Frank Turner: A Great Mentor, Scholar, and Friend

“History isn’t rocket science.” I distinctly remember Frank Turner, my mentor at Yale, saying that to me in 1995 over a beer on Charlotte Street in London after a day looking at documents in the Royal Society archive. “What did you see?” What I had seen was a number of documents showing a famous mathematician trying to solve religious problems using equations. “Well, then that’s what you have to write about.”

Frank suddenly passed away today from a stroke at 66—devastating, incredibly sad news. I’ll miss him for so many reasons—most of all, he was just such a nice, caring individual, and so whip-smart about many things. I’m still deeply influenced by his pragmatic view of history, not as a complex theoretical realm but quite frequently as a process of simply recognizing what’s in front of you.

Frank’s body of work showed the power of simply recognizing what was in front of you. His first book vaulted past stale discussions about the war between science and religion in the Victorian era by showing that there were many intellectuals caught between the two supposed poles—something that should have been obvious to any close reader of Victorian thought but which had been denied by decades of “war between science and religion” talk.

A word that Frank used a lot was “unnoticed”—that is, the past is often lying in plain sight, but our preconceptions prevent us from seeing it. In his groundbreaking essay “The Victorian Crisis of Faith and the Faith That Was Lost,” he noticed that this crisis began during an intensification of religion through evangelicalism, the language of which (a return to purity, an emphasis on reform) was soon turned against existing faith. In other works he noticed the strong effect that debt and bankruptcy had on the supposedly detached thought of Victorian thinkers—they were human, after all.

Frank had seriously good taste in the important things in life: ideas (Hume), art (J.M.W. Turner), architecture (Louis Kahn), the landscape (rural New England, the Cotswolds), wine (BurgundyBordeaux), dogs (English setters). But he approached these pleasures not as landed gentry or a stereotypical Yale professor but as someone who had come from modest means in Ohio and had stumbled, almost giddily, on the joys of history and the senses. He had a historic 300-year-old saltbox in Guilford, Connecticut, that he had tastefully modified (just before the preservationists disallowed such changes) to hold a substantial personal library and writing room, and a large kitchen for dinner parties. Frank had a great laugh, and was not stingy with it. He could tell you rather specifically why a painting was great and then just stand back and smile at its greatness.

Frank was so shrewd about so many things—he had a deft understanding of Victorian history, of modern intellectual history, the workings of the academy, human nature. He also had several major phases to his career, including a stint as provost and more recently the director of the Beinecke rare books library at Yale. Just two months ago he was appointed the overall University Librarian.

I had been talking to him for the last few years about the future of libraries and the humanities in a digital age. A decade ago I think he was slightly depressed that I had veered into the digital humanities. But he called me after seeing Google Books for the first time—what was in front of him—and immediately got that this was something he had to understand better. I have no doubt that he would have been an incredible librarian who would have honored tradition while also moving one of the world’s great library systems forward; yet another facet to this tremendous loss.

This fall Frank and I were having a long back-and-forth about the future of peer review, some of which I may redact and publish in this space. I wish we could have finished that discussion, and that I could have gotten more of his advice, on this and so many other topics.

For now, I just want to honor Frank Turner, may he rest in peace. He was a great mentor, scholar, and friend. I will deeply miss him.


[…] CV    12 November 2010 « Frank Turner: A Great Mentor, Scholar, and Friend […]

leslie butler says:

Thanks for this lovely and moving obituary, Dan. The news is as shocking as it is devastating.

Frank was a man full of such warmth, humanity, and life, it is unimaginable that he is just suddenly no longer with us.

Ellen Tillotson says:

Dan, and Leslie, I am so glad to read this site. We/I was hoping somehow you’d heard, but have been overwhelmed by the number of “one step after the other” steps. He knew that his students were a huge part of his legacy.
Forgive me for posting–he would think it isn’t quite the thing. But I’m needing to reach out.

And–sorry–it is Bordeaux, not Burgundies (which he never found reliable.)

Dan Cohen says:


I’m so incredibly sorry for your loss. I’m so glad you found this site, and please forgive any errors here (you’re right about the wine!)—I wrote this quickly upon hearing the news.

My thoughts and prayers are with you. Frank was treasured by his students, and our work is deeply marked by his thought and kindness.


