In Memoriam, John L. Heilbron, 1934-2023

November 6, 2023

Photo of John Heilbron wearing a hat

Dear friends,

It is with deep sadness that I share news of the death of John L. Heilbron, Professor Emeritus of History of Science and former Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. John passed away in Padua, Italy, on Sunday morning, November 5, 2023, at the age of 89.

A prolific scholar of prodigious range, John Heilbron was born in San Francisco on March 17, 1934, and attended Lowell High School. He was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving the Bachelor of Arts (1955) and Master of Arts (1958) in Physics and his Ph.D (1964) in History. After a brief stint at the University of Pennsylvania, John joined the faculty of the Department of History in 1967 and in 1973 became the founding director of the Office for History of Science and Technology. Along with advancing historical research and training the next generation of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, John gave himself to administrative service at Berkeley. Upon his retirement in 1994 he devoted himself to scholarship and travel with his wife Alison. The leading historian of the physical sciences of his generation and the possessor of great scholarly acumen and critical judgment, John helped transform the history of science into a professional discipline and made Berkeley into a crucial node in its international networks.

John’s scholarship extended from the history of early modern European astronomy and natural philosophy to the revolutions of twentieth-century physics. Like no other historian of physics of his era, he held the entire sweep of his field’s history in view. The author of more than twenty books, many additional book-length studies, and crucial resources for the discipline, he received the profession’s highest book prize, the Pfizer Prize, from the History of Science Society for his study The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories and was the recipient of the Society’s most prestigious award, the Sarton Medal. Among his other major works were Electricity in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Study of Early Modern Physics; Lawrence and His Laboratory: A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Volume 1, with Robert W. Seidel; The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science; Geometry Civilized: History, Culture, and Technique; and Galileo. John served as editor in chief of the Oxford Companion to the History of Science and editor of the Oxford Guide to the History of Physics and Astronomy. The recipient of honorary doctorates from Bologna, Pavia, Uppsala, and Yale, he also received a host of awards including the Koyré Medal from the Académie internationale d’histoire des sciences, the Sarton Memorial Lectureship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Hans Rausing Lectureship of Uppsala University, the Wilkins Prize Lectureship of the Royal Society of London, the Pais Prize for the History of Physics from the American Physical Society, the Hitchcock Lectureship of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Berkeley Citation.

No less than his scholarly excellence, John’s administrative talents were manifest to all around him. Working with Thomas S. Kuhn, he helped build the project on Sources for History of Quantum Physics into a critical repository for the discipline. As director of the Office for History of Science and Technology, he welcomed scholars from around the globe to Berkeley and put his stamp on the field through editing the UC Press journal Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (now Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences) for a quarter century. He served as chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate and then as the Vice Chancellor of the campus.

Our most heartfelt thoughts go out to John’s wife Alison at this time of loss.


Cathryn Carson

Photo of John Heilbron with woman

Photo Credit: Kathryn Olesko