In Memoriam

George K. Behlmer (1948–2024)

Historian of Britain

Jordanna Bailkin, Jane Cater, Glennys Young | Apr 30, 2024

George K. Behlmer

George K. Behlmer, historian of modern Britain and professor emeritus at the University of Washington (UW), died on January 4, 2024.

George earned his BA, with highest honors, in 1970 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He then did his graduate work at Stanford University, where he earned his MA in 1972 and his PhD in 1977. While a graduate student, he took courses in the psychology department to pursue his interest in psychological factors and historical change. His dissertation, “The Child Protection Movement in England, 1860–1890,” was advised by Peter Stansky.

After one-year appointments at Stanford and Yale University, George joined UW as an assistant professor in 1979. In 1982, he won a Distinguished Teaching Award. When interviewed about the award and asked about his memories of teaching, he noted, “In the first Irish history class I taught, I had a role-playing exercise. The debate was over whether the British Army should be forced to leave Northern Ireland. One student, who was Irish and thought of the IRA as heroes, had to argue for the British. He got involved more than any student I’ve ever had. He even called the Rev. Ian Paisley in Ireland and interviewed him on tape. During the class, when he was asked a question, he played the tape. It blew everyone away.” George’s dedication to teaching the history of Northern Ireland and of the republic led to four UW study-abroad programs in Belfast between 2001 and 2007. His lifelong affection for Ireland culminated in his 2012 Alumni Association History Lecture Series, Revenge and Reconciliation in Modern Ireland.

In all his research, George resisted simple dichotomies and offered startlingly sensitive and nuanced accounts of his historical subjects—often of those whose voices had gone unrepresented. Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870–1908 (Stanford Univ. Press, 1982) won the award for best first book from the Pacific Coast Branch of the AHA. Friends of the Family: The English Home and Its Guardians, 1850–1940 (Stanford Univ. Press, 1998) dissected the Victorian deification of the family, illuminating contemporary debates about “family values” and their political deployment. In honor of Peter Stansky, George co-edited a volume of essays with Fred Leventhal, Singular Continuities: Tradition, Nostalgia, and Identity in Modern British Culture (Stanford Univ. Press, 2000). Among George’s prizewinning articles was “Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death” (Journal of British Studies, 2003), co-winner of the 2003 North American Victorian Studies Association Donald Gray Prize. George’s most recent book was Risky Shores: Savagery and Colonialism in the Western Pacific (Stanford Univ. Press, 2018), which won the 2019 Stansky Book Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies. With George’s characteristic precision, he explored how the notion of savagery was used not only to marginalize native populations but to emphasize the fragility of Indigenous cultures. Lively and engaging, but never sensationalistic, Risky Shores treats the Pacific (as George did the family) as a site of mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Over the course of his career, George served on numerous PhD committees. He was an active member of the North American Conference on British Studies and the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies and held several leadership positions, including the presidency of PCCBS from 2011 to 2012.

George’s drive to excel in his scholarship and teaching was echoed in his love of sports; he was a star swimmer in his youth and competed in triathlons into his 70s. All will remember his integrity and the incredibly high standards he set for himself, coupled with his sharp humor and generosity toward students and colleagues (whose work he edited with rigor, but also tact). He was his own hardest (and most self-deprecating) critic, and a painstaking reviser of his own work—which resulted in his beautifully clear and direct prose.

George leaves behind his wife (and, as he said, “loving critic”), Jane Cater; his brother, Charles; and many close friends, students, and colleagues.

Jordanna Bailkin
University of Washington

Jane Cater
City University of Seattle

Glennys Young
University of Washington

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