A death in the family: Father Ernan McMullin

Author: Notre Dame Magazine staff

A leading philosopher of science, recruited out of his doctoral studies at Belgium’s University of Louvain in 1954 by a young Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, and remembered by colleagues as “one of the giants of Notre Dame,” has died. Father Ernan McMullin, a native of County Donegal in northwestern Ireland, was a Galileo expert whose hundreds of articles and 14 books on such subjects as the relationship between theology and the cosmos made him, in the words of his friend, colleague and occasional sparring partner, Michael Ruse of Florida State University, “one of the best-known philosophers and historians of science in the past half century.”

An intrepid scholar, McMullin demanded the same tireless work ethic of his colleagues in philosophy, the department he chaired from 1965 to 1972. With Hesburgh’s blessing, McMulllin pursued a major shift in the department’s intellectual center. Thomists, once dominant, became a minority on the faculty. “If there is a basic pluralism of respect,” McMullin reflected in the pages of this magazine shortly after stepping down as chair, “a department will neither end up with strict orthodoxy, whether it be that of Thomism or language philosophy, nor will it suffer from constant warring between intradepartmental empires.”

McMullin led by example, winning respect and friendship with a charm and erudition that marked his direction of the History and Philosophy of Science program and the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, and saw him elected president of four different professional organizations.

He was equally dedicated and cordial in the classroom. McMullin taught Notre Dame undergraduates for the better part of 40 years and continued to offer graduate seminars until his full retirement in 2003. He twice won the University’s Burns Award for graduate instruction, making him one of only two professors so honored to this day.

Father McMullin passed his retirement in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Donegal, where he died on February 8 at age 86.