DU Alumni

Alumnus, historian Peter Gay dies at age 91

Renowned intellectual historian Peter Gay — author of more than 25 books, including a much-heralded history of the Enlightenment and a bestselling biography of Sigmund Freud — died on May 12, 2015, at the age of 91.

A 1946 graduate of the University of Denver, Gay was born as Peter Fröhlich to a family of Jewish ancestry in Berlin in 1923. With the rise of the Nazis, the Fröhlichs emigrated to Cuba in 1939 and later to the United States, where they changed their name to Gay, the English translation of their surname. The family eventually moved to Denver so that Gay’s mother could be treated for tuberculosis.

After completing his undergraduate studies at DU, Gay received a master’s and PhD from Columbia University in New York. Gay taught history at Columbia from 1962–69, then joined the Yale faculty as a professor of comparative and intellectual European history. Over the years, he turned his scholarly eye to a vast array of topics: a study of Mozart, a history of modernism, an examination of Weimar culture and what has been called a “revisionist psychohistory of the Victorian middle classes,” the five-volume “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.”

Much of his work was influenced by his preoccupation with the work of Sigmund Freud. Gay was so riveted by Freud’s ideas and impact that he trained at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, an experience that shaped his widely acclaimed biography, “Sigmund Freud: A Life for Our Time” (1988).

Gay’s work was internationally recognized for its originality and erudition. He won the National Book Award in 1967 for the second volume of “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation.” In 2004, the American Historical Association saluted his achievements with its lifetime distinction award. He also won the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl prize in 1999 for his memoir, “My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin.”

Susan Schulten, chair of DU’s Department of History, notes that Gay influenced her own education and that of a broad community of scholars.

“I came to Peter Gay through his account of Weimar Culture, read in an undergraduate intellectual history course that permanently shifted my interests toward the history of ideas,” she says. “Later I read his work on Freud for historians, and then discovered his intriguing account of Puritan historians just a few years ago. What range! In my conversations with colleagues and friends about his legacy, what has struck me the most is the diversity of those who came to admire his work: psychoanalysts, historians, political theorists, humanists, and most importantly a general class of educated people for whom Gay’s wide intellect and clear prose were irresistible.”

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