In Memoriam: Robert B. Carlisle
Charlene Bangs Bickford, October 2006
From the In Memoriam column of the October 2006 Perspectives
Longtime AHA member and retired Lee Professor of History Emeritus at St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) Robert B. Carlisle passed away on December 1, 2005, in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the age of 77.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Carlisle graduated from Clark University in 1950 and was awarded a PhD by Cornell University in 1956. While pursuing his graduate studies, he spent a year at the University of Glasgow in Scotland as a Cornell-Glasgow Exchange Fellow and two years as a Fulbright Scholar at the Institut d'etudes politiques in Paris, France.
After teaching at Boston University for two years, Carlisle joined the faculty at St. Lawrence University in 1958. At St. Lawrence, which places a very high priority on excellence in teaching, he soon became known as one of the very best. Announcing his passing, SLU President Daniel Sullivan called him one the university's "legendary faculty members." Former students remember him as one who, even in an 8:00 a.m. world history survey class, could hold the rapt attention of his audience as he interwove story threads of social influences, cultural elements, economic/trade conditions, political thought and actions, and other diverse subjects into fascinating stories that illustrated the depth and breadth of human history. He challenged students to recognize and seek to understand the complexities of both history and current events and could often be found in the university center's snack bar in discussion with students on a myriad of topics, such as the social conditions that led to the French Revolution or the French colonial experience in Vietnam. Freewheeling seminar sessions in the Carlisle family living room further enhanced academic life for history students.
A firm believer in encouraging students to expand their horizons through travel and study abroad, he was the co-founder of SLU's first Junior Year Abroad Program (Rouen, France) and spent the 1964–65 academic year in Paris and Rouen with the inaugural group. Those students reaped the intellectual and experiential benefits of his extensive knowledge of both modern-day France and its past. From the classroom to weekend field trips, he helped them to enrich their experience through immersion in French history, culture, architecture, and social customs.
Tapped for membership in the leadership honorary Omicron Delta Kappa in 1966, Carlisle then was selected to receive the Owen D. Young Outstanding Faculty Award by a vote of the student body in 1967. From 1970–71 he served as the first elected chair of the SLU Faculty Council and went on to serve a term as the elected faculty delegate to the Board of Trustees (1972–75). Two terms as the chair of the history department (1972–75, 1983–86) rounded out his administrative service to SLU. In all of these administrative positions he was known as a firm and articulate advocate for faculty rights.
Carlisle's primary research focus was the Saint-Simonians, the 19th-century socialists responsible for the economic regeneration of France after the Revolution of 1848. His first book, The Saint-Simonians and the Foundation of the Paris-Lyon Railroad, appeared in 1957 and the Johns Hopkins University Press published The Proffered Crown: Saint-Simonians and the Doctrine of Hope in 1988. He also authored journal articles such as "Saint-Simonian Radicalism: A Definition and a Direction" in the fall 1968 issue of French Historical Studies and "The Birth of Technocracy: Science, Society and Saint-Simonians" in the July 1974 issue of The Journal of the History of Ideas.
One of his former SLU students, Peter Rutkoff, now a professor of American studies at Kenyon College, said this about Carlisle's scholarly work: "Robert Carlisle was an expert in modern French intellectual and social history. His work on the Saint-Simonians, a group of 19th-century French political visionaries and technocrats, showed definitively how modern, postwar France, with its commitment to planned economy and industrial organization, had roots deep in the previous century. The Saint-Simonians, he revealed, provided the intellectual foundation for modern France."
SLU recognized his many contributions to the university by naming him Munsil Professor of History in 1972 and then John Stebbins Lee Professor of History. A seminar room was also named the Robert B. Carlisle Seminar Room. After 33 years of devoted service to the university, Carlisle retired with emeritus status in August 1991, and gave the convocation address to begin the next academic year.
During his retirement years, Carlisle moved to the Boston area and soon became involved in a variety of history-related activities, including serving as a tour guide for "Boston by Foot" and as a docent for Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. Research on the history of his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, particularly the social/cultural development that was spurred by the philanthropy of factory owners, also became an area of concentration.
Carlisle's wife of 45 years, Susan Goodman Carlisle, a retired Tufts University English professor, predeceased him in 2000. He is survived by two sons, a daughter, and three grandchildren.
—Charlene Bangs Bickford
First Federal Congress Project
George Washington University