In Memory of a Discipline Builder: Richard Adrian Jarrell (1946–2013)

By Yves Gingras

Richard Jarrell (credit unknown).
Richard Jarrell (credit unknown).

All historians of Canadian science, technology and medicine, as well as sociologists and others interested in these fields, could only be surprised and shocked upon learning that Richard Adrian Jarrell died suddenly on 28 December 2013.

Born in the United States on 29 August 1946, Richard was only 67 and still full of projects and too active to retire when he so suddenly passed away. After a Major in History and Minors in Astronomy and in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University, he moved to Canada to attend the recently created (1967) Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. In 1972, he was among a first wave of PhD graduates from this institution, with a thesis on the well-known Tübingen astronomer, Michael Mästlin (1550–1631). From then on, his career would be linked with nearby York University, where he climbed the ladder from tutor and marker in 1970 to Assistant (1977–78), Associate (1978–90) and then Full Professor.

While maintaining an active interest in the history of 17th century astronomy, as his contributions to the General History of Astronomy, the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: Copernicus to Newton, and the Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics amply testify, he rapidly seized the opportunity to open a virgin field: the history of Canadian science. There had been, of course, papers on the past of Canadian science written here and there by active or retired scientists, including the 1938 volume A History of Science in Canada, edited by H.M. Tory, whose primary function was to show Americans that Canadians also had a scientific tradition. But it is fair to say that professional Canadian historians had never seen science and technology as a part of their research territory.

Still fresh from his PhD thesis, he published a paper in 1973 on “Science Education at the University of New Brunswick in the 19th Century” in the journal Acadiensis. Two years later his first paper on Canadian Astronomy appeared, which in turn led to his major book, The Cold Light of Dawn: A History of Canadian Astronomy, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1988.

What I have personally admired most about Richard’s academic contributions is the breadth of his understanding of Canadian history, which was not limited to its English-Canadian part, even less to Astronomy. His interests covered the history of Quebec science, as shown by his classic paper published in Social History/Histoire Sociale in 1977, “The Rise and Decline of Science in Quebec, 1824–1844.” He also made illuminating comparisons between Quebec and Ireland in his paper, “Colonialism and the Truncation of Science in Ireland and French Canada during the 19th Century,” published in HSTC Bulletin in 1981. One could also mention his work on technical education, which he was still polishing as a book, which I hope will be published, on agricultural and technical education in 19th century Ontario and Quebec. In recent years he moved again to new fields and published a fascinating paper on the birth of the Ontario Wine Industry in Ontario History in 2011. Most recently he started work on the history of skin cancer. Many participants at the Montreal meeting of our Society last November had the chance to hear him present the first results of this new endeavor.
In addition to his numerous papers, he also edited many books on Canadian science and technology as a way to promote the field. In 1974, he co-edited (the bizarrely titled) A Curious-Field-book: Science and Society in Canadian History with Trevor Levere, and this was followed in 1980 by edited volumes stemming from the first and second CSTHA meetings in Kingston (discussed further below). By the 1990s, Richard teamed up with a new generation of researchers, editing a book in 1991 with James P. Hull, containing their selection of the “best” papers from Scientia Canadensis. A year later it would be my turn to work closely with Richard to publish a volume in 1992 devoted to the role of the National Research Council in building Canadian science.

For most of those who have known Richard, his name will remain first and foremost attached to his many contributions toward building Canadian history of science and technology as a legitimate field of research and teaching. We have noted that his edited volumes had this function, and as a fine organizer, Richard also knew that the future of the history of Canadian science and technology could only be secured through the establishment of the basic institutional mechanisms that define disciplines: an academic journal and a scholarly association. His institution-building efforts began in 1976, in cooperation with Arnold Roos, with the launching of the HSTC Bulletin. Journal of the History of Canadian, Science, Technology and Medicine. This bulletin became, in 1985, Scientia Canadensis. Richard served as editor of the HSTC Bulletin and then the founding editor of Scientia Canadensis, and he continued to serve in that position through the 1980s. With regard to the need for a scholarly association, Richard initially turned to the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Science. However, although serving on that society’s Executive Committee (1972–75) and holding the position of First Vice President (1981–84), he understood that interest in Canadian topics was marginal in that organization and that the field would never grow on such a terrain. Therefore, together with several colleagues he founded the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association (CHSTA) in 1980, and he remained its Secretary-Treasurer until 1991.

Together with journals and professional societies, scholarly meetings are also an essential means to stimulate research and discussion. Here again Richard was at the center of action in building the field of Canadian history of science and technology. He co-organized the first meeting specially devoted to the history of Canadian, science, technology and medicine in Kingston in 1978 and that meeting — christened the “Kingston Conference” in honor of that founding event — was followed regularly every two years under the firm guidance of Richard, until 1991. Moreover, he took action to preserve and diffuse the results of the early meetings. In 1980, he co-edited the proceedings of the first CSTHA meeting in Kingston with his colleague Norman R. Ball, and then teamed up with Arnold Roos to edit the fruits of the Second, 1981, Kingston Conference under the title Critical Issues in the History of Canadian Science, Technology and Medicine. Eventually Scientia Canadensis became the principal venue for conference papers emanating from the biannual meetings, thus overcoming the need for an ongoing series of edited books.

