A memorial service honoring the life and intellectual legacy of Professor Theodore K. Rabb.
Theodore Rabinowicz was born on March 5, 1937, in Teplice-Sanov, Czechoslovakia, to Oskar and Rose (Oliner) Rabinowicz. His father was an author and professor, and in 1939 the family emigrated, settling in London. Theodore received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Queen’s College, Oxford, then furthered his education in 1958 at Princeton, studying European and colonial American history and receiving a Ph.D. in 1961. He taught at Stanford, Northwestern and Harvard before returning to Princeton to join the faculty in 1967. He took emeritus status in 2006.
“Theodore Rabb loved to experiment with new kinds of history,” said Princeton University colleague Anthony Grafton. “He was tireless in exploring the records of the past wherever they could be found, and used methods ranging from computer-assisted computation to formal analysis of paintings to unlock their meanings.”
Professor Rabb’s first book, Enterprise & Empire: Merchant and Gentry Investment in the Expansion of England, 1575-1630, published in 1967, examined that period through statistical analysis of who had invested in English trading companies, analyzing how that had affected Parliament’s decisions on overseas exploration and colonization. Other books, like Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age (1993) and The Last Days of the Renaissance and the March to Modernity (2006), explored his area of specialty, which television viewers also got to experience in 1993 when PBS broadcast “Renaissance,” a five-part series that he helped create and for which he provided on-camera commentary. Professor Rabb’s intellectual curiosity, however, took him far and wide. His The Artist and the Warrior: Military History Through the Eyes of the Masters (2011) examined thousands of years of art, beginning with ancient stone reliefs, to discuss how the depiction of warfare has changed and why. His most recent book, published last year, was Why Does Michelangelo Matter? A Historian’s Questions About the Visual Arts. “The reach of his mind was phenomenal,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, said in a telephone interview, noting that he had been reading the “Michelangelo” book recently. “I’d written in the margin about a third of this way through, ‘This book reminds me of how much I don’t know,’ ” he said.
At Princeton, in the 1990s, he and colleagues developed a demanding four-course humanities sequence that was an academic high point for the students who took it. It reflected his longstanding interest in cross-disciplinary explorations. He had been one of the founding editors, in 1970, of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, which he continued to edit. Professor Rabb also ran an internship program that enabled Princeton students to begin their teaching careers at community colleges in the area. “He was extremely active in trying to improve the status of teaching, the teaching of history,” McCullough said, citing Professor Rabb’s work with the National Council for History Education, where for a time he was chairman.
In addition to his books, Professor Rabb wrote scholarly articles, book reviews and more for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review. His work could be playful even while maintaining its scholarly authority. In 1981, for instance, he wrote an Op-Ed article for The Times titled “Galileo’s Last Memo,” in which he imagined Galileo giving words of encouragement to Charles Darwin, whose ideas were under attack in the early 1980s from a resurgent creationism.
“A polymath in an age of specialists, he always posed and answered big questions about the past,” Grafton said, “and did so in graceful, accessible prose.” McCullough said Professor Rabb’s broad view of what constitutes history and how to study it was an example for both his students and admirers of his books. “He reminded us,” McCullough said, “vividly and with spirit, that there’s far more to history than just politics and war.”
Theodore K. Rabb, an expert in European history, especially the Renaissance, who knew that it takes more than traditional written sources to illuminate the past, died on January 7, 2019 in Plainsboro, N.J. He was 81. Rabb, who lived in Princeton, is survived by his wife, Tamar (Janowsky) Rabb; a daughter, Susannah Bailin; two sons, Jonathan and Jeremy '92; a sister, Judith Tapiero; and five grandchildren.