Mourning and celebrating a former neighbor: William G. Noel, 1965-2024

Will Noel with his wife and son, a few years ago

Dr. William Noel, 58, a former Bolton Hill resident and a distinguished scholar, was hit by a van and killed on April 10 while walking along a road in Edinburgh, Scotland. He directed the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, an international collaboration to conserve, image and study the erased texts lying beneath a 13th century prayer book. He also pioneered the presentation of machine-readable, openly licensed datasets of digitized illuminated medieval manuscripts at The Walters Art Museum.

In the spring of 1997, a friend of my wife Lydia’s and mine, an expert on medieval manuscripts, took us aside at a party in New York and said that the most brilliant young man in his field was about to move to Baltimore and we should be nice to him. Our friend added: “Classic Cambridge Brit. Six-foot-five, 120 pounds, tousled hair, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish.”

A month or so later, Will Noel turned up in Baltimore to run the manuscripts and rare books collection at the Walters, and the Duffs gained one of the dearest friends we will ever have.

Will lived in Baltimore for 17 years. Although he hung his hat in Bolton Hill for only four or five of them, Bolton Hill turned out to be the center of his Baltimore. For one thing, he had Sunday dinner with the Duffs almost every week for 14 or 15 years. More importantly, when he met Lynn Ransom and settled down, it was in Bolton Hill. They bought one of the Hugh Newell Jacobson houses at Bolton Square on Jordan Street, became pillars of the Bolton Square community, welcomed their son, Henry, and introduced many of us to each other.

Along the way, Will became a star at The Walters. He mounted exhibitions that brought the world to The Walters’ door – the scholarly world and the rest of the world. He brought old pages to life and made them available online. People of all kinds streamed in to see fascinating maps, enchanting marginalia, and the fabulous images that medieval painters used to bring stories to life for the benefit of lords and ladies who were even less literate than we are.

Then, adventure struck. An odd billionaire turned up in Will’s office with an ugly Byzantine prayer book that seemed to have something else written beneath the visible words. The “something else” seemed to be a set of lost works by the great ancient mathematician Archimedes, things that scholars had been speculating about for centuries. This was tantalizing, but the Archimedean writing was almost invisible under the Byzantine prayers. Will set out to read it and get it out to the world.

But how? Who could figure out how to read writing that was almost invisible? Words and letters that were almost entirely scraped away a thousand years ago so that they could be covered by something else? What amazing technologies would it take to do that? And, supposing you could uncover the letters and the words, who could figure out what they mean?

Over a period of three years, Will organized and ran an international team with a wide range of esoteric skills. I remember classicists, scientists from the Jet Propulsion Lab, specialists in ancient mathematics, and the people who ran the Cyclotron at Stanford. Not to mention a grumpy bunch of self-described geniuses in Budapest. Will coached his team well, and they won. You can read the Archimedes Palimpsest online whenever you want, and the book that Will co-wrote with mathematician teammate Reviel Netz and others, The Archimedes Palimpsest, has been translated into 14 languages.

The world soon noticed, and Will became the head of special collections – all the cool artworks – at Penn and then at Princeton.

Just a few weeks ago, I was hoping Will would come back to Baltimore and Bolton Hill. When I got the Baltimore Banner flash that the director of the Walters was moving on, I sent it to Will, and he wrote back the next day to say that he would compete for the job. And then, just a couple of days later, Will was walking down a street in Edinburgh when a truck, apparently driven by someone on drugs, jumped the curb and hit him. Modern miracle-workers were able to get him into a coma, but he never got out of it, and he died.

If you knew Will, you know what we’ve lost. If you didn’t, please realize that we Bolton Hillers have lost a splendid neighbor. We all should do our best to bring more wonderful people like Will and his family to this neighborhood.

Charlie Duff