Frederic Lawrence Holmes, a former master of Jonathan Edwards College and chairman of the History of Medicine department, died March 27.
Known for his caring manner, assertive scholarship and sympathetic style during more than a quarter century of service to the University, Holmes was also credited with pioneering the History of Science program at Yale. As master, he was also known for his strong support for smaller-style classes and for emphasizing the use of residential colleges for learning, not just for living.
Holmes was a world authority on the history of science and wrote books on 18th- to 20th-century scientists. History of science professor emeritus Martin Klein said Holmes was fascinated with the development of science throughout history.
“His specific interest was following in close detail how a scientist thinks and works,” Klein said. “He started with Lavoisier [and proceeded] all the way up to a 20th-century scientist named Krebs.”
In recent years, Holmes’ persistent support for a new program in the history of science and medicine led to the creation of a new area of study at Yale. Without Holmes, who was known as Larry, this program would still not exist at Yale, History of Medicine Chairman John Warner said.
“It was really Larry Holmes’ persistent advocacy of history of science that was responsible for bringing it back to Yale,” Warner said. “His advocacy to the administration, to anyone who would listen, led to the constitution of a new program in the history of science, history of medicine.”
In addition to his scholarship, Holmes was known for his diplomatic manner. Warner said Holmes had a unique style of inquiry that set him apart from many in his field.
“Larry had a way of asking questions that got to the heart of the matter, without putting the speaker on the defensive,” Warner said.
Holmes was admired for his gentle approach to his students, in addition to his intellectualism, Jonathan Edwards Master Gary Haller said.
“He was viewed as a good and sympathetic master,” Haller said. “He gave very scholarly addresses to his graduating seniors, which I often heard.”
While master, Holmes was also an advocate of smaller, college-based classes. While not the originator of the idea, Holmes was a stronger proponent of residential college seminars than many masters at the time, Klein said.
Mary Yearl, a graduate student in history of medicine who had Holmes as her thesis advisor, said that Holmes never had a bad word to say about anyone or anything.
“I can’t remember him having anything bad to say about any [of my] scholarship,” Yearl said. “Even if he didn’t agree, he would still smile.”
Born in Cincinnati in 1932, Holmes first came to Yale in 1964 after serving in the Air Force and teaching at MIT. Holmes left Yale in 1972 for the University of Western Ontario, but he returned in 1977, when he was granted a full professorship and awarded the chair of the School of Medicine’s history of medicine section.
Holmes, whose wife died in 2000, is survived by three daughters, three grandchildren and his partner, Petra Gentz-Werner.