Former provost and distinguished intellectual historian Frank M. Turner — who only two months ago embarked on a five-year term as University librarian, overseeing one of the largest academic library systems in the world — died suddenly yesterday morning.
Turner, the John Hay Whitney Professor of History since 1993, forged his entire career at Yale, making a distinctive mark as scholar, teacher, mentor and senior administrator. Turner rose from being a teaching assistant in the history department to serving as provost, the second-highest office in the University, from 1988 to 1992, to his latest post as University librarian, presiding over the 18 libraries and special collections of primary source material that make up the Yale Library. Turner had been director of one of those units, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, since 2003. At the time of his death, he was still serving as interim director of the Beinecke while a search for his successor continued.
In announcing Turner’s appointment as director of the University Library this September, President Richard C. Levin said: “There is no one to whose stewardship we would rather entrust this treasure than Frank Turner. As a complete Yale citizen … Professor Turner understands the importance of the Library from multiple perspectives. He cherishes the Library’s collections and understands their value as a resource for teaching and scholarship at Yale and around the world.”
Turner served on many committees throughout the University, and most recently chaired the Committee on Cooperative Research and the Publications Committee of Yale University Press.
His wife, Ellen Tillotson, notes that there are three things that Turner wanted to be remembered for: As provost, he played a key role in the creation of the endowment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies, and approved the funding for the construction of the WIYN telescope at Kitt’s Peak Observatory in Arizona, a collaboration between Yale, Indiana and Wisconsin universities, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories. Also, under his directorship, the Beinecke Library purchased its Islamic Collection.
Turner liked to say that “Scholarship is an exercise in friendship,” and he embodied that sentiment for many on campus.
One of these is Provost Peter Salovey, who said: “Frank Turner was my colleague and my friend. He was also a generous and helpful advisor to me as Provost; he had served in that role with such dedication. He loved research and writing, and he loved teaching — and he was outstanding in all three. But it’s a testament to the kind of person he was that he was willing to set aside doing those things he loved, whenever he was called to do so, in service to another thing he loved: Yale University and its spectacular libraries. Although his profession was History, his vision was focused on the future, especially new ways of thinking about how knowledge and information could be gathered and disseminated. His profession has lost a scholar of great stature, and Yale has lost a devoted citizen and visionary. And so many of us have lost a good friend.”
An historian of the ideas that shaped Western civilization, Turner was the author of books and many articles exploring Victorian intellectual life in particular. His “John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion,” published by Yale Press in 2002, is considered by some scholars to be his crowning achievement. The book explores the career of John Henry Newman, author of “The Idea of a University,” in the Church of England and the motivations and circumstances leading to his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Turner also edited Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and his “Idea of a University” for Yale Press. His earlier contributions to the history of Victorian thought include “Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England” (l974) and “The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain” (l981), both published by Yale Press, and “Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life” (l993), published by Cambridge University Press. Turner’s textbook “The Western Heritage,” co-authored with Donald Kagan and Steven Ozment and now in its 10th edition, has long been regarded as one of the leading textbooks on Western Civilization.
As a teacher, Turner was admired by students and respected by colleagues for his excellence both as a lecturer and seminar leader. In 1981 he received the Yale College Prize for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching.
A native of Wilmington, Ohio, Turner was a graduate of the College of William and Mary, and earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1971. As a graduate student he was awarded the John Addison Porter Prize for original scholarship in 1972. He was the graduate president of the Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa of Connecticut at Yale 1995-2001. William and Mary awarded him an honorary degree in 1991, as did Quinnipiac University in 2003 and Wilmington College in 2007. He served as a trustee of Connecticut College between 1996 and 2006 and as a member of the Connecticut Humanities Council between 2003 and 2008.
Although Turner had only been at the helm of the Yale Library for a few months, colleagues who worked closely with him testify that he saw the library as the “chief service unit” of the University, and that he hoped to make it a more accessible and inviting destination for faculty and students.
“He wanted to make the library more of a classroom, a more integral part of the teaching environment,” recalls Amanda Patrick, director of communications and development for the Yale Library.
The Yale Daily Bulletin plans to create a page where members of the Yale community can share their memories of Turner. Those wishing to send their remembrances should e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.