Richard Watson

Richard Allan Watson

Monday, February 23rd, 1931 - Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
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Dr. Richard Allan Watson, known to his friends and colleagues as Red, died of natural causes on the morning of September 18, 2019, at the Newton Wellesley Center for Alzheimer’s Care. He was 88 years old.

Born at home in New Market, Iowa, he went on to travel the world with his wife, Patty Jo, who he met in middle school. They have one daughter, Anna.

Watson was an eclectic scholar whose contributions to several academic disciplines will have lasting significance. He is universally recognized as one of the leading scholars of 17th century French philosophy and published a penetrating biography entitled Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes, which was based on the first extensive and new field work done on Descartes’s life since 1920, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the “25 Books to Remember from 2002.” Watson taught for most of his long career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was known as a demanding, yet approachable teacher. Together with his wife (also a Washington University professor, in anthropology), he spent many, many happy hours underground. He was instrumental in transforming the "sport" of cave exploration into a recognized field of archaeology and geological science, and for over fifty years, as a member of the Cave Research Foundation, he explored Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system, which is the longest cave in the world. His book, The Longest Cave, written with Roger W. Brucker, details some of these adventures. Along with his academic and caving work, he also wrote novels, including Niagra, a fictional account of the first person to ever cross the Falls on a wire and the first woman to go over the Falls in a barrel.

Watson also held a degree in geology, with a specialization in the paleoclimatology of 10,000 years ago, the time when agriculture was first invented in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. He spent time in the field with Patty Jo, whose specialization was in the origin of agriculture. Together, they inspired and supported many generations of graduate students.

Upon retiring, Red and Pat moved to Missoula, MT, where they lived in a passive solar earth house on the side of a mountain. More recently, they came back East to an assisted living facility near their daughter and her family in Arlington, MA.

Red used to say, “You can’t do everything!” but he certainly gave it his best shot during his long and wonderful life. His astute brain, his gruff-yet-loving kindness, his observant nature, and his Midwestern sense of humor will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Red is survived by his wife of 64 years, Patty Jo Watson, by his daughter Anna M. Watson and her wife Laurie L. Caldwell, by his two beloved grandsons, Riley K.S. Watson and Liam M.S. Watson. By his sister, Constance A. Moehle, his brother and sister-in-law James L. and Rubie Watson, and by many loving cousins and nephews and nieces as well as former students and colleagues and cavers.

Services will be held at DeVito Funeral Home, 1145 Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington on Friday, September 27, 2019 at 11am. In Red's memory, please consider making a donation to any local organization involved in alleviating food insecurity such as Boston Gleaners or Food For Free; or to the Cave Research Foundation.
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Service Details

  • Memorial Service

    Friday, September 27th, 2019 | 11:00am
    Friday, September 27th, 2019 11:00am
    DeVito Funeral Home - Arlington
    1145 Massachusetts Ave.
    Arlington, MA 02476
    Get Directions: View Map | Text | Email


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Martin Israel

Posted at 09:33am
Dear Patty Jo,
I am very sorry to hear about Red's death. It was always a pleasure knowing both of you during your time here at WU. I hope you are doing well.
Best regards,

Steven Nadler

Posted at 10:08pm
Red was like a second father to me. I wouldn't be doing what I do if it weren't for him. He was an inspiring professor, and becoming friends with him later was a treat and a blessing for me, even (and maybe especially) when he scolded me. I will treasure the times I spent with him in his retirement after he moved to Missoula, when my son and I would stay with him and Pat when we came out there to go skiing, and arguing with him to please turn on the heat. I will miss him very much.

Eric Brown

Posted at 05:06pm
I was always in awe of how close Red was able to come to doing everything, and always grateful for the gruff and kind mentorship he provided to me when I was hired as a junior colleague. He modeled the kind of life that one would wish to live even though one knew one couldn't possibly copy it, and he encouraged the unbridled curious pursuits that mark humanity at its best. Such a gift, and such a loss. My thoughts are with you, Pat.

Craig Caldwell

Posted at 12:12pm
My daughter Laurie (Duck) married into this family. And the journey and exploration she was on became enhanced and beautiful. Red and Pat had an energy that just gathered you up. Looking at these pictures you can almost see a sparkle in his eyes. A readiness to strap on a back pack and head out. An extraordinary human being.

Ron Harper

Posted at 11:32am
Dick and I spent many hours together as two kids growing up in New Market, Iowa. Mostly playing some silly game we had made up in the front yard of his parent's home.I kept leaving my shoes in the sandbox his folks put under that great huge tree in the side yard. There was a tire swing hanging from that tree.And we caught mice in the corn crib. Why? Who knows. We were kids. We sat on the stairs in his home reading Little Willy poems and had fits of laughter. I am in tears now. See, Dick, I told you all that exercise was harmful

When his parents moved to another town we exchanged long, long letters. I mean letters of 15 to 20 pages. age was a wonderful friend.


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