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OBITUARY : E. Digby Baltzell

The serendipitous invention of the word Wasp, denoting not the yellow-and-black striped insect, vespula vulgaris, but a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, has changed perceptions of American society and even American history. The world owes it to an eminent sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania with the magnificently appropriate Wasp name of E. Digby Baltzell. Not all his friends and students knew that the E. stood for Edward.

This pregnant neologism saw the light of day because Baltzell found that while crisper appellations such as "Jews" or even "Roman Catholics" fitted into statistical tables, "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" did so only with difficulty.

Baltzell and his coinage of the word Wasp have helped to draw attention to the dirty little secret that in a society that boasts of being classless, there is and has always been an American aristocracy. Not that there was anything dirty about this secret for Baltzell.

He was, and I think he would have been prepared to admit, in a benign sense a snob. He dedicated one of his books to "all my undergraduate friends at the University of Pennsylvania, many of them grandsons of immigrants to the urban frontier, who, in spite of their possessing too many Jaguars and mink-coated mothers, have constantly been renewed by faith in the American Dream of unlimited opportunity".

Baltzell was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Chestnut Hill, then the best address in the city. He went to St Paul's, an Episcopalian boarding school in New Hampshire and then to the University of Pennsylvania, not a state institution, but an Ivy League school.

After serving as a pilot in the US Navy, he did his doctorate in Sociology before returning to Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, to teach, which he continued to do until his retirement in 1986.

I remember him from the 1950s, a dapper figure in tweed jackets and bow ties, popular in a slightly aloof way, but always courteous and accessible. Far more important to him than his personal preference for English clothes and for the ethos and manners of the gentleman was his conviction that aristocracy was necessary for the provision of leadership, both nationally and internationally.

He began his best-known and most influential book, The Protestant Establishment (1964), by asserting that while socialist faiths might aim for a classless society, the United States stressed equality of opportunity in an open class system.

He quoted Karl Marx to the effect that "the more a ruling class is able to assimilate the most prominent men of the dominated classes, the more stable and dangerous is its rule". He used the Lincoln family as an example. Everyone knew, he pointed out, that Abraham Lincoln came of humble origins. Not everyone remembered that he sent his son to Phillips Andover, the American Eton, and to Harvard College, and that Robert Todd Lincoln was altogether the epitome of the Victorian aristocrat, clubman and gentleman.

In spite of his preference for an aristocratic leadership in society, Baltzell's views were liberal. He believed that the American upper class, the Protestant aristocracy, had made a historic mistake, damaging to the nation, when it failed to assimilate the most successful and talented members of other groups, and especially Jews, into its social system.

Much of The Protestant Establishment is devoted to the social exclusion of Jews from Wasp clubs, which he called "the dishonourable treatment of distinguished Jews by members of the old-stock establishment". But behind this specific and arguably somewhat parochial concern, his abiding interest was the decline of authority in American society, which he attributed in part to the decline of aristocracy.

In another study, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979), he concluded that the Protestant elite of Boston, for all its snootiness and hardness, had been more effective than Philadelphia's dominant Quakers, whose traditions of modesty made them less effective.

In a 1958 book, he described the rise of the Philadelphia elite from which he sprang: his father was a successful insurance broker. In the 1960s, he argued strongly that the existing elites must assimilate talented black leaders into a national aristocracy.

In his later years he was much exercised by the way the Wasps were losing influence. He considered, and taught, that they had failed the nation by abandoning their tradition of public service, and that they were just not up to the job in competition with Jewish, Irish and Asian leaders.

Edward Digby Baltzell, sociologist: born Philadelphia 14 November 1915; married 1943 Jan Piper (deceased; two daughters), 1991 Jocelyn Carlson; died Philadelphia 17 August 1996.