In Memoriam: Nathan Sivin (1931-2022)

Photo of Professor Nathan Sivin, standing behind a sculpture of a cat mid-stride.

Nathan Sivin, Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, died on June 24, 2022 in Philadelphia at the age of 91. His wife of 58 years, Carole Delmore Sivin, a talented artist best known for her masks and ceramics, preceded him in death in December 2020. Many AAS members are among the friends, colleagues, and students who enjoyed their company over one-pot dinners, fine wines, and homemade ice cream in the Chestnut Hill home they shared for over forty years. The new Sivin Archive at the Penn libraries, comprised of all of his extant papers as well as her notebooks, sketchbooks, slides, and photo albums, offers a unique lens on the history of twentieth-century sinology. Furthermore, the Faculty of Humanities and Surasky Central Library at Tel Aviv University will integrate about 6,000 of his books into their system as the basis for a research lab on the history of science, medicine, and religion in China dedicated to his legacy.

Nathan Sivin grew up in West Virginia, where, by his own account, he received a bad education. Nevertheless, he was awarded a Pepsi-Cola scholarship designated for the top two students in his state (one male, one female). He first matriculated at M.I.T. as a chemistry major. Before his senior year, however, he took a leave of absence during the Korean War to join the Army. Later he enrolled in an 18-month Chinese language course at the Army Language School in California. When Sivin returned to M.I.T., he was among the first cohort to receive a B.S. in their new major of science and humanities. He then received his M.A. (1960) and his Ph.D. (1966) from Harvard University’s History of Science Department, writing the department’s first thesis on the history of science in China.

His first book, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies (Harvard University Press, 1968), was a study and translation of an alchemical text by the seventh-century literatus and healer Sun Simiao. Subsequent publications explored Chinese mathematical astronomy across almost the whole of imperial history, from the Han Dynasty through the Ming and Qing introduction of European methods and models. Later he explored Chinese religion and medicine just as broadly and deeply. Over the course of his career, Sivin published books (eighteen) and essays (more than seventy) on a diverse range of topics and periods. His contributions to the history of East Asian science, technology, medicine, philosophy, and religion earned him an international reputation and a lasting scholarly legacy.

Some of his most valuable contributions re-oriented whole domains of inquiry. For example, he contributed to Science and Civilisation in China, Joseph Needham’s magisterial project that explored China’s scientific heritage, but in his own essays he disagreed memorably with quite a few of Needham’s premises. He later republished those essays in the volumes Science in Ancient China (Variorum, 1995) and Medicine, Philosophy, and Religion in Ancient China (Variorum, 2005). In Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1987), his translation of a classical-medicine textbook from the PRC, Sivin laid out an agenda that inspired other scholars of healing in contemporary China. He asked whether the changes in classical Chinese medicine that had occurred since the late nineteenth century differed qualitatively from the changes that had taken place in earlier periods of Chinese history. In his view, they did; the system had lost coherence even in the eyes of its practitioners. The Way and the Word (Yale, 2002), co-authored with Geoffrey Lloyd, asked fundamental questions about what it means to compare science in different cultural contexts. It offered an audacious example, comparing ancient Greek and Chinese science embedded in their respective cultural manifolds over a span of six hundred years. Granting the Seasons (Springer, 2008) analyzed the calendar reform undertaken during the reign of Khubilai Khan in the late thirteenth century. Sivin viewed this as the most innovative change in an astronomical system in Chinese history, and explained the political, social, and intellectual factors that contributed to make it so. Finally, in Health Care in Eleventh-Century China (Springer, 2015), he applied the insights of medical anthropology to middle-period China, shifting the conventional focus away from elite physicians and toward the ritual and herbal healers who provided most of the health care.

Despite having a reputation as a contrarian adept at pointed critique, Sivin collaborated productively and generously with numerous colleagues. In addition to his work with Needham and with Lloyd, he shared a long scholarly friendship with Shigeru Nakayama, with whom he edited the second volume in MIT Press’s East Asian Science series, Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition (1973). He founded the journal Chinese Science and edited it for twenty years, helping to establish and expand the field. Chinese Science eventually became East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, the official journal of the International Society of the History of East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine. Sivin was the society’s first president (1991-1993). For nearly twenty years a member and eventually the chairman of the board of the philanthropic organization East Asian History of Science, Inc., he helped raise funds to build the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, England, and expand its valuable library. He was, in short, socially, institutionally, and intellectually central to developing into a formal discipline the history of science, technology, and medicine in East Asia.

Sivin began his career as an assistant professor at M.I.T. In the course of being promoted to full professor, he established the university’s Technology Studies program, now known as the Science, Technology, and Society Program. In 1977, he left M.I.T. for the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his career, first in Chinese Studies and then in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, from which he officially retired in 2006. He accumulated many awards over the course of his long career, among them membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recognition as an honorary professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The greatest accolade, however, may be an inadvertent one from a colleague who pejoratively referred to “the NFL: Nathan’s Female League,” which in fact acknowledges the many women scholars Sivin supported in countless ways—the three of us among them.

He leaves behind a host of grateful friends, colleagues, and students around the globe who will remember his wit, acumen, and generous editing; his love of good food, fine wine, and cats; and his commitment to both ideas and the people who have them.

— Submitted by Marta Hanson, Michael Nylan, and Hilary A. Smith