Ronald Numbers remembered as leading scholar of science and religion

Ronald L. Numbers, PhD, professor of medical history and bioethics and history, died on July 24, 2023, at 81. A world-renowned scholar of the history of science and medicine, Numbers was regarded as a thoughtful colleague and mentor who approached all with his characteristic good cheer.

Ronald Numbers

One of the most distinguished minds in his field, Numbers focused on the historical and sociological relationship between science and religion in American life and more broadly. A highly productive researcher and author, he wrote six books and contributed to or edited nearly 40, many with colleagues from UW–Madison. Numbers was a professor in the Department of Medicine History and Bioethics in the School of Medicine and Public Health and an affiliate faculty member in the Department of History in the College of Letters & Science.

The impact of his publications on the study of religion inspired a new generation of scholars. His upbringing and early career in the Seventh-day Adventist Church influenced much of his work. His 1976 book Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White challenged the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s belief in one of its founders and was widely viewed by the scholarly community as groundbreaking.

His other titles include Darwinism Comes to America and The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, which follows the story of antievolutionism in the United States and earned the Albert C. Outler Prize from the American Society of Church History. Among other works, he served as editor of Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion and Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science.

Former peers and students remember him as a supportive and collaborative colleague and adviser whose passion for history, religion and science was infectious and buoyed many graduate students and young scholars. As a testament to his sense of humor and keen interests, his license plate read “DARWIN.”

Numbers studied math and physics at Southern Adventist University, followed by a Master of Arts in history from Florida State University and a PhD in history of science from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1974, he joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor, which was his academic home for nearly 40 years.

From 1977-1981 he served as chair of the Department of the History of Medicine, which was established in 1950 in the School of Medicine and Public Health as the second department of its kind in the country. A program in the school focused on medical ethics was founded in 1973 and is the oldest within a medical school, and the department changed its name to incorporate both fields of study in 2002. From 1999-2003 he served a second stint as chair. In 1991 he was named the William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine and in 1997 the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine. He became a professor emerit in 2013.

Numbers was highly influential in his field and earned numerous accolades. From 1989-93, he served as editor of Isis, a leading international journal for the field of the history of science. During his lifetime he received the George Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society, Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also served terms as president of the History of Science Society, the American Society of Church History and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science.

Numbers’ family and colleagues contributed to an obituary that is available online. His family is planning a celebration of life for later this fall.