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Richard Douglas, former humanities chair, dies at 83

Richard M. Douglas
Richard M. Douglas

Richard M. Douglas, former chair of the Humanities Department and professor emeritus of history, died Monday, Aug. 29, in Needham, Mass. He was 83.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, in Kresge Chapel at MIT, followed by a reception at Twenty Chimneys in the Stratton Student Center until 2 p.m.

Douglas, who became MIT's Humanities Department chair in 1962, inspired the initial reshaping of the General Education program, now the HASS-D (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Distribution) program. And he was responsible, along with Warren Seamans, for founding the MIT Historical Collection, which subsequently became the MIT Museum.

Philip S. Khoury, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, said, "Dick Douglas was a natural leader with a deep commitment to humanistic learning and to nurturing young faculty in their teaching and research. He was one of the great pillars of the MIT humanities."

After stepping down as chairman of the department in 1973, Douglas served as head of the history faculty for many years.

He promoted a thoughtful, innovative approach to the teaching of history, according to Khoury, who is also a history professor. Khoury described Douglas as a "broadly educated, cultivated man" who served as a mentor to generations of junior faculty.

"He helped the Humanities Department get up and running, and got us not only national recognition but recognition within MIT," said Khoury, who met Douglas when he joined MIT's history faculty in 1981. "He urged us to teach with abandon, to take chances, to be provocative and not to be narrow, but to look at the big picture."

Douglas specialized in medieval and Renaissance history and wrote an important book on Jacopo Sadoleto, an Italian Renaissance theologian and philosopher, as well as articles on the rise of individualism during the Renaissance.

He was also interested in the history of technology and was an expert on the history of tools, from the medieval era on. He was especially knowledgeable about American farm machinery and tools, of which he had an extraordinary collection.

Among his many contributions to MIT, Douglas was instrumental in the creation of the I. Austin Kelly Fund, which has grown into the largest fund in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences devoted solely to supporting scholarship and teaching in the humanities. The fund was renamed the Kelly-Douglas Fund when Douglas retired in 1991.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Douglas earned his B.A. from Princeton University in 1943. After graduating, he enlisted in the Marines Corps and served as a captain in the Pacific until 1946. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947 and 1955, respectively, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Douglas was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Montpellier (France) in 1952-53, and taught at the College of Wooster, Brown University and Amherst College before joining the MIT faculty.

He was also involved in secondary school education, serving on the Newton School Committee for six years and helping to rewrite the Newton schools' social studies curriculum.

Douglas was a founding member of MIT's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and had served as its president.

He is survived by his wife, Mary M. Douglas of Needham; three sons, Samuel W. Douglas of Brighton, Mass., Andrew S. Douglas of Medford, Mass., and David M. Douglas of East Hampton, N.Y.; a granddaughter; and three stepsons.

Donations may be made to the Kelly-Douglas Fund and sent to the attention of Mary Speare, Office of Communications/Donor Relations at MIT, Room E19-411, 77 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139-4307.

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