Professor Irwin Abrams: Historian of the Nobel Peace Prize

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The Independent Online

Professor Irwin Abrams was the leading historian of the Nobel Peace Prize. His The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates: an illustrated history, 1901-87 was published in 1988, and, while many other books have been written about the Prize, none of them matches Abrams' in terms of scholarship, originality, and readability. When, in the 1990s, the Nobel Foundation decided to update the three-volume series Nobel Lectures: Peace (1970), bringing the official biographies of laureates together with their acceptance speeches and the presentation speeches, Abrams was invited to become editor. So far, five have been published, covering 1971-2005, and another volume, co-edited with his grandson Scott London, will be published this year.

Abrams went to Lowell High School in San Francisco; he received a BA in history from Stanford and an MA and PhD from Harvard. His 1938 doctoral thesis, under the diplomatic historian William L Langer, was entitled A History of European Peace Societies, 1867-1899. He spent 1936-37 in Europe interviewing many leading figures of the pre-1914 international peace movement movement, among them Christian L Lange (peace laureate in 1921) and Henri La Fontaine (1913 laureate).

Back in the US, in 1947 he created the history department at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He was to spend the rest of his academic life there, teaching European history and International Relations for the next three decades, becoming Distinguished University Professor in 1979. But in the early 1960s, during a sabbatical year in Geneva, he researched and wrote the article "Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize". Drawing extensively on the correspondence between Nobel and the Austrian baroness who had been his secretary for just one week (in Paris in the mid-1870s) and who became the leading figure of the pre-First World War international peace movement – as well as the first female recipient of the prize (1905) – Abrams was able to show the Baroness's influence on Nobel's decision to leave one-fifth of his enormous fortune for the furtherance of the cause of world peace, a connection that had sometimes been denied or marginalised by Nobel's biographers.

Abrams not only pursued original research on the origins and evolution of the prize, but was also concerned to bring its recipients before a wide public. He believed that a greater familiarity with peace laureates would inspire younger generations to choose as their role models not only pop stars and sporting champions but also, in the words of Alfred Nobel, "champions of peace". His lucid prose and infectious enthusiasm made him an excellent messenger of a vital concern. His books on the subject included The Words of Peace: Selections from the Speeches of the Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize (1990), and Postage Stamps and Peace Education: The Nobel Peace Prize (1995), a fascinating account of the use of peace stamps to increase understanding of the peace movement.

Any historian of the peace idea in the modern era will discover the central role of Quakers. Through his doctoral thesis, and reading about Quaker peace and relief and reconstruction work, Abrams became a member of the Religious Society of Friends. During the Second World War, he left his teaching position at Stanford University to work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

In the 1990s, Abrams wrote several articles on the Quakers. One of them detailed the work of AFSC's Nobel Peace Prize Nominating Committee. Abrams' active participation over many years in the annual selection process in Philadelphia, the home of American Quakerism, cannot but have sharpened his awareness of the field of candidates every year. The several nominations made by AFSC, and also by Abrams personally, on behalf of former US President Jimmy Carter, eventually proved to be successful when he was awarded the prize in 2002.

It is Irwin Abrams' singular achievement that he has done more than anyone else to acquaint the world more fully with the ideas, efforts and deepest motivations of the Nobel peace laureates and to promote their legacy.

Dr Peter van den Dungen

Irwin Abrams, historian: born San Francisco 24 February 1914; married 1939 Freda Morrill (died 1999; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Yellow Springs, Ohio 16 December 2010.