The Forum | Western Civilization

In Memoriam: Gertrude Himmelfarb

January 3, 2020 by Michael B. Poliakoff

On Monday, December 30, Gertrude Himmelfarb, renowned historian, public intellectual, and recipient of ACTA’s third Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education, passed away at the age of 97.

Born to a Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn, Dr. Himmelfarb went on to receive her Bachelor of Arts degree at Brooklyn College and her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Over the course of her career, she held a professorship at the City University of New York, wrote 16 books and countless essays, and edited eight volumes. Paula Fichtner, professor of history emerita at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, recalled sharing an office with Dr. Himmelfarb and observed: “She was an intellectual powerhouse and a marvelous, down-to-earth human being.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb served on the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress, the Council of Academic Advisors at the American Enterprise Institute, the Board of Trustees at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the National Council for the Humanities. She was a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2004 received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush, in a White House ceremony.

Dr. Himmelfarb devoted herself to the history of ideas, especially those of the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era. She traced the separate trajectories of the Scottish and French Enlightenment, with attention to how they were later reflected, or rejected, in American society as well as in Victorian England. She became a vocal proponent of what she called “Victorian virtues”—reason, civility, industriousness, and responsibility. Often framed as “Bourgeois values,” Dr. Himmelfarb worked to disentangle these concepts from issues of socioeconomic status. Rather, she argued that they were attainable, depending on no special talent, upbringing, or income.

Dr. Himmelfarb was a great friend to ACTA and an inspiration in our shared mission to ensure that every American college student can receive an intellectually rich, affordable education that is a preparation for both career and citizenship. Her life and career embody so much of what we must strive toward—thoughtfulness, a commitment to reason and discourse, an appreciation of the past and how it informs the present, and an unending thirst for ideas and discovery. May she rest in peace at the end of a life well lived.


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