For the Record: An Editor's Reflection on the In Memoriam Essays

Jennifer Reut, November 2013

I received the notice that Genevieve Miller had passed away in July 2013. According to the AHA member database, she lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and she’d been a member for 50 years. And that was all I knew. I Googled: Nothing came up. Was that even possible? Where would I begin? With limited time and resources, I wasn’t sure I’d ever find out who she was or what she’d accomplished.

My first assignment at Perspectives on History was to edit the In Memoriam section at the back of the magazine. As I sat down on my first day with an essay on a historian who had died suddenly, leaving two small children, I wondered if I would be able to do this work. Yet it became the most important thing I did each month. It wasn’t just that it was essential to honor the members and historians who had each worked tirelessly to promote the field—anyone might see the usefulness of that—but that I began to see documenting their lives as a meaningful act of historiography in itself.

I should be honest here: editing the In Memoriam essays was always bittersweet. I was being introduced to the work of a lively and productive scholar, more often than not working right up until the end, at precisely the moment when it was too late to hope for more from him or her. And the essays always managed to capture something of their characters as well as their work—their investment in their institutions, their manner with students, their fabulous dinner parties—so that you wished you’d met them in another way.

There were other benefits too. I worked with Linda Kerber and Alice Kessler-Harris on an essay for Gerda Lerner, a thrill for my undergraduate self, who had been so transformed by their work. But even more so, I learned about the surprising and circuitous route that Lerner took from screenwriting to founding the women’s history program at Sarah Lawrence College. And then there was Gary Nash’s essay on Alexander Saxton, whose biography read like one of the pro-labor novels he wrote. His life opened my eyes to the passing of a generation of scholars who’d had so many diverse life experiences before they landed their tenure track jobs, from political organizing to working on the docks to teaching in high schools.

There were many others with extraordinary lives that lead to, but did not begin with, being an academic historian, and I found myself thinking about their trajectories during our many discussions about doctoral career paths around AHA office. These lives caused me to question many of the assumptions I’d made about who could be a historian, and that in turn helped inform much of the work I did at Perspectives.

In the many essays I edited on historians who worked tirelessly as teachers and public historians, I began to see the shape of the field in a new way. Not just made up of the accomplishments of big stars with extensive publishing records and glamorous pre-academic lives, but of the kind of unsung quotidian work that historians everywhere do.

Many had taught for decades, purposefully taking on each new cohort of undergraduates year after year, or worked tirelessly in administration, shaping the curricula or missions at their institutions. Some had never published, but they had conducted workshops, facilitated internships, supported and expanded the mission of local historical societies—all activities that had drawn students and members of the public to history. These essays, often written by a colleague or former student, provide the “historian’s take on a historian” that we seek for Perspectives, and reveal the deep commitment and intellectual engagement behind the often-unrecognized work of many historians. Bibliographies tell one story. Without these narrative essays, the accounting of their lives might not be able to clearly acknowledge their contributions to our field.

But what of Genevieve Miller? How would I excavate her legacy for our readership when I couldn’t find out anything about her? Had she even been a working historian? A few days later, I finally found something: the carefully typed title page of a proceeding on medical history with Dr. Genevieve Miller listed as a panel chair.

It didn’t take long after that to trace her to Dittrick Medical History Center, and within a few days I’d secured an essay from the current director of the museum, which will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Perspectives.

Her In Memoriam essay revealed a woman who had received her PhD in medical history in 1955 from Cornell, one of the first women to do so, and spent much of her life working in museums and public history venues. She was someone who had pioneered in every sense, and was well-known to those in the field, and yet, like many of her generation who worked primarily before the Internet, she was in danger of being erased from the record. Her In Memoriam essay, which will highlight her work at the Dittrick and with the American Association for the History of Medicine, should help change that.

So give the In Memoriam essays a look, if you don’t already. We want them to record the contributions of their subjects, and to bring to light the many and varied ways historians work in the world, but we also want them to be a good read. We’d consider it a suitable tribute to our subjects if we succeeded.

—Jennifer Reut is the former associate editor of Perspectives on History. She now is an editor and staff writer for Landscape Architecture Magazine.