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Ronald Numbers, Historian of Science and Ellen White, Dies at 81


Ronald Numbers, a leading American scholar in the history of religion and science whose 1976 book Prophetess of Health challenged the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s belief in Ellen G. White’s work, died on July 24. He was 81. A great raconteur who uniquely contributed to the upper echelons of both religion and science historiography, he served as a president of both the American Society of Church History and the History of Science Society.

The son of an Adventist pastor and the grandson of a General Conference president, Numbers was raised in the church and attended Adventist schools. After completing a degree in mathematics and physics at Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University) in 1963, he began a master’s in history at Florida State University. It was there that he discovered his love for the history of science. “It became apparent that respectable historians of science could study science and religion,” he said in an interview. “I had been raised and educated in a very conservative religious environment and I thought, ‘Oh, this would be fantastic.’” Numbers decided he liked the “feel” of the area of study so much that went on to obtain his doctorate in the history of science at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969.

Numbers began his academic career teaching in Adventist higher education, first at Andrews University and then at Loma Linda University, where he was asked to teach a course on the history of medicine and science to medical students. Four lectures about the importance of the health message to the Adventist Church would eventually turn into Prophetess of Health. The book, based on extensive research in the archives of the Ellen G. White Estate, set out to understand White within the context of the 19th-century health reform movement, with Numbers arguing that many of White’s ideas came from her contemporaries rather than divine inspiration. “This is, I believe, the first book about her that seeks neither to defend nor to damn but simply to understand,” he wrote.

Upon publication, Prophetess of Health ignited a firestorm of controversy, with the Ellen G. White Estate calling it “a biased, disappointing book.” Many scholars praised the work, with historian and biographer Fawn M. Brodie calling it “excellent, meticulously documented social history.”

Numbers’s scholarship examining Ellen White created a rift with the Adventist Church that would never fully heal. He was forced from his position at Loma Linda University and would spend the rest of his career teaching outside the Adventist system.         

In response to his research about Ellen White, Adventist denominational leaders sent an extensive critique of Numbers to all theology and history teachers in the church's higher education institutions in the United States. During this era, Spectrum provided Numbers and his defenders a place to explain the importance of his findings as well as his historiography. “Such an approach is necessary,” wrote Gary Land in a 1978 issue of the journal, “for the sort of evidence that Numbers has found in Ellen White's teaching on health reform has also been discovered by other scholars in her writings on history, literature, science, education and social attitudes.” This understanding of his approach proved prophetic—in many ways, Numbers’s methodology was also the message. It became a respected professional model for later generations of Adventist historians.

“It is not easy to examine critically the beliefs that have given meaning to one’s life,” Numbers wrote in a 1977 issue of the Spectrum journal. “Sometimes the task can be excruciatingly painful, but it is always immensely rewarding.”

In 1974, after leaving Loma Linda University, Numbers began an almost 40-year tenure researching and teaching the history of science and religion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He retired in 2013 as professor emeritus. In 2003, he was awarded the Hilldale Award in the Arts and Humanities Division, recognized for his excellence in teaching, research, and science. Throughout his career, he was offered several prestigious fellowships and visiting professorships around the world and also served as the editor of Isis, an international journal of the history of science, from 1989–93.

Numbers was a prolific writer and editor who contributed to over two dozen books. In addition to Prophetess of Health, which was published in three different editions (1976, 1992, 2008), he also wrote The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, and Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science, all published by Harvard University Press.

In 2008, Numbers’s lifetime of scholarly achievements was recognized with a prestigious George Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society. Seven years later, in 2015, he was presented with the Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Anne Reid, executive director of NCSE, gave a statement on his contributions to the scientific field. “It would be hard to think of anyone who has contributed as much as Ron Numbers has to the understanding of creationism as a historical and social phenomenon, through his own work and the work that it has inspired,” she said.

Numbers’s list of accolades tells the story of a trusted guide through the historical record of creationism and science. In 1991, The Creationists was awarded an Albert C. Outler Prize for Ecumenical Church History. With co-editor David Lindberg, Numbers produced The Cambridge History of Science, the first comprehensive history of science in 30 years. The final installment of the eight-book series was released on May 28, 2020. “Ron had a nose for the story. He read everything,” recalls friend and fellow historian Jonathan Butler. “He was conversant with all the high-blown historical analysis. He knew good work, and he knew what was phony. He cut to the quick of the weakness of an argument. But what Ron especially liked about history, and what he was especially good at as a historian, was story-telling.”


Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum.

Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Isabella Koh is an intern for Spectrum.

Image credit: Science History InstituteCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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