Leslie Pearce Williams (1927 – February 7, 2015), brother of Charles Williams, the long-time business manager of the Cornell Alumni News, chaired professor at Cornell University's Department of History, also chaired the department through many of its most tumultuous years. In the mid-1980s, he was the founder of Cornell's program in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which later became part of the Department of Science & Technology Studies. A tall and imposing figure, he reveled in the teaching of both the History of Science and the History of Western Civilization, and enjoyed giving his presentation, "The Notorious Note-Taking Lecture," to students entering the university. A real showman, he attracted SRO crowds to his Western Civ lectures, speaking without notes for 50 perfectly timed and pitched lectures that combined abstract and profound concepts with an unusual ability to play to the peanut gallery. His portrayals of James I and Rousseau, along with many others, made lasting impressions on generations of Cornell undergraduates, winning him the Clark Teaching Award in 1971 from the College of Arts and Sciences. He cared particularly about the success of student athletes and devoted many hours to tutoring them privately. He moreover oversaw the dissertations of dozens of graduate students, who were each welcomed into his home as well as into his professional life. Sunday touch football games with graduate students and colleagues were regular high points in his weekly life.
After a brief volunteer stint in the Navy, Williams began a career in chemical engineering in 1945 but found his lifelong passion because of a required course in History of Science, taught by the late Henry Guerlac. He quickly switched his major and graduated from Cornell in 1948 with honors in 1949. He then pursued a Ph.D. at Cornell, which he completed in 1952. He taught at Yale and the University of Delaware, and was delighted to return to teach at his alma mater in 1960, where he soon earned the honor of holding the John Stambaugh Chair in History of Science.
His biography of Michael Faraday won the Pfizer Award in 1965. He authored several other books, numerous articles in his field, and dozens of scholarly reviews. He also served on the board of editors for The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Physis, and Rivista della Storia della Scienza.
He often expressed his opinions on various issues to the Ithaca Journal and the Cornell Daily Sun, gaining him a certain local notoriety, or fame, depending on one's point of view. Williams, along with E. A. Burtt and twenty-three other Cornell University professors, was a volunteer faculty member of Ithaca Neighborhood College.
Williams was an courageous advocate for justice throughout his entire life. Early on in his college career, he met the famous African American singer, Paul Robeson. When he took Robeson to his home in Croton-on-Hudson, the local swim club refused Robeson entrance because of his race; Williams succeeded in getting the swim club shut down until it changed its policies. He was elected chair of the History Department at the height of racial tensions on campus in 1969, and insisted that both rigorous, open-minded inquiry and high standards be the principles guiding any changes at Cornell. He was a leading advocate of maintaining ROTC on the Cornell campus, of compulsory physical education, and of removing Dale Corson as Cornell President because of an alleged decline in academic standards. As chair, he fought hard for the hire of the first woman in the department, Dr. Mary Beth Norton. He did not care at all about the race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation of anyone he worked with; he wanted the sharpest and most intellectually curious people he could get to belong to the department and to lead Cornell University.
Williams was, above all, a presence,intellectually, morally and physically. His more physical activities included hunting with his beloved Weimerahners, earning a black belt in karate in his forties, playing touch football, and wood chopping, a benefit of which was his many hours spent by his fireside. His powers of concentration were astonishing; he usually wrote with opera playing, children talking, phones ringing and dogs barking.
A self-described reluctant atheist, Williams nevertheless wanted the last words of his obituary to come from the New Testament: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith," (2 Timothy 4:7 King James Version).
- Michael Faraday, a biography (1965, 1987), Chapman & Hall
- The origins of field theory (1966, 1980), Random House
- Relativity theory; its origins and impact on modern thought (1968, 1979), John Wiley & Sons
- The nineteenth century (1978), Scribner
- The history of science in Western civilization (1978), authored with Henry John Steffens, University Press of America, 1977, Volumes I, II, and III
- Great issues in Western Civilization. Random House, 1967 and 1972. Volumes I and II. Eds. Brian Tierney, Donald Kagan, and L. Pearce Williams.
- "Normal Science, Scientific Revolutions and the History of Science" (pages 49–50) in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965, Editors Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, Cambridge University Press, 1970, ISBN 0-521-09623-5, 282 pages
- Historiography of Victorian Science (1966) (paper)
- "Colleges: Community Service". Nov. 17, 1967. Time Magazine
- http://www.thecrimson.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ref=118807 Retrieved 2009-01-10.
- His faculty profile at Cornell University
- Volume 90, Issue 12, 14 September 1973. Page 1], [http://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/newscornell?a=d&d=CDS19730914.1.16&e=--------20--1-----all Page 16 of the Cornell Daily Sun
- "Did Egypt Originate Geometry Theorem?". February 14, 1991. New York Times.
- History of Science, Vol. 18, p.68-74. 1980. Williams, L. P. Review of The Essential Tension by Thomas Kuhn.
- Friday, Aug. 13, 1965. Brief Time Magazine review of Williams' Michael Faraday (Basic Books, 1965)
- "Books: Saint of Science". Jul. 23, 1965. Three page Time Magazine review of Williams' Michael Faraday (Basic Books, 1965)