Remembering Alison Winter, Professor of History, the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the College

Alison Winter was remembered for her insightful scholarship, her ready wit, and her love for her family in a service November 2 at Rockefeller Chapel, an event marked with sadness for the passing too soon of a beloved colleague and friend.

Winter, AB’87, was a Professor of History, the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the College.  Her research focused on Victorian science and medicine, twentieth-century psychology and psychiatry, and medical ethics.   She died June 22 at the age of 50.

Her husband of 24 years, Adrian Johns spoke of their lives together at the service. “We met in Cambridge, around October 8, 1987. I recall an immediate sense of encountering an imaginative, renewing force - someone who could blow apart the stuffiness and conformity and complacency that can sometimes characterize a place like Cambridge, or England in general,” said Johns, the Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History.

“ I remember saying as much to a friend as we walked to the pub after that first meeting. I think she saw me as an eccentric nerd. But luckily for me, nerds were her type, and from almost that day we were inseparable.

 “She had a creative audacity that was just relentless. Nothing was too unconventional (or too difficult) to take on - or rather, I often got the impression that the more unconventional or difficult something was, the better,” he said.

He remembered her love as well. “From the moment when our first child, David, was born in 2000, Alison changed. It was the only step-change that I saw in our time together, and it happened in a moment. It became clear from right then that this was what she lived for. She loved being a mother - every aspect of it, including the grungy, squidgy bits that others run from.”

As a scholar, she explored how 19th-century mesmerism catalyzed efforts to define and demarcate science in Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.  “Like all her projects, it was as much a work of art as of scholarship; if you read it now, every sentence still comes across as beautifully poised. I can’t help pointing out that it's the only academic book I know that has a cult Japanese manga based on it,” Johns said.

 She looked at the cultural and scientific history of human understanding of memory in Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, which won the UChicago Press’s Gordon J. Laing Prize in 2014.

Winter taught undergraduates in the history of medicine, film and gender studies, guided doctoral students in their dissertations, and mentored postdoctoral fellows at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

“Her playful and piercing intellect transformed everything she focused on,” said Emilio Kourí, History Department Chair in opening remarks to a crowd of about 250 friends, family, and colleagues. “If our calling as scholars is to generate new knowledge, and to do so for the love of truth, then Alison Winter exemplified what all of us in a university aspire to become. Plus there was something bigger about her, something even more important: her open love and embrace of life.”

Between the eulogies, an organist presented music from J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. Other speakers at the service were former student, Caitjan Gainty, AM'05, PhD'12 (History); family friends Robin Mitchell and Eileen Lyon; and UChicago faculty members James Chandler, AM'72, PhD'78 (English), and Robert Richards, PhD'78 (History).

Chandler recalled her interest in music.  “My earliest fixed memory of her as a student in the College was of her whistling baroque melodies, allegro, in the corridors of Gates-Blake on the way to and from our meetings. Vivaldi or Albinoni, mostly,” said Chandler, the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor of English Language and Literature.

“Her conversation crackled with intellectual energy, and the papers were dazzling, especially the one she wrote on Darwin and Milton for a reading course in her final year.  Once she learned that Paradise Lost was one of the books that Darwin carried with him on the Beagle, she became obsessed with figuring out what it might have meant to him.  I can still recall many of her fresh insights and strong elaborations,” he added.

Another speaker who knew Winter as a student in the College was Richards, who later became her colleague. He said that she came to the study of the history of science as a compromise between her interest in English literature and her father’s wish that she study science. “That compromise would become a passion,” said Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine.

After receiving a PhD at the University of Cambridge and serving on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology,  Winter and Johns joined the UChicago faculty in 2001.

Richards taught with Winter in a seminar, “My Favorite Readings in the History and Philosophy of Science.”  Richards said he enjoyed the intellectual interchange the two developed in the class, which was part of their relationship.

“We continued our wrangling in that class, with Alison goading me, and I usually taking the bait.  You could never get angry at Alison, since she always smiled sweetly as she pushed in the blade a bit further.  I think we supplied ample amusement for our students,” he said.

An old friend and former fellow student at Cambridge, Lyon, said “Alison had an uncanny ability to envision an over-arching argument for a piece of work very early in the process. She also had an incredible capacity for discerning and extracting nuggets out of each source she found and thereby illuminating connections between seemingly disparate things.”

She also remembered her charm in working with others when she needed to work in a library archive when her son Benjamin was only a few months old. She engaged the archivist in a conversation about his own research and was quickly able to overcome restrictions that would have prevented her bringing Benjamin along, Lyon recalled. In addition to Benjamin and David, her other children are Lizzie and Zoe.

“Alison was so incredibly proud of her four children – each of whom is immensely gifted and has exceeded even her most exacting standards in terms of what she was able to see them achieve. It would probably embarrass all of them to know how much she told me about them. During my recent visits, we reminisced a lot about the joy that Adrian and the children brought to her life,” Lyon said.

“While I still have not come to terms with the loss of Alison, I am grateful that she was back at the University of Chicago for the last years of her life. This University, where she was an undergraduate, was a very special place for her.

“The support provided by this community during her illness was incredible – whether it was the practical help with day-to-day things, such as the abundance of delicious meals delivered to her house on an almost daily basis, or the ways in which colleagues made it possible for Alison to continue to be intellectually engaged for as long as she possibly could. This was perhaps the greatest gift you could have given her. There could be no more fitting place to remember Alison,” Lyon said.