Publication Date

February 1, 2002

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Heiko A. Oberman, the internationally acclaimed historian of historical, social, and religious thought, and professor and director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies in the University of Arizona history department, died April 22, 2001. He was 70.

Born in 1930 in Utrecht, Holland, Oberman's earliest memories as a child were of the Jewish refugees who passed through the Oberman house, part of a covert network to find a safe haven for them. His father survived a long imprisonment.

Oberman graduated in 1957 with a PhD from the University of Utrecht and undertook further studies in Indonesia and at Oxford University. He was ordained in 1958, the year he started his career as an instructor at the Harvard Divinity School, where he became full professor by 1963, when he was barely in his 30s. He was named Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History in 1964. Two years later he accepted a professorship in the same discipline at Tübingen, where he remained until his move to Tucson in 1984.

Oberman was a renowned scholar when he came to the University of Arizona in 1984. Widely recognized as Europe's foremost expert on the Reformation, Oberman wrote prolifically in English, German, and Dutch over a career that spanned nearly half a century. Luther: Man between God and the Devil, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, and The Roots of Anti-Semitism were among his most recognized and respected works. His personal library, which Oberman and his family have bequeathed to the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies at the University of Arizona, includes a collection of 16th-century Reformation literature and many other works valuable for research.

Always a favorite of students, Oberman especially enjoyed teaching large undergraduate classes. His upper-division offerings dealt with the social, political, and theological issues of the period that produced the Reformation of the medieval church, but his popular introductory courses covered the span of history from the end of the Roman Empire in the West to the French Revolution. His lecture notes were either heavily rewritten or completely thrown out each year to accommodate his latest research finds.

Oberman gave the university's commencement address in 1988, and in 1989 won the Five-Star Faculty Award, the annual teaching prize given by the university's student body to their choice for best teacher. When the Arizona Board of Regents created its prestigious Regents Professor award for scholarship in 1988, Oberman was among the first group of nine university faculty members named.

An ordained minister of the Netherlands Reformed Church, Oberman frequently lectured to a wide variety of groups in Tucson, beyond the walls of the university. He created the popular annual "Town and Gown" series at the university that brings some of the world's best-known scholars to lecture to Tucson audiences.

On his 70th birthday last October, scholars from across Europe and North America convened at a Tucson resort for a symposium marking the occasion. In 1996 the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences honored him with its A. H. Heineken Prize in history, calling him "a true pioneer in the field of historical science, particularly due to the new light he has shed on the study of history of the Middle Ages and Modern Age."

He received many distinguished fellowships and awards, including honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of St. Louis, the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and Valparaiso University, Indiana.

Oberman is survived by his wife, Geertruida (Toetie) R. Reesink Oberman; four children, Gerrit-Willem of Bernhausen, Germany; Ida of Alameda, California; Hester of Tucson, Arizona; and Raoul of Wassenaar, The Netherlands; and seven grandchildren.

—Susan Karant-Nunn, University of Arizona
—Richard Cosgrove, Unviersity of Arizona

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