Dan Cohen says:

Leslie: Thanks so much for your comments. I’m as devastated as you are, and fondly remember our time talking to Frank together.

George Williamson says:


Thank you for posting this remembrance of Frank. It certainly squares with my memory of him. I think of all my teachers, he was the one who most helped me think like a historian, first of all by convincing me that this was something I needed to do (not at all obvious to someone who came to History from Religious Studies) and then by providing me with a model of historical thinking with the questions he posed to me about my own work.

Two other of his lessons have always stuck with me. First, that we should be mindful of and nurture our off-hand observations–there were so many times when I’d say something as an aside and he would seize on it enthusiastically, encouraging me to treat it not as a stray thought but rather as the germ of something potentially important. Second, that some intellectuals (I think he had Coleridge in mind) are like Golden Retrievers. They look wise and serious on the outside, but inside they’ve got the brains of a dog.

I’d like to share one last memory. Around 1992, while I was in the throes of dissertation writing/research in Germany and had arrived at a rather dark place (the classic dissertation “crisis”), Frank call me at my apartment in Mainz. I remember he encouraged me to keep moving forward and to remain faithful to my original “academic instincts” (a favorite phrase of his). I can’t say it worked immediately-it took several more months before I regained my confidence. But I will always remember his patience and kindness during this phase of my dissertation process.

Only Tuesday I led a discussion in a graduate seminar of his classic essay on the Victorian crisis of faith and was able to note proudly that this was the work of my advisor. It is hard to believe that he is gone so suddenly.

Ellen, I am so sorry for your loss and I hope you are able to read this. You have my thoughts and prayers.


Mike O'Malley says:

Nicely done, Dan-sorry for your loss. Losing mentor feels oddly destabilizing, I know.

Darrin McMahon says:


Stumbling around on the web just now, still in shock and denial, and knowing that Frank’s funeral is today, and my godfather in attendance, I came across your lovely remembrance. Thank you for posting it. I wish Frank could hear the words— perhaps he can. It made me think of a great Frankism—“intellectual history should be less intellectual and more historical.” Wise words. I had an email from him only several days before his death. It is just so unthinkable. My deepest condolences go out to Ellen, whom I always looked forward to getting to know better, and greetings to you, Dan and Leslie. We should all meet somewhere and raise a glass of Bordeaux in his honor–several in fact. It has been too long.


Charlie Putnam says:


Thank you for your fine remembrance of Frank Turner.

Frank was my advisor during my undergraduate years from the fall of 1975 to the spring of 1979. Frank’s advice served me well in my years at Yale. More importantly, it shaped the rest of my life in enduring ways both small (get your exercise young man!) and large (stay pragmatic but don’t lose sight of the larger goal). I have the privilege now to teach at the college level, and try, as best I can, to teach my students half as well as Frank Turner taught me.

Thanks again.
Charlie Putnam

Ellen Tillotson says:

Oh, such heart, to read all of you whom Frank thought of and puzzled over and cheered on and hoped the best for and expected the best of!! Thank you for posting; this is an unfathomably sudden loss. But he left us so much.

Please, please, if you are in town–he left a basement full of Bordeaux. I would love to see you and lift a glass.

Watch, too, for the Yale Memorial Service. Don’t know the date yet but will try to be in touch, at least through Dan. Best to all, Ellen T.

Dan Cohen says:

Thanks, Ellen. We have all been impressed by your tremendous courage and warmth. And we’ll take you up on the glass of Bordeaux.

Ken Loiselle says:

A great remembrance piece. I am just coming across this over a year after Frank’s passing, but hardly a day goes by that I do not think of how great a mentor and person he was at Yale.

Mark Choate says:

I would like to add that Frank really saw teaching as a calling, a vocation. He was a model for me and I find myself imitating him in ways large and small. He was a deeply moral person without a trace of smugness or insecurity. Also, he was one of very few professors that I know who was both an excellent lecturer and an excellent seminar leader.
I deployed to Afghanistan with the US Army in the fall of 2011 and when I sent season’s greetings to Frank I was shocked to hear from Ellen that he had passed away. Frank is still a model to follow, and an example of how teacher’s legacy is long-lasting.

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