Peter Riesenberg, Ph.D., a beloved member of the Washington University faculty from 1960 until his retirement in 1993, was the mainstay of “History 101,” the history of Western civilization, for generations of students.
Dr. Riesenberg, whose research focused on Western civilization, medieval history and the history of citizenship, played a key role in attracting future majors to history.
“His verve and enthusiasm over the many years were an important element in the department’s success,” Derek Hirst, Ph.D., the William Eliot Smith Professor of History in Arts & Sciences, once said of Dr. Riesenberg’s impact.
Dr. Riesenberg, professor emeritus of history, served on many vital University, community and national committees. According to Hirst, “He lived out in his own person the enduring focus of his research — the life of citizenship.”
Among the numerous University committees Dr. Riesenberg served on were search committees for chancellor, dean of libraries and dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
He also was chair of many committees, including the Faculty Senate Council (three times) and the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, and he was a faculty representative to the Board of Trustees.
Dr. Riesenberg also was considered a “mainstay” in University College, the evening and summer program in Arts & Sciences, having taught Western civilization there for more than 30 years.
In addition, he collaborated with the late Bill Matheson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of comparative literature, in a number of team-taught courses as founding faculty in University College’s master of liberal arts program.
Dr. Riesenberg received University College’s teaching award in 1987 and a Distinguished Faculty Award in 1981 at the University’s Founders Day celebration.
In 1999, an anonymous donor established an endowed scholarship in his name for his long and distinguished career at Washington University.
Born in 1925 in New York City and educated in its public schools, Dr. Riesenberg entered Rutgers University in 1942. His education was interrupted by World War II, in which he served two years in the U.S. Air Force. His duties included teaching radar and editing a base newspaper in Japan. He graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in 1947.
He earned a master’s degree in history in 1949 from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1954. He studied in Rome on two Fulbright Fellowships and a Cutting Fellowship from Columbia University.
He joined Washington University’s history department in 1960 after faculty positions at Swarthmore College and Rutgers University.
Among his academic honors, Dr. Riesenberg served as a Fulbright scholar, a Social Science Research Council fellow and a Guggenheim fellow, all in Italy, and a fellow at the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies.
In 1978, he was one of 25 scholars in the country to be chosen for a nine-month appointment
at the then newly completed National Humanities Center at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
While at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a member of this first class of scholars, he worked on his book Citizenship in the Western Tradition: Plato to Rousseau, which surveys Western ideas of citizenship from Greek antiquity to the French Revolution.
His other books are The Humanist as Citizen, Inalienability of Sovereignty in Medieval Political Thought, The Medieval Town and his most recent, History of Citizenship: Sparta to Washington.
He has also taught at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Vermont, the National Taiwan University and Bowdoin College.
In 1993, Dr. Riesenberg donated more than 250 books to the Washington University Libraries. The books represent a range of subjects, from classical to medieval to early modern European history.
In retirement on the seacoast of Maine, he paints and exhibits his art, reads and travels. He and his wife, Trudi Spigel, Ph.D., who coordinated Washington University’s weekly lecture series, the Assembly Series, for 20 years, have traveled widely, including notable trips to Egypt, Israel, Libya, Iran and Syria. They have four children and six grandchildren.
Still putting citizenship into practice, he has been active in local affairs, serving on several committees in his town of Harpswell and for six years on the governing board of Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick.