, was a secretary in the New York City public school system.
After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1949, Professor Mendelsohn studied biology and history at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, earning a Bachelor of Science in 1953.
In 1955, while doing graduate work at Harvard, he taught for a time at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he worked under biologist Clifford Grubstein on a project involving the extraction of hormones from the eyes of lobsters. This procedure left the lobsters alive and well, and they are also edible.
“I had a lot of friends,” said Professor Mendelssohn. 2013 video interview According to an archive dedicated to the history of the lab, “because they all wanted to come while we had to gut lobsters, which meant cooking them on the beach.”
In 1968, Professor Mendelssohn founded the Journal of the History of Biology.
In an editorial in the magazine’s first issue, he wrote: “Biology in particular should be studied in relation to the other sciences and the prevailing intellectual currents of its time.” “They can also be examined for their interactions with the institutions of society that secrete them.”
Whatever branch of science he was writing or lecturing on, he was concerned to ensure that the subject was not obscure.
He told his PhD students that they should be able to go out to Harvard Square and explain their thesis to people on the street. in Lecture 2013 At Dartmouth College, he spoke of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the industrial revolution and the recent digital and biological revolutions, and ended by asking whether progress was in danger of becoming so complex that the general public would not be able to understand it or make informed decisions about their requests – which he The prospect was not welcomed.
“Scientific revolutions require more sophisticated citizen participation, which is difficult, because the level of knowledge may be high, and one of the challenges is how to bridge this gap,” he said.
He added, “I think we can say that, in some ways, it’s certainly too important in our lives to be left to the experts alone.”
Professor Mendelsohn’s marriage in 1954 to Mary Mull Leeds ended in divorce. He and Dr. Anderson, economist and author, married in 1974, as well as his sister, Bernice Bronson. three children from his first marriage, Daniel, Sarah, and Joanna Mendelsohn; Dr. Anderson’s son from a previous marriage, Marshall Wallace; Six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“In the classroom,” Professor Harrington said, “Everett had a knack for pulling together discussion threads, sorting out any incoherences and eliciting deeper thoughts. ‘Let me see if I can piece together what I hear here’ he would say.” Then he would show the students a loud, elegantly synthesized version of their contributions, until they find themselves amazed and dazzled by their collective interest.”