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By Allan Franklin, University of Colorado Boulder
John Lewis Heilbron, Professor Emeritus of History and History of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and a Member of the Modern History Faculty of the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow in the Oxford Museum for History of Science and Worcester College, Oxford, is the winner of the 2006 APS/AIP Prize for History of Physics “For his ground-breaking and broad historical studies, ranging from the use of renaissance churches for astronomy, through 17th and 18th century electrical science, to modern quantum mechanics.”
Heilbron was educated at the University of California at Berkeley where he received A.B. and M.A. degrees in physics in 1955 and 1958 and a Ph.D. degree in history in 1964 under Thomas S. Kuhn. After a term as Assistant Director of the Sources for History of Quantum Physics Project, he began his academic career as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania (1964‑1967) and then returned to Berkeley, rising through the academic ranks to become Professor and Director of the Office for the History of Science and Technology in 1973, Class of 1936 Professor of History and History of Science in 1985, and Professor Emeritus in 1994. He also served as Vice Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley from 1990 to 1994. He has held visiting appointments as Andrew Dickson White Professor at Large at Cornell University (1985-1991), the California Institute of Technology (1997), and Yale University (2002-2004). Since 1996 he has been a Member of the Modern History Faculty of the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow in the Oxford Museum for History of Science and Worcester College, Oxford.
Heilbron’s publications on the history of physics have been groundbreaking and of astonishing breadth. As one writer said, “his major books deal with a stunning variety of subjects including electricity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Max Planck and his moral dilemmas, the use of churches in early modern Europe as solar observatories, the development of geometry, Henry Moseley, and Ernest Lawrence and his laboratory.” These works, and the large number of papers he has published, are uniformly of outstanding quality and display an ability to deal with the technical aspects of science as well as the social, political, and institutional contexts in which science has been pursued in the past. His book, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Harvard University Press, 1999), was awarded the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society, its highest book award, in 2001.
Simultaneously with producing this splendid body of work, Heilbron has enthusiastically and effectively taught many undergraduate and graduate courses and has directed a variety of doctoral dissertations. He also has edited, for the past twenty-five years, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (which he expanded in 1986 to include the biological sciences), one of the leading journals in the history of science. As an editor he has had an enormous and beneficial influence on work done in the history of physics, both because he has published only work that meets his own exacting standards, and because of his legendary critical and clarifying editorial comments and revisions of the papers he has published in this journal.
Heilbron’s scholarly work has brought him widespread international recognition. He has received the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society (1993), its highest award, the Pictet Prize of the Association for the History of Science and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle (2004), and honorary doctorates from the University of Bologna (1988), the University of Pavia (2000), and the University of Uppsala (2000). He has been elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as a Foreign Member (1987), to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988), the American Philosophical Society (1990), and has served as President of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences.