Merle Curti (1897-1997) was a leading American historian. His specialty was social and intellectual history. He founded three academic disciplines—peace studies, intellectual history and social history—and helped create cliometrics as a tool in historical research.
Curti was born near Omaha, Nebraska in 1897. He was the son of a physician who had immigrated from Switzerland, and his mother was from Vermont. He obtained a bachelor's degree in 1920 and a Ph.D. in 1927—both from Harvard University, where he was one of the last students of Frederick Jackson Turner.
Curti taught at Beloit College, Smith College, Teachers College, Columbia University, and (from 1942 to 1968), at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Each summer he returned to his restored farmhouse in Lyme, New Hampshire, where he did much of his writing. He also taught in Japan, Australia, and India, and he lectured throughout Europe (where his work was better-known than in the U.S.).
While at Smith College, Curti published his first book, The American Peace Crusade, 1815-1860. The book, based on his dissertation, was written after Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (who had replaced Turner at Harvard) rejected his first dissertation proposal which was essentially an early version of The Growth of American Thought.
Moving to Teachers College in 1931, he published a book on William Jennings Bryan and world peace (Bryan and World Peace). It was followed by Peace or War: The American Struggle in 1936. With these works, Curti helped found peace and conflict studies as a field of study. These works were followed by a book on Austrian-American relations.
Curti turned his attention to intellectual history, and helped to establish that field as a distinct academic discipline. His first foray in the field was The Social Ideals of American Educators, published in 1935. He resigned his position at Teacher's College in 1942 to take a position as Turner Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, where he remained until his retirement in 1968.
In 1944, Curti won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his masterwork, The Growth of American Thought.
In 1959, Curti directed a collaborative social history of Trempealeau County, Wisconsin using quantitative analysis of census records. The book which came out of the project, The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier County, became an important pioneer work in social history, and helped establish the historical tool known as cliometrics.
Over the years, Curti supervised over 80 doctoral dissertations, allowing his students a free hand in content and methodology.
Curti won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1944.
He was president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now the Organization of American Historians) in 1952 and the American Historical Association in 1954.
He was a co-founder of the American Studies Association. He served as the organization's vice-president in 1954 and 1955, and was asked to serve as president in 1956. But he declined the honor because he was going to be out of the country.
Curti was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
In 1977, the Organization of American Historians established the Merle Curti Award. The prize is given annually for the best book in social, intellectual, and/or cultural history. (In some years, the organization has awarded two prizes, one in social and/or cultural history and one in intellectual and/or cultural history.)