September 12, 2003

Former Wayne State President Thomas N. Bonner dies at 80

Thomas Neville Bonner, who served as Wayne State University's seventh president from 1978-82, died at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home Sept. 2. He was 80.

A widely known medical historian who taught at WSU as a distinguished professor of history and higher education after stepping down from the presidency in 1982, Dr. Bonner was president of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., before accepting the Wayne State presidency.

Prior to that he was president of the University of New Hampshire (1971-74). He was vice president and provost at the University of Cincinnati (1967-71). He retired from the Wayne State faculty in 1997.

Dr. Bonner earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and held bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Rochester. A prodigious and widely acclaimed researcher who was particularly interested in the medical field, he published several landmark books examining various aspects of medical history.

His most recent, titled Iconoclast (2002), has earned acclaim as a meticulously researched account of Abraham Flexner, a pioneer in the field of medical education.

Among several other major works are Medicine in Chicago (1957), in which Dr. Bonner demonstrated the need to view medicine socially and politically in an urban environment, and To the Ends of the Earth (1992), detailing women's efforts to pioneer and advance in medicine. Another seminal work, titled Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States, 1750-1945, was nominated by its publisher, Oxford University Press, for a Pulitzer Prize.

During his presidency at Wayne State, Dr. Bonner forged exchange agreements with universities in Germany, Poland, Israel and Costa Rica. Wayne State became the second university in the United States to establish scholarly exchanges with the Chinese Academy of Science.

Marc Kruman, chairman of the WSU history department, remembers his former colleague as a brilliant historian who was always willing to give advice and offer guidance when asked. "Tom Bonner was a wonderful colleague and mentor," he said.

Melvin Small, who chaired the department from 1979-86, says he was impressed by Bonner's "gentility and diplomacy" even when addressing controversial issues. "He was an exemplary colleague upon whom I often called for advice and who carried more than his share of the service load, in addition to his splendid teaching and impressive research production," Small said.

Alan Raucher, who succeeded Small as history department chair, said, "When Tom Bonner joined the faculty as a full-time member after his presidency, he told me that he wanted no special treatment. As a teacher and publishing scholar, he fulfilled that aim, earning the respect and admiration of his colleagues without ever pulling rank or seeking advantage."

A World War II veteran, Thomas N. Bonner served with an Army signal intelligence unit in Europe. He headed the social science department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha from 1955-62 and the history department at the University of Cincinnati before becoming provost there.

He twice was awarded prestigious Guggenheim research fellowships and also was the recipient of a Fulbright Award to lecture at the University of Mainz in Germany as well as a Hearst Foundation Fellowship to lecture at Northwestern University.

A former president of WSU's Academy of Scholars, Bonner received the Gershenson Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Award, the Distinguished Graduate Faculty Award and a Board of Governors Faculty Recognition Award from the university.

When he retired, he donated $50,000 to the WSU history department to support student and faculty scholarship endeavors and an additional $50,000 to the university's Academy of Scholars. The history department plans to name a conference room in his honor and will hold a memorial gathering later this year.

Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Sylvia Firnhaber Bonner of Scottsdale; son Philip Lynn Bonner of Columbus, Ohio; and daughter Diana Bonner of Glendale, Ariz.

An interment ceremony with military honors will be held at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix on Friday, Sept. 12. The family has requested that remembrances be sent to the Thomas and Sylvia Bonner Endowed Fund for History at Wayne State University, care of professor Marc Kruman, Department of History, 3094 Faculty/Administration Building, Detroit, MI 48202.

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