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Robert Middlekauff, leading scholar of early American history, dies at 91

Prolific historian and author took on several campus leadership roles

Robert Middlekauff

Historian Robert Middlekauff, a leading scholar of early American history, died March 10. (Photo courtesy of the George Washington Prize organization)

Robert Middlekauff, a prolific scholar of early American history who held several top leadership positions at UC Berkeley, died from complications of a stroke on March 10 at his home in Pleasanton, California. He was 91.

The Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History Emeritus, Middlekauff joined Berkeley’s faculty in 1962 after receiving a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He remained active as a teacher, author and administrator until 2000, winning widespread recognition for his scholarship and publications.

“Our department’s distinction, starting in the late 1960s, as one of the world’s top history faculties, owes a large debt to the remarkable talent and reputation of Robert Middlekauff,” said Peter Zinoman, chair and professor of history at Berkeley.

During his nearly 40 years on campus, Middlekauff served as provost, dean of the College of Letters and Science, dean of social sciences, and three stints as history department chair.

Beyond Berkeley, he served as director of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and as the Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at England’s University of Oxford.

His critically acclaimed book, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1983. His 1971 book, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals,1596-1728, earned him the campus’s Bancroft Prize.

And in 2016, his book, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader, was a finalist for the George Washington Prize.

Other books and monographs by Middlekauff include Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies (1998) and Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth Century New England (1963).

From Yakima to Yale

Robert Lawrence Middlekauff was born in Yakima, Washington, on July 5, 1929 to Harold and Ruth Middlekauff. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in 1952, then served for two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, during which time he was deployed to Korea and Japan. Around that time, he married Beverly Jo Martin. The couple went on to have a son and daughter, Samuel and Ruth.

After completing his military service, Middlekauff returned to the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in 1957, and went on to garner a doctorate in history from Yale University in 1961.

In 1983, he received the Berkeley Citation, an honor bestowed on a campus member “whose contributions go beyond the call of duty … and exceed the standards of excellence in their fields.” In 1996, he won the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

“Middlekauff’s scholarly contributions on colonial education, on Puritans and Puritanism, on the revolutionary war, and most recently, his biography of Benjamin Franklin, have established his reputation as one of America’s most distinguished colonial historians,” wrote UC Berkeley historian Gene Brucker in a 1998 History at Berkeley series of recollections.

In addition to receiving an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellowship, he belonged to the American History Association, the American Philosophical Society, the Society of American Historians and the American Antiquarian Society.

He is survived by his wife, Beverly Middlekauff, of Pleasanton; son, Samuel Middlekauff, of Oakland; daughter, Holly Middlekauff, of Los Angeles; and grandchildren Benjamin, Haley and Coleman Katz.