Remembering Ron Rainger, 1949-2016

Ronald Rainger
Ronald Rainger

At our graduate student conference in May 2016, I broke the rules of etiquette by checking my email on my phone, and instantly regretted it. It was news of Ron Rainger’s passing. Knowing that his illness had gotten worse, and that he did not have long to live, I expected the news. But it was still painful to receive it. My thoughts and sympathy go out to his wife and extended family in their time of grief. There is a formal obituary here.

To Ron’s cohort of scholars, he was known principally for his work on Henry Fairfield Osborn and natural history, and for his contributions to volumes on the history of American biology.  But for me, he was always the ocean guy. He and I worked on such similar things from the 1990s forward that we engaged in many email conversations, and lifted many pints together at conferences, gossiping about personalities (past and present), mulling over interpretations, and helping each other track down details.

In the two months since his death, I’ve been thinking about Ron a lot. It’s funny to think that my first encounter with the name Ronald Rainger was to imagine him as my nemesis. I still remember when, in the late 1990s, I was writing a PhD dissertation on international cooperation in oceanography, and I leafed through the program of the History of Science Society (the 1997 La Jolla meeting, to be precise) and saw his name. Who is Ron Rainger? I thought. And why has he stolen my subject?  I don’t remember the title of his paper but I remember the feeling of dread I felt. I thought for sure I’d been scooped, and that I would have to go back to the drawing board and find a new topic.  And it was true, we were writing about similar things. But anyone who knew Ron could have reassured me on that point. He was anything but territorial. Studying postwar history of oceanography was wide open (and probably still is!). I would soon learn that he was a very welcoming, generous person with a genuine interest in understanding the past and connecting with other scholars. Ron introduced me to his crew, helping me to meet other historians of the earth and environmental sciences. From my point of view as a graduate student, Ron’s main characteristic seemed to be his ability to laugh, with his full body shaking, at even the slightest attempt at humor.  We became friends.

Ron wrote a pretty detailed piece on Roger Revelle and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, published in Earth Sciences History in 2000. Because I also was interested in Revelle, and in Scripps, it was a kind of bible.  In those days of photocopying, I kept it in one of my most important manila folders, not to be lost. Now it’s been reprinted and is available as a PDF (no fair!).  I think he then imagined that he would write a biography of Revelle, but for several reasons (including his illness) that never came to pass. Then later, when I began to explore the topic of radioactive waste at sea, I found that Ron had scooped me (again!) and had written a book chapter about the use of radioisotopes by oceanographers.

Barrow news
The local paper in Barrow, where a history of oceanography conference can make the front page. There’s Ron, in the center!

Ron’s chapter on the use of radioactive materials (including waste) by oceanographers was part of an edited volume (The Machine in Neptune’s Garden) that came out of one of the workshops named after the 19th century American physical oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

The most fun I had with Ron was when several of us traveled to Barrow, Alaska, in 2004, for another Maury workshop. This one was focused on polar oceanography (the resulting book was called Extremes), and Ron did another detailed analysis of an institution-builder, this time Edward “Iceberg” Smith, who at one time directed the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The trip was great. We stayed in an old military dorm that had been transitioned into a science center. We saw a polar bear. We put our fingers in the Arctic. We learned from local Inupiat people. We did some Cold War tourism by visiting the Defense Early Warning station up there (on DEWLINE Road, of course). We drank a bit of whiskey that someone had smuggled onto the plane headed to that “dry” town. And of course, we talked a lot about the history of oceanography.

Ron was strangely photogenic. Though small in stature, he stands out in every group photo I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because he always seemed like the glue holding together a group of people from lots of different backgrounds. Or maybe it’s just because he laughed a lot!  He patiently tolerated not-so-kind humor from his friends, too; there was a running “Where’s Ron” joke that overly-tall people may have made to other similarly-tall individuals standing next to Ron.

When I got the email announcing Ron’s death, I was watching my colleague Carmel Finley introduce the speakers for our final panel.  Carmel also knew Ron, and also writes about the history of the oceans. And two of the graduate students on that panel were speaking about the history of marine sciences. Since I met Ron when I was a graduate student and he was already an established scholar, and he sat through many of my panel presentations at conferences, I just put my phone away and listened to these students, and thought about Ron. It was a bittersweet moment. But I felt grateful for it, just as I am grateful to him.


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