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In Memoriam: John J. Beer

Retired history professor remembered for kindness, love of teaching, social justice activism

John J. Beer, 94, who taught history at the University of Delaware for 31 years until retiring in 1992, passed away on Oct. 2, 2021, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. He was well known for his scholarship, enthusiasm for teaching, kindness to students and colleagues, dedication to his Quaker faith and devotion to activism for peace and justice.

John J. Beer
John J. Beer

Described by his family as “an inquisitive extrovert [who] loved teaching,” Dr. Beer taught European and world history, with specialties in the history of science, technology and chemistry, and developed courses on new topics, including women in science, the Atomic Age and Gandhi.

“He entertained and challenged generations of students with his enthusiasm for any and all subjects, which he explored from both moral and intellectual angles,” his family said.

Dr. Beer, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry before pursuing doctoral studies in history, conducted research on the history of chemistry and the chemical industry and was the author of The Emergence of the German Dye Industry, considered a standard work in the history of technology. He played a major role in developing UD’s program in the history of technology and the Hagley Fellowship Program. Hagley Museum and Library holds a collection of Dr. Beer’s papers, which is available to researchers.

"John was a wonderful colleague, always devoted to the welfare of the History Department and its members,” said Anne Boylan, professor emerita of history. “Even as he was approaching retirement, he led a committee working on establishing a more diverse curriculum and creating future hiring priorities. What became known internally as the ‘Beer Report’ became a touchstone for the department.”

Boylan also noted her admiration for the commitment that Dr. Beer and his late wife, Fran, had to social justice, which she said was evident in their long-term activism for peace and against the death penalty and in other “efforts to create a more just world."

Another former colleague, Raymond Callahan, professor emeritus of history, recalled a casual conversation with a ride-share driver—who happened to be both a UD alumnus and a retired high school teacher—on the same day that Callahan had learned of Dr. Beer’s death. When he mentioned that he was retired from the UD history department, the driver immediately smiled and asked if he knew Dr. Beer.

“John, it turned out, was one of his favorites from his undergrad years on campus,” Callahan said. “To be remembered fondly nearly 50 years later is no small memorial—and one that John richly deserved.”

Other students remembered Dr. Beer’s welcoming manner and sincere interest in them, as well as his skill as an educator. One former student who switched her major to history after taking his western civilization course described him as “awesome and inspiring.”

John J. Beer, 1992
Dr. Beer in a 1992 photograph

About Dr. Beer

As a child, Dr. Beer fled Germany with his Jewish family in the 1930s and came to the U.S. in 1937, settling on an egg farm in Vineland, New Jersey. After graduating from Vineland High School, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1945 and served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and then in Washington, D.C.

He studied chemistry at Earlham College, where he met Frances Nicholson, and they married in 1951. After receiving a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Illinois, he went on to earn a doctorate in the history of science.

Dr. Beer taught at Oklahoma State University for three years before joining the UD faculty in 1961. When he retired in 1992, he was awarded emeritus status, with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mary P. Richards citing his “major contributions” to the University, including his dedication to the teaching of western civilization and to making it “the kind of dynamic experience that excites students about history.”

A resident of Newark, Delaware, for 41 years, Dr. Beer was a founding member of Newark Friends Meeting. He served that meeting and other Quaker organizations in many roles, including ministering, teaching Sunday school, participating in work camps and mentoring students, especially during the Vietnam War years.

Dr. Beer has been a member of the History of Science Society, the American Historical Association and the Society of History and Technology.

He was preceded in death earlier this year by Fran, his wife of 69 years; by his parents, Lucy and Otto Beer; siblings Lise, Martin and Hilda; and young daughter Carolyn. He is survived by children Jennifer, Sandra, Michael (Latanja) and Matthew (Elizabeth) and grandchildren Carolyn, Seth, Avery, Kian Thomasbeer and Skye Thomasbeer.

His family suggested that donations in Dr. Beer’s memory can be given to Pacem in Terris or any other of the many organizations he supported.

The full obituary is available on the funeral home’s website, where condolences may be left online.

Tributes and remembrances

Following are some of the many thoughts shared by colleagues and students.

George Basalla, professor emeritus of history: "I will always remember John Beer as part of a team [UD Profs. Beer, Basalla and Eugene Ferguson] who worked smoothly together, over decades, fostering the growth of studies in the history of science and technology at the University. John was a prime contributor to that cause."

John Beer, 1963
Dr. Beer, in a 1963 portrait shortly after he joined UD's history faculty.

Kathryn Steen, ’95PhD, associate professor of history at Drexel University, who finished her doctorate in the history of technology in August 1995, with Dr. Beer on her dissertation committee, making her his last graduate student: "My favorite bit of John Beer humor came after my dissertation defense, when he presented me with the traditional and ceremonial cigar to acknowledge the accomplishment. Graduate students learned quickly about John Beer's deep commitment to Quakerism and social justice. His deep respect for all people also led him to become a strong advocate for the teaching of world history, and not just western civilization, at the University of Delaware before it became common across history departments. At least in his later years, he would draw on his network of friends and family around the country to find lodging for financially strapped history graduate students who needed to do research in archives further afield."

James Brophy, Francis H. Squire Professor of History: "I didn't know John well, for he was already retired when I arrived in 1992. But even though he was retired, he welcomed me to the department, took me out to lunch and made sure that my wife and I were finding our way around town and University. … Pedagogy and learning was baked into John's bones. As a pioneer in world history, John was a wonderful sounding board for teaching survey courses, and my conversations with him shaped the way I taught my Western Civ course, which was always outward-looking, global and comparative. His belief in the power of education and learning was inspiring. … Above all, I remember John for his kindness and for his ability to listen to others (a relatively rare gift). There was a vein of pluralism, tolerance, and empathy in him that was rare. He struck me as a person who lived his Quaker faith deeply on a daily basis."  

John Burmeister, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry emeritus: "John Beer was one of my favorite people at the University. His specialty, somewhat surprisingly, was the history of chemistry, which created an immediate bond between us. He filled a gap in our CHEM/BIOC curriculum for many years by teaching a course on the subject. He enlivened his lectures with chemical demonstrations on the Mall/Green. Given his heritage, he tended to be formal, albeit with a genuine undercurrent of warmth and sincerity. … John personified the sobriquet 'a scholar and a gentleman.'"

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