The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Paul Farber Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

October 2014


Paul Lawrence Farber was born in 1944 in New York City and raised on the upper west side of Manhattan. Farber's grandparents were Jewish and fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. His mother and father were both first generation Americans – his mother's family emigrating from the Ukraine and his father's from Latvia. When Farber was nine years old, his family moved to Uniontown, Pennsylvania where his father had received a promotion and where Farber completed his schooling prior to college.

As a child, Farber was interested in science. He enjoyed taking things apart, dissecting specimens, and building bombs and rockets. He was also an avid reader and particularly attracted to philosophy. Following his senior year of high school, he attended a summer National Science Foundation institute in Syracuse, New York, an experience that sparked his academic interest in biology. In 1961 he entered the University of Pittsburgh as a pre-medical student, intending to become a doctor.

Farber graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1965 with a B.S. in Zoology and a minor in Chemistry, but he had also taken a large number of philosophy electives. These philosophy classes led him to change his career plan and to study the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University. While at the University of Pittsburgh, Farber was also introduced to Vreneli Marti, whom he later married in 1966, during his graduate school years.

Farber received his Master's degree in the History and Philosophy of Science in 1968, writing a thesis titled "Buffon and Newton's Science." As a doctoral student, Farber continued to explore Comte de Buffon's work, ultimately receiving his Ph.D. from Indiana in 1970 having authored a dissertation titled "Buffon's Concept of Species."

In 1970 Farber was hired as an assistant professor of the history of science in OSU's General Science Department. At the time, he had little experience teaching and found most of the academic year consumed by classroom responsibilities; consequently he did most of his research during the summers. In 1973 Farber received a grant from the National Science Foundation that allowed him to spend the summer researching in London and the winter researching in Paris. During this time, he discovered the Marquess of Tweeddale's collection of 17th, 18th, and 19th century writings on ornithology. This shifted his research focus away from Buffon in favor of birds, and in 1982 he published his first book, The Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline: 1760-1850.

In 1976 OSU promoted Farber to Associate Professor and he was honored with the Carter Award for "outstanding and inspirational teaching." That same year his children, twins Benjamin and Channah, were also born. In 1983 Farber was promoted to full Professor. The year after, he became the acting director of the Humanities Development Program at OSU, which was his first administrative position.

In 1985 Farber was elected President of the Columbia History of Science Group. He also was appointed chair of General Science at OSU and tasked with charting a new direction for the department. During his tenure as chair, the Environmental Science program began at OSU and History of Science courses were relisted to count as humanities credits rather than being classified in the sciences.

In the early 1990s, the General Science department was dissolved and Farber was moved into History. In 1991 he was appointed chair of the Department of History and also made a professor in Zoology. Two years later he was named Distinguished Professor of History of Science and in 1994 he authored a second monograph, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. A third book, The Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics, appeared in 2000.

Throughout his OSU career, Farber was actively involved in the History of Science Society; he was elected a member of the society's council in 1978 and elected president in 2010. He also edited several journals, including the Journal of the History of Biology beginning in 1998; Endeavor beginning in 2001; and Museum History Journal starting in 2006. Farber also received the Distinguished Professor Award from the OSU Alumni Association in 2002 and, in 2003, the Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize from the History of Science Society.

Farber retired from OSU in 2008. That same year, he was elected vice-president of the History of Science Society and served on the steering committee for the History and Philosophy of Science section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Though formally retired, Farber has remained active in his field, and in 2011 he published his most recent book, Mixing Races: From Scientific Racism to Modern Evolutionary Ideas.