Ronald L. Numbers, the leading historian of creationism, dies at 81

Ronald L. Numbers

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The eminent historian of science Ronald L. Numbers died on July 23, 2023, at the age of 81, according to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal. His most famous book was The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992), revised and expanded as The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (2006), which is generally acknowledged to be the definitive history of the antievolutionist movement, praised by creationists and evolutionists alike. He also edited or coedited the eight-volume Cambridge History of Science, a ten-volume series of early creationist books, and a number of popular books debunking historical myths about science and religion.

Numbers grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist family, but his scholarly research on Adventism, especially his Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (1976), led to his leaving the church. His knowledge of Adventism also informed The Creationists, which revealed the way in which White influenced modern young-earth creationism by way of the seminal figure of George McCready Price, whose version of earth history Numbers "learned at my parents' knees." In the introduction to The Creationists, he explained, "Although I no longer believe in creationism of any kind, I am strongly committed to treating its advocates with the same respect I might accord evolutionists." That commitment was evident throughout his writings on creationism, including the revised and expanded version of The Creationists, which added a chapter on the "intelligent design" movement and a chapter on the global reach of antievolutionism, and Darwinism Comes to America (1998), a collection of his essays on the American reception of Darwin. (In 2004, however, he spoke his mind by calling for legislation to ban the teaching of creationism in Wisconsin.) In recognition of his scholarship on the history of creationism, Numbers was awarded NCSE's Friend of Darwin award in 2015.

Numbers was born in Boulder, Colorado, on June 3, 1942. He received a B.A. from Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University) in 1963, a M.A. from Florida State University in 1965, and a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. He spent the bulk of his career, from 1974 to 2013, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was the William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine from 1991 and the Hillsdale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine from 1997. His honors include the 2008 George Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society for "a lifetime of exceptional scholarly achievement by a distinguished scholar."

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.