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Richard S. Dunn, eminent historian, professor, and author, dies at 93

He had major impact on the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, and other organizations. "He made significant contributions to Philadelphia and beyond," a colleague said.

A native of Minnesota, Professor Dunn, here with a statue of William Penn, became an expert on his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
A native of Minnesota, Professor Dunn, here with a statue of William Penn, became an expert on his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Richard S. Dunn, 93, formerly of Philadelphia, an award-winning professor emeritus of American history at the University of Pennsylvania, director emeritus of the groundbreaking McNeil Center for Early American Studies, co-executive officer emeritus of the American Philosophical Society, and a prolific researcher and author, died Monday, Jan. 24, of congestive heart failure and COVID-19 at home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

A renowned expert on early American and Caribbean history, he was a professor at Penn for 40 years. He chaired the school’s history department from 1972 to 1977, helped recruit its first tenured women faculty members, and won the school’s 1993 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

He served on several committees that shaped the School of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole, and was named Penn’s first Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols professor of American History. The history department created the Richard S. Dunn Award for Distinguished Teaching after his retirement in 1996.

Professor Dunn formed the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, now the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, at Penn in 1977, and served in leadership roles until 2000. The center’s Richard S. Dunn fellowship recognizes excellence in scholarship, and its head of staff holds the Richard S. Dunn directorship.

In an online tribute, current director Emma Hart said: “Richard’s legacy will endure far beyond his lifetime.”

In 2002, Professor Dunn and his wife, Mary Maples Dunn, became co-executive officers of the Philadelphia-based American Philosophical Society. For six years they oversaw, among other things, the society’s initiatives on research, fellowships, exchange scholars, endowments, and building renovations.

A well-traveled researcher, Professor Dunn edited, wrote, and reviewed numerous papers, books, and articles. His 1972 book, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, was a 1973 National Book Award finalist in history, and his 2014 book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, won the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.

He also won other awards and fellowships, and was a member of many scholarly organizations. He earned the 2017 American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction, was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and spoke about his work at many events around the world.

“As an historical editor should, I try to present my findings so as to encourage the reader to draw her/his own conclusions,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Junto blog on early American history. He told the Harvard Gazette in 2015: “I’ve had a good deal of experience of writing history from the top down. But now, I’m trying to write history from the bottom up.”

In an online tribute, former students called Professor Dunn a “historical giant” and praised his “alert and humane scholarship.” Colleagues noted his “kind heart,” “generous soul,” and “extraordinary integrity.”

Born Aug. 9, 1928 in Minneapolis, Professor Dunn graduated from St. Paul Academy in St. Paul, Minn., and Harvard University. He earned his master’s degree and doctorate in history at Princeton University and taught at Princeton and the University of Michigan before joining Penn in 1957.

He met Mary Maples, a fellow historian then teaching at Bryn Mawr College, at a history convention, and they married in 1960. They had daughters Rebecca and Ceci and lived in Philadelphia and St. Davids.

His wife became president of Smith College in Massachusetts in 1985, and Professor Dunn traveled often between Philadelphia and New England, reveling in his role as partner to his wife and entertaining host to her colleagues, students, and friends. She died in 2017.

A fan of the Eagles, 76ers, and Phillies, Professor Dunn liked to tell of the time he got bowled over courtside by Sixers star Charles Barkley. He enjoyed opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and recited Shakespeare on Zoom meetings with fellow enthusiasts.

“He was a very caring human being,” said his daughter Ceci. “He was always interested in what we were doing. He was a model for me.”

His daughter Rebecca said: “I enjoyed talking things through with him. He always gave great advice.”

In addition to his daughters, Professor Dunn is survived by three grandchildren, and other relatives. A brother died earlier.

A celebration of his life is to be held later.

Donations in his name may be made to the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, Office of Advancement, 3600 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104; the American Philosophical Society, Development Office, 104 S. Fifth St., Philadelphia, Pa.19106; and Smith College, Gift Accounting, 76 Elm St., Northampton, Mass. 01063.