Professor Charles Gillispie’s Legacy of Intellectual Leadership

Gillispie family

Charles Gillispie, Princeton’s Dayton-Stockton Professor of History Emeritus, epitomized the qualities associated with an ideal professor: rigorous scholarship and a devotion to students. 

“He was ‘old school’ at its best, from his uncompromising scholarly standards to his unparalleled devotion to the bow tie and plaid,” said Professor of History Emily Thompson *92, who studied under Professor Gillispie as a graduate student. “He tempered the precision of science with the grace of the humanities, bridging the two cultures with intelligence and style.”

Professor Gillispie, who died in 2015 at age 97, co-founded the University’s internationally recognized Program in History of Science  and helped to establish one of Princeton’s most esteemed awards, the Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Graduating Scholarship. His life’s work continues, thanks to gifts he made to the University through life income gifts which provided payments to him during his lifetime, and a bequest from his estate. The remainders from his pooled income funds, charitable gift annuities, and charitable trusts, combined with a gift from his estate, have established an endowment for the Charles C. and Emily R. Gillispie Chair in the History of Science—his wife, Emily, predeceased him in 2013—and a new Sachs scholarship that brings students from England to study at Princeton. 

His bequest also provides support for the weekly History of Science Program Seminars he attended well into his nineties. “Our program is still animated by Charles’s intellectual rigor and the vigorous discussions that flourished under his leadership,” said Angela Creager, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science.

“History was my joy”

Professor Gillispie studied chemistry as an undergraduate. He switched to history for his master’s studies, which were interrupted by World War II service with the United States Third Army in Europe as a captain in a heavy mortar battalion. In a retrospective of his career he wrote that “Chemistry was my duty… History was my joy.” He saw the history of science as a sub-discipline that explored science as a force that shapes societies, as significant as economics, war, and religion.

An expert on scientific technological activity in 18th-century France, he published works on the history of mechanics, ballooning, the Napoleonic archaeological investigations of Egypt, and probability. But it is possible that he will be remembered most for editing the award-winning multivolume Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Honoring a Friendship

In 1956, Professor Gillispie became the freshman advisor to Daniel Sachs ’60, an athlete who hoped to someday enter politics. At their initial meeting teacher and student discovered shared roots in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Their friendship continued through Sachs’s undergraduate years and time at the University of Oxford. 

When Sachs was diagnosed with cancer at age 28, Professor Gillispie, with Sachs’s family and friends, created a scholarship in his name. It funds study, work, or travel abroad for Princeton seniors who best exemplify Sachs’s character, intelligence, and commitment, and whose eventual career path is most likely to benefit the public. Professor Gillispie and his wife maintained close ties with the Sachs awardees, inviting them to dinner and hosting a post-Commencement graduation brunch.

“From the beginning, Charles’s vision for the scholarship was remarkable both for its breadth and foresight,” said Matthew Stewart ’85, a former Sachs scholar who currently chairs the scholarship organization’s executive committee. 

“He imagined that one day it would not just send promising scholars from Princeton into the world but also bring them to Princeton. For 46 years, the scholarship had funds only to fulfill the first part of that promise. The extraordinary gifts from Charles and Emily have made it possible not only to secure the existing program but also to offer an additional scholarship to graduates of Worcester College, Oxford, for one year of graduate study at Princeton. The first of what we hope will be many such scholars arrives this fall.”

A Lasting Legacy

Professor Gillispie received many awards during his lifetime, including an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 2011. The citation noted his influence on the University and its students, one that will continue with his legacy: “Generations of students, and Princeton herself, have flourished under his steady tutelage and his gentle guidance.”

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