Barry D. Karl, historian of American politics and expert on philanthropy, 1927–2010
Barry D. Karl, a historian whose study of 20th-century American politics led him to become a leading expert on philanthropy, died Wednesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Karl, a Hyde Park resident, was 82.
Karl, the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor Emeritus in History, was an authority on the origins of the modern foundation, which began with Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Mrs. Russell Sage.
In addition to teaching courses on philanthropy, Karl led a research project on philanthropy with colleague Stanley Katz, later a professor at Princeton University, which traced the impact of philanthropy on American institutions and politics after the Civil War.
Karl analyzed how business magnates sought to apply their fortunes to the management of an urban industrial society. Karl connected this new "scientific philanthropy," intended to support research about the roots of social problems, with the creation of structures for developing and applying professionalized expertise. Those included modern American research universities and public policy think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution or the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Karl wrote extensively on philanthropy in papers that included, "The Evolution of Corporate Grantmaking in America," "Andrew Carnegie and His Gospel of Philanthropy," "Philanthropy and the Social Sciences," "Philanthropy and Public Policy" (with Katz), and "Philanthropy and the Secularization of Charity."
"Barry Karl was the first major scholar to recognize the role of philanthropy in partnering with government to provide the planning needed by a modern state in a manner consistent with the 'weak state' tradition of the United States," Katz said. "His insight has been the basis for mainstream scholarship on American philanthropy ever since."
Neil Harris, the Preston & Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus in History, said, "His vast knowledge of American political and intellectual history was studded with original insights that challenged conventional wisdom. He invariably came up with surprising and challenging observations about what were supposedly settled conclusions.
"He was especially fascinated by the interplay between individuals and institutions, and the ways in which human personalities helped shape and were shaped by broader historical forces," Harris added. "On the personal side, he was a serious and well-informed music lover, and renowned for his skill in watch making and orchid raising."
Karl's interest in the study of philanthropy led to his appointment in 1997 as the first William Henry Bloomberg Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The two-year term professorship was endowed by Michael Bloomberg, now mayor of New York, in memory of his father, and was part of a new program on the study of philanthropy and its impact on society.
Karl first engaged with the history of public management when, as an editor at the University of Chicago Press, he helped Louis Brownlow, one of founders of the field of public administration, write his autobiography. Fascinated by the complex and contentious relationship between democratic politics and managerial power, Karl studied the theory and practice of public policy in 20th-century America.He was the author of Executive Reorganization and Reform in the New Deal (1963), Charles E. Merriam and the Study of Politics (1974), and The Uneasy State: The United States from 1915 to 1945 (1985).
A native of Louisville, Ky., Karl received a BA from the University of Louisville in 1949, an MA from UChicago in 1951 and a PhD from Harvard in 1961. He served on the faculties of Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis and Brown University before joining the Chicago faculty in 1971.
Karl was chair of the History Department at Chicago from 1976-79 and served in other capacities at the University.
"He was not only a close colleague and friend, a fine scholar and exceptional teacher, but he was also an unusually effective and committed citizen of the University, deeply versed in its history and concerned for the sustenance of its special character," said Hanna Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita and President Emerita of the University.
Gray added that Karl served on many important and influential committees, "and was for some years a senior advisor in the President's office." Among his many contributions, she noted Karl's role in planning for the development of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and in the design of the academic conferences of the University's centennial year.
Karl is survived by his wife, Alice; daughters, Elisabeth Karl and Sarah Karl Schroeder; grandson, Ethan Schroeder; brother, Leo Karl; niece, Amy Johnson; nephew, David Karl; and son-in-law, Paul Schroeder.
Follow UChicago’s social media sites, news feeds and mobile suite.