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Historian of science, L. Pearce Williams, dies at 87

Pierce Williams

L. Pearce Williams  ’49, Ph.D. ‘52, who taught the history of Western civilization and the history of science to four decades of Cornell students, died Feb. 7 at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca. He was 87.

An authority on 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday, Williams was the John Stambaugh Professor of the History of Science Emeritus and a popular lecturer for the Western Civ (HIST 151) class. He helped start the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, becoming co-director in 1984.

Williams’ 1965 book “Michael Faraday, A Biography” won the Pfizer Award for best book in the history of science that year. He retired from the Department of Science and Technology Studies in 1994.

He was born Sept. 8, 1927, in Harmon-on-Hudson, New York, and was the 1944 valedictorian of Croton-on-Hudson High School. His Cornell bachelor’s degree and doctorate were in the field of history. Williams taught at Yale University and the University of Delaware in the 1950s, before joining the Cornell history faculty in 1960 as an assistant professor.

Williams first arrived at Cornell in 1944, intending to study chemical engineering, but left for a year’s service in the U.S. Navy. Returning to resume his studies, Williams was influenced by the Cornell historian of science Henry Guerlac and changed his major.

Historian Barry Strauss, the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies, calls Williams “a superb teacher, one of the very best in a generation of great teachers.”

Williams’ perennial exhortation to incoming freshmen, “The Notorious Note-Taking Lecture,” was inspirational, Strauss remembers, and his Western Civ lectures were “sparkling,” Strauss says. “Alumni still recall his booming voice and overflow enrollments. He was an original, a brilliant historian of science. He reminisced about growing up in a vaudeville family, played touch football with passion and never hesitated to say what he thought.”

Note-taking students who braved Williams’ fact- and concept-filled courses improved their communication skills, too, according to colleague Bruce V. Lewenstein, who called the historian “passionate about teaching. Helping students write better was, for him, a way of helping them think better.”

Lewenstein, a professor of communication and of science and technology studies, says Williams was “great to have a discussion with, because he was extremely knowledgeable and would force you to provide evidence to support your arguments. (He) was one-of-a-kind, a true character. Some people were intimidated by his bombast . . . but if you were willing to engage with him, he’d engage right back with great joy.”

Williams is survived by his wife of 65 years, Sylvia Alessandrini Williams, four children and numerous grandchildren.

A politically conservative voice among Cornell faculty members in the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, Williams regularly dispatched letters to editors (especially the Cornell Daily Sun and Ithaca Journal) that left no doubt about where he stood on a range of issues, according to his family. They request donations, in lieu of flowers, to “Pearce’s second home,” the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library. A memorial service will be held at a date to be announced.

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Joe Schwartz