In Memoriam: George Behlmer

Submitted by Nick Grall on

It is with deep sadness that the Department of History mourns the passing of Professor Emeritus George Behlmer, who died on January 4, 2024.

George earned his B.A., with highest honors, in 1970 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. During his time as an undergraduate, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and also named a Regents’ Scholar and a President’s Undergraduate Research Fellow. What's more, George was also a California state finalist in the Rhodes Scholarship competition.

He went on to Stanford University to complete his graduate work in British and modern European history, earning his M.A. in 1972 and a Ph.D. in 1977. His dissertation: “The Child Protection Movement in England, 1860-1890,” was advised by Peter Stansky. In addition to history coursework while at Stanford, George used his time to take courses in psychology to further develop his interest in psychological factors and historical change.

Upon completing his Ph.D., George spent a year as a teaching and research fellow in European history at Stanford, followed by a year as a lecturer in history at Yale. 

In 1979, George arrived at the University of Washington as an assistant professor in History. In keeping with his track record of excellence, he was awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982 while still an assistant professor. Years later when interviewed about the award and asked about his memories of teaching, he noted, “In the first Irish history class I taught, I had a role-playing exercise. The debate was over whether the British Army should be forced to leave Northern Ireland. One student, who was Irish and thought of the IRA as heroes, had to argue for the British. He got involved more than any student I’ve ever had. He even called the Rev. Ian Paisley in Ireland and interviewed him on tape. During the class, when he was asked a question, he played the tape. It blew everyone away.”

His dedication to teaching the history of Northern Ireland and of the Republic – and especially to examining viewpoints about the conflicts there – led to four UW study abroad programs in Belfast between 2001 and 2007. His lifelong affection for that part of the world culminated in his 2012 History Lecture Series, Revenge and Reconciliation in Modern Ireland.

George was a prize-winning and prolific historian.  In all of his work, he resisted simple dichotomies and offered startlingly sensitive and nuanced accounts of his historical subjects – often of those whose voices had gone unrepresented. In 1982, he published Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England (Stanford, 1982), a revised version of his Stanford dissertation.  It won the best first book prize from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. Friends of the Family: The English Home and Its Guardians, 1850-1940, also from Stanford, came out in 1998 and dissected the deification of the family in Victorian England, illuminating contemporary debates about “family values” and their political deployment as well as their multifaceted histories. George was keenly attuned to the injustices of which families were policed and how the concept of familial love could be weaponized. As one friend recalled, “human angst appealed to him, always.” Unhappy families, we might say, interested him far more than happy ones! But to all of these families, he brought a sympathetic sensibility, analyzing the powerful social, political, and economic forces that shaped human relationships.

Friends of the Family was followed by a volume of essays co-edited with Fred Leventhal in honor of Peter Stansky, Singular Continuities: Tradition, Nostalgia, and Identity in Modern British Culture (Stanford, 2000).  Among George’s prize-winning articles were “Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death,” (Journal of British Studies, 2003), which was the co-winner of the 2003 North American Victorian Studies Association Donald Gray Prize.

George’s most recent book was Risky Shores: Savagery and Colonialism in the Western Pacific (Stanford, 2018), which won the 2019 Stansky Book Prize, sponsored by the North American Conference on British Studies.  The book, which carefully parsed the concept of “savagery” as applied to Pacific peoples, was the subject of a featured review in the June 2020 issue of the American Historical Review.  With George’s characteristic precision, he explored how the notion of savagery was used not only to marginalize native populations, but to emphasize the fragility of indigenous cultures. The NACBS Stansky prize citation praised George for skillfully demonstrating how British and Pacific Islander actors negotiated a range of identities and interactions from Captain Cook’s death on a Hawaiian beach in 1779 to the aftermath of the Second World War. Lively and engaging, but never sensationalistic, Risky Shores treats the Pacific (like the family) as a site of mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Over the course of his career, George served on numerous Ph.D. committees. He was an active member of the North American Conference on British Studies and the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies and held several leadership positions, including the presidency of PCCBS from 2011-12.

George’s drive to excel in his scholarship and teaching was echoed in his love of sports. He was known as a highly accomplished athlete, a star swimmer in his youth, who became an accomplished triathlon competitor in his 70s. All will remember his integrity and the incredibly high standards he set with himself, coupled with his sharp humor and generosity towards students and colleagues (whose work he edited with rigor, but also tact). He was his own hardest (and most self-deprecating) critic, and a painstaking reviser of his own work – which resulted in his beautifully clear and direct prose.

We invite you to share your memories of George, which we will post below.

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