Publication Date

October 2, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Katherine Fischer Drew

Rice University/CC BY 3.0

Katherine Fischer Drew, the Lynette S. Autrey Professor Emerita of History at Rice University, passed away on March 19, 2023, five months before her 100th birthday.

Katherine was born on September 24, 1923, in Houston, Texas. The daughter of a local baker, Katherine was a high-achieving student who began undergraduate study at Rice University when she was 16 years old, focusing on European medieval history. In 1945, she earned her MA at Rice with a translation of the Burgundian Legal Code. Her introductory text described how Roman law, which reflected a long tradition of centralized authority, legal professionals, and urban life, intersected with the unwritten common law in areas characterized by kinship-based governance and agricultural production. This interest in social and political transitions of early medieval Europe remained a passion in her doctoral dissertation, which she completed at Cornell University in 1950, and throughout her career. She produced scholarly translations of the Lombard and Salian Franks’ Laws, as well as other essays shedding light on shifting patterns of ownership, inheritance, and punishment collected in her volume Law and Society in Early Medieval Europe (Variorum, 1988).

To make sense of the law, Katherine made use of insights from sociology, archaeology, and economics. As she noted in her work, legal codes tended to focus on key rules that were under discussion and required clarification, rather than on matters that were obvious. Precise penalties for crimes (such as touching an unmarried woman below or above the elbow or throwing unclean water at a wedding) required precise payments, which suggested that in these cases crime was about damage to a person rather than to an abstract notion of state or society. She drew on specific civil or criminal rules to infer differences of status and familial organization. These details allowed her to paint a picture of transitions from rule by custom in Germanic law to a more Roman notion of the formal state, a notion that lay the groundwork for the High Middle Ages. She continued working and publishing into her 80s. Her final book was Magna Carta (Greenwood Press, 2004), a compilation of documents on the origin and development of the Magna Carta—or rather what she called the myth of the Magna Carta, a document delineating rights that King John had no intention of honoring, for it became a symbol of English rights only after centuries of struggle. She was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1959; a Fulbright Fellow in 1965; a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1975; and fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1979, an organization she served as president in 1985–86. She also served on the AHA Council from 1982–85.

At Rice University, Katherine was the first woman to join the faculty full-time (in 1950) and the first woman to receive tenure. It is no exaggeration to say that she helped transform Rice from a technical institute into a modern liberal arts university. Arriving at Rice to join a department of only four professors, she served as chair of the combined Department of History and Political Science from 1970–80. That was a period of tremendous growth, including the formation of a separate political science department. By the time she stepped down, the history department consisted of around 15 tenure-track professors. During her time at Rice, she often served as an all-purpose problem solver in multiple administrative roles at the university, including acting dean of the humanities and social sciences.

After her retirement in 1996, she continued her scholarly work and remained active in the department and beyond. When I became department chair in 2003, she and I talked at length about how the department, school, and university worked and about the eccentricities of homo academicus; she never failed to teach me key lessons while at the same time making me laugh. Her commitment to both the university and its students was as sharp and focused as her wit. One of her lasting legacies is a major endowment in her name to fund undergraduate research and teaching. For more than 80 years, Katherine remained focused on Rice as an institution. Rice would not be the same place without her.

Peter C. Caldwell
Rice University

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