October 2, 2015
David D. Bien, age 85, professor emeritus of French history at the University of Michigan, died under hospice care Sept. 25 after a lengthy illness. Family, colleagues and friends will long remember and sorely miss a remarkable scholar and a noble human being.
Christened David Duckworth Bien by his parents, David William Bien and Cecile Marie (Dubois) Bien, he was born April 2, 1930, in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from St. Paul’s School in Baltimore, which he attended on a voice scholarship, received his A.B. degree in 1951 from Washington and Lee University, where he played four years of varsity lacrosse and was valedictorian of his graduating class. He received his Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in History in 1956 from Harvard University.
After a year of teaching at Wesleyan University, he was appointed assistant professor at Princeton University in 1959. In 1967, Bien accepted a professorship at U-M, from which he retired in 1996. He taught many times at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and served as chair of the Department of History at U-M.
An expert on the history of France in the 18th century, Bien was one of the few American historians whose work has had as major an impact on French and European scholarship as on that of American scholars. His elegantly written articles, which are uncommonly precise yet integrate political, social, and intellectual history, have transformed scholarly understanding of the French state in the ancien regime and of the origins of the Revolution. His book, “The Calas Affair: Persecution, Toleration and Heresy in Eighteenth Century Toulouse,” measured the spread of enlightenment ideas and demonstrated their connection to social mobility and changing conceptions of religion and family.
He was one of only four people to have twice been awarded the William Koren Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies (in 1958 and 1978). In a series of published essays on various aspects of the Old Regime, and based on deep archival research in France, Bien raised questions and influenced debate in the United States and in France on the origins of the French Revolution. Many of these essays are united in Bien’s “Interpreting the ancien regime,” published by Oxford University in 2014.
Aside from his impact on French history, Bien was a remarkable teacher. Not a stem-winding lecturer, he was at his best in small groups or one-on-one. Patiently, graciously, he helped even naïve students to do their best, many of whom have gone on to teach at universities in the U.S. and abroad.
Vital to his career, and the love of his life, was his wife of 64 years, Peggy. David Duckworth Bien and Margaret Jane Clark were married in Baltimore on July 28, 1951. Bien also had a passion for cultivating roses and U-M football. He is survived by his wife and four children, Clark David (Genevieve), Matthew William (Grace), Ellen Jane Karpiuk (Robert) and Alexander John (Karen), as well as nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
— Submitted by Terre Fisher, Department of History