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Richard M. Douglas

By Kellyanne Mahoney

In 1962, Richard M. Douglas came to head MIT’s Humanities Department, bringing with him a maverick intellect and a gift for bringing people together.

“He was a great scholar, and at the same time he had a wonderful way of relating with people in science and engineering,” said Philip S. Khoury, current dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT. “When I first arrived [at MIT in 1981] he introduced me to people in disciplines I would have never connected with otherwise. And we needed a broker.”

Dr. Douglas, a longtime Newton resident, died at North Hill assisted living facility in Needham Monday after a lengthy illness. He was 83.

Dr. Douglas bridged academic gaps as well as social ones, according to Khoury.

“At one time at MIT there was a sense that humanists were not there to get their hands dirty, but more to ensure that these scientists and engineers came out acculturated. There were some back then who discouraged the teaching of how science and technology impacted history. But he said, hogwash. He never became a servant to the sciences, but an equal. He brought a level of autonomity and respect to the department.”

Born in Cleveland, Dr. Douglas raised his family in Amherst and Newton, where he served on the School Committee and designed curriculum.

Soon after graduating from Princeton in 1943, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a captain in the Pacific.

Dr. Douglas earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University and had a Fulbright scholarship at The University of Montpellier in France in 1952.

He taught at The College of Wooster, Brown University, and Amherst College before he came to MIT. He retired in 1991.

Dr. Douglas’s specialty was medieval and renaissance history, but his interests ran the gamut from the development of religious thought and institutions to aeronautical engineering.

A lover of nature, he made frequent retreats with his three sons to a Maine farmhouse that had no electricity or running water.

“When we moved from Amherst to suburban Newton, he had this fear the kids would be losing contact with nature,” said his son David M., of East Hampton, N.Y., remembering how his father kept busy chopping wood, hauling brush, and gardening.

He was also an avid collector of early American tools.

Brains were not Dr. Douglas’s only blessing, according to his colleagues. Dramatic good looks added to his finesse.

“He looked like he stepped out of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,” said longtime friend and colleague Arthur Kaledin, a professor emeritus of history at MIT.

Khoury recalled that “He had these sparkling eyes that made you wonder what thinking was going on underneath.”

Most likely, it was a question, said Kaledin. As an administrator, “[Douglas] was always challenging us to find the best way to teach the past to contemporary students,” Kaledin said. “There was this constant questioning of what we were doing. It wasn’t just what to teach, but what to leave out. He’d ask, ‘If you were going to teach just one history course, how would you teach it. What is most important for students to leave knowing?’”

In addition to his son, David, Dr. Douglas leaves his wife, Mary M. of Needham; two other sons, Samuel W. of Brighton and Andrew S. of Medford, and three stepsons.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 17 in Kresge Chapel at MIT.