Sylvia L. Thrupp (1903-97)
Raymond Grew, March 2000
Sylvia L. Thrupp died on September 9, 1997, so long isolated by Alzheimer’s disease that friends and colleagues only recently learned of her passing. They continue to miss her. Professor Thrupp was an influential pioneer in many respects.
Her books, The Worshipful Company of Bakers and The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 1300–1500, along with her many articles on guilds and on demography, brought increased dynamism to medieval social history as a field in which the methods of economic history and sociology opened fresh questions, and her personal ties as well as her teaching and research connected North American scholarship to the stimulating new work being done by British and French historians.
In 1958 she founded Comparative Studies in Society and History and brought the journal with her when she moved to the University of Michigan, continuing as its editor until shortly before her retirement in 1974. By way of CSSH, her influence extended throughout the social sciences in Europe and North America—the journal's vitality a reflection of her judgment and energy, her joy in scholarship, the range of her intellectual interests, and her remarkable openness to new ideas. In touch with leading scholars in anthropology, economics, law, political science, and sociology, she wrote widely on issues of comparison and methodology in numerous essays, many of which were republished in Society and History: Essays by Sylvia L. Thrupp.
Thrupp had made her way in a scholarly world reluctant to grant women permanent positions, battling without bitterness for ideas more than status. Born in Surrey, England, in 1903, she emigrated to British Columbia with her family when she was five. She received her BA from the University of British Columbia in 1925 and her MA in 1928. After teaching in high schools in British Columbia from 1926 to 1928, she went to England, receiving her PhD from the University of London in 1931 and remaining abroad as a postdoctoral fellow until 1935. She was instructor in history at the University of British Columbia from 1935 to 1944 and a special lecturer in history at the University of Toronto the following year. From 1945 to 1968 she was assistant professor and then associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, with visiting professorships at the State University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin. In 1961 Sylvia was named to the newly established Alice Freeman Palmer Chair at the University Michigan, a chair named for the founding president of Wellesley College, a Michigan alumna.
A fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Medieval Academy of America, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Thrupp served as president of the Economic History Association in 1973–74 and was received the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1988. She continued her many scholarly projects after her retirement, participating in conferences and maintaining a lively international correspondence filled with characteristic and pointed insights, criticisms, and encouragement.
At the age of 83 she married a fellow medievalist, Joseph R. Strayer, who had retired from Princeton, and spent a happy year with him there before his sudden death. She then moved to California to live with her nephew, Dr. Lauri Thrupp.
Publications and awards can hardly capture, however, the importance of her personal ties to leading scholars in many disciplines, her influence on students and colleagues, her gift for friendship, and the delight of her charm and irrepressible wit. All of that is remembered with gratitude by all who knew her.
University of Michigan
Editor’s Note: We are belatedly publishing this obituary of Sylvia Thrupp, a longtime member of the AHA, as we learned of her death only recently.