As editor of the HSTC Bulletin and of Scientia Canadensis, Richard was always looking out for potential papers while attending conferences. It is in this context that I first met him in Montreal in June 1980 during the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Science, where I presented a talk on the reception of Quantum Mechanics at McGill University during the 1920s. I was then a graduate student at the Institut d’histoire et de sociopolitique des sciences at University of Montreal, and I was surprised that anyone could be interested in publishing my paper! Richard was not the kind of professor to play the mandarin or the-guy-who-knows-better and he did not look upon us as mere students but as researchers. We naturally became friends through our regular meetings at the Kingston Conferences, which (as far as I remember) he never missed.

At the end of the 1980s, convinced that the institutions he helped so much to foster had now grown up (the journal, meetings, and the Association), he passed the hand to a younger generation. James Hull and myself took the editorship of Scientia Canadensis in 1989 and to properly recognize his labor of love, Richard was named Editor emeritus in 1992. The following year he was named Honorary Life Member of our Association, the CHSTA, after he finally stepped down as Secretary-Treasurer in 1991.

Thanks to the breadth of his knowledge on Canadian and Quebec history of science, he has always helped us here in Montreal in participating as external examiner for many Master and PhD theses. Interestingly he was on the jury of the PhD thesis of Quebec’s best known figures in history of science: Raymond Duchesne (1984), Robert Gagnon (1989) and Stéphane Castonguay (1998). Most recently, in September 2013, he was part of the jury for the thesis defense of my student Matthew Wallace on the history of climate science in Canada.

In addition to actively promoting academic research on Canadian topics across the country, Richard made tireless contributions to his home institution. He headed York University’s STS program as its coordinator since 2011; he played a central role in the development of its graduate program in the larger field of STS; and, assisted by his colleagues, he led the recent effort to create an STS Department at York, the only one in Canada. The new Department will begin its operations in July 2014.

As if all that were not enough, Richard was a very active citizen in his local community of Thornhill-Markham. His passion for horticulture made him a member of the Thornhill Garden and Horticultural Society and, as one could guess, its Vice-president (2000–02) and then President (2003–04), only to return again for a second round of service as Second and First Vice-President since 2011. His generous involvement in his community was recognized twice through the Ontario Volunteer Service Award in 2002 and 2004, the year in between being filled by the Ontario Heritage Conservation Award offered to him in 2003.

Reflecting on the amazing diversity of all his activities, academic as well as civic, that filled a truly full life, I can only conclude that Richard’s true passion — and mission — was to plant seeds in a good soil, nurture them and closely follow their growth to fruition until they could live their own lives. As a father of two sons, he himself found his true roots in Canada where he will be remembered as an important Discipline and Community Builder. We lost his physical presence, but his memory is now preserved through the institutions he helped to create and nurture and which will continue to bear new fruits as long as we nourish them.

Arnold Roos adds the following vignette to Yves Gingras’ account of Richard Jarrell’s role in the founding of the CSTHA:

“Richard and I were revising some aspects of the CSHPS (Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science) constitution over a bottle of wine and we wondered if we could write a constitution on one page, which we managed to do. As we had a one page constitution, we decided to start the society (the CSTHA) and elected ourselves as President (in which capacity I served 6 years) and Sec.-Treasurer (in which capacity Richard served almost double that time). Richard himself also wrote about the early history of the CSTHA and this can be found in Scientia Canadensis, Vol. 11, No. 1 (32), 1987, pp. 37-45.

2 thoughts on “In Memory of a Discipline Builder: Richard Adrian Jarrell (1946–2013)

  1. I’d just like to contribute a small story about Richard. My first academic conference as a graduate student was a “Kingston Conference” over a decade ago. Richard was the program committee chair, and very kind and generous in answering all of my nervous questions before submitting my proposal and, after it was
    accepted, all of my questions before the conference and my talk. Much as Yves mentions above, he was a warm, constant presence at each and every CSTHA meeting I’ve been to since then, and even in the small things such as reassuring the novices he was surely a large part of what made each gathering (and the
    society at large) successful.

  2. I am deeply sorry to hear of Richard’s untimely death, and would like to add my tribute to his memory. Richard joined with me in the early 1990s, in beginning to write a comparative history of science and technology in Canada and Australia. Our first efforts in this direction brought together colleagues from both countries, and produced a special issue of Scientia Canadensis and, in parallel, a book we edited together, entitled ‘Dominions Apart: Reflections on the Culture of Science and Technology in Canada and Australia, 1850-1945 (Ottawa, 1994). Proceeding from our shared interests in comparing colonial and national narratives, we looked at a wide range of similarities and differences in our respective intellectual, political, scientific, environmental, and economic histories. This was to be the first instalment in a series of studies which, owing to a lack of resources, we were unable to pursue, and much work in this direction is still to be done. But we made a good start, and I was, and remain, deeply indebted to Richard for his initiative, friendship and generosity in taking the first steps needed to explore a new frontier. Equally, I warmly recall, and shall always value, his wise counsel in the early days of ‘discipline building’, especially in what has since become the established discipline of Science and Technology Studies. Vale!
    — Roy MacLeod, University of Sydney, Australia

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