Noel Swerdlow, U. of C. Professor who Won a Macarthur ‘Genius Grant,’ Dies at 79

Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, history of science

During 42 years as a University of Chicago history and astronomy professor, Noel Swerdlow wove together the humanities and the sciences through his study of the history of science.

Known both for his sometimes-pointed criticism of other academics’ work and for his warm and hospitable persona, Swerdlow was a familiar figure on campus, often joined by his dogs. For his scholarly work, Swerdlow won a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant,” in 1988.

“Noel was the most generous teacher I have ever known — and I’ve been in universities since 1967 and known many master teachers,” said Princeton University history professor Tony Grafton, who earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the U. of C. “He suggested the subject for my dissertation, which required me to learn some astronomy, and to help me with that he spent two three-hour sessions a week with me, from fall 1971 to spring 1973, reading primary sources and improving what I wrote. He was equally generous to later students — and to early career scholars around the world. When they sent him work he thought was serious, he would spend hours commenting on it and improving it, and help them publish.”

Swerdlow, 79, died of complications from leukemia on July 24 at his home, said his wife of 32 years, Nadia. He was a resident of Sierra Madre, Calif., and previously had resided in Lincoln Park.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Swerdlow earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA in 1964. He then earned a Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale University in 1968. An avid music enthusiast, Swerdlow originally had intended to focus his graduate studies on medieval music, but he eventually was drawn to studying the history of science.


Swerdlow’s area of scholarship was on the history of mathematics and astronomy from their origins through the 17th century. He worked painstakingly to comprehend ancient scholars’ work from the perspective of their own times by understanding the mathematics, instruments, observations and data that they would have used.

Two of Swerdlow’s major works involved 16th-century mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In a 1973 journal article, Swerdlow authored a translation and exploration of Copernicus’ early astronomical work, “The Commentariolus,” and with famed science historian Otto Neugebauer, he co-wrote the two-volume treatise “Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus,” which was published in 1984.

Swerdlow’s research made him the world’s leading authority on the technical aspects of Copernicus’ work and astronomical mathematics during the Renaissance.


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