March 4, 2016
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, who died in January at the age of 92, was a renowned historian and a member of the University of Michigan faculty from 1975 to her retirement in 1988.
Her intellectual and physical quickness stood out in the classroom as student and teacher, among historians as colleague and independent scholar, and on the tennis court (in her late 50s she began playing in tennis tournaments, continuing through her eighties, having won some 33 national titles).
Her Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard was published in 1959 as “The First Professional Revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761-1837),” a study that established her as a significant American historian of the French Revolution. Even in that first study, she pushed beyond the customary framework of French Revolution studies. After she and her husband, Julian, a physicist, settled in Washington, D.C., she became active in the city’s intellectual life, her art-filled home a lively center. Prominent in national historical societies, she published a number of widely cited articles, and issues she raised about the role of social class in the French Revolution became a center of debate. Throughout this period, she also taught, primarily at American University, yet rarely full time and without full professorial title.
In 1975 she became the Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History at U-M and undertook an almost weekly commute between Ann Arbor and Washington. The Palmer chair, established in the 1960s, was named for the Michigan alumna who in 1881 had become the influential president of Wellesley College, then quite new, and who was a founder of the American Association of University Women. Eisenstein was the second person to hold that chair, succeeding Professor Sylvia Thrupp on her retirement.
At Michigan, Eisenstein enjoyed a large circle of friends, taught both graduate and undergraduate courses, and was active in departmental affairs. In 1979 her two-volume study, “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” brought her worldwide fame. Republished in many languages in Europe and Asia, and the subject of many subsequent symposia and essay collections, its carefully researched arguments about how printing shaped the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution now are staples of the scholarly literature.
She herself continued in books, articles and public lectures to expand and refine her influential thesis well into her retirement. Her achievements were honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Historical Society. In 2004, U-M awarded her the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.
— Submitted by Thomas Tentler, emeritus professor of history