In Memoriam

Charles Coulston Gillispie (1918–2015)

William Chester Jordan | Oct 1, 2017

Historian of Science

Charles Coulston Gillispie. Courtesy Princeton UniversityCharles Coulston Gillispie, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History emeritus at Princeton University, passed away on October 6, 2015, at the age of 97. He taught the first course in the history of science at the university and, in 1960, founded the Program in History of Science, of which he was a long-term director. He also served a term as history department chair.

After taking his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Wesleyan University, he pursued postgraduate study there in the same field. He then served under General George Patton as an artillery captain in Europe during the Second World War. Upon the cessation of hostilities, he resumed his education, obtaining a PhD in English history at Harvard University. His first book, Genesis and Geology, was a revision of his dissertation. It remains a fundamental study of how the emergence of geology as a science in the 19th century affected the discourse on the age of the Earth. Though Genesis focused on England, it was 18th- and 19th-century France that commanded most of Gillispie’s attention in the course of his career. He published an edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1959) and was the author of The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960); Lazare Carnot, Savant (1971); The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation (1983); Monuments of Egypt: The Napoleonic Expedition (1987); and his multi-volume magnum opus, Science and Polity in France (1980–2004). He continued to publish important monographs until the year before he died, but perhaps the work that has had the greatest impact is the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the standard reference work in the field, of which he was the editor-in-chief, and which was awarded the Dartmouth Medal of the American Library Association in 1981.

Ours is a global profession, and Gillispie relished recounting the careers of numerous PhD students from foreign lands who studied with him at Princeton and then returned to their native countries to establish or strengthen history of science programs there. Further extending his international influence were Gillispie’s close professional ties to France, where he taught a large cohort of graduate students over the course of many semesters as a visiting professor in Paris.

The history of science has become a flourishing academic enterprise due in large part to the impact of Charles Gillispie and his scholarly work. The numerous accolades he accumulated during his career testify to this fact. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the British Academy. Gillispie was also the recipient of the History of Science Society’s George Sarton Medal for enduring scholarly achievement and the International Balzan Prize for History and Philosophy of Science.

A lasting memorial of his generosity and love for his field of study was the bequest to Princeton establishing, under his and his wife’s name, the Charles C. and Emily R. Gillispie Chair in the History of Science and providing substantial endowment support for the Program in History of Science.

William Chester Jordan
Princeton University

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