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UC Berkeley Press Release

Gunther Barth, retired UC Berkeley professor, American history scholar and mentor to countless students, dies at age 78

Gunther Barth – Gunther Barth, an emeritus professor of history who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for more than three decades and mentored countless students, died Wednesday, Jan. 7. He was 78.

Barth died at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley following a brief illness.

The Berkeley resident joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1962 and retired in 1995. He was a highly productive scholar and energetic teacher who regularly taught a full schedule, alternating courses on the history of the American West and urban American history. He was principal advisor for a long list of Ph.D. students

History department chair Jon Gjerde remembered Barth's "meticulous care for his students," which he said was reciprocated by their affection for him as an advisor and mentor.

Professor Robert Middlekauff said he considered his colleague a "superb teacher and scholar who was deeply devoted to his students and to his craft."

Barth authored numerous articles and published several important books. His major works include "Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870" (1964); "Instant Cities: Urbanization and the Rise of San Francisco and Denver" (1975); "City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-century America" (1980); and "Fleeting Moments: Nature and Culture in American History" (1990).

UC Berkeley history professor Samuel Haber added that Barth was "a man of enormous integrity and broad sympathy."

Born on Jan.10, 1925, near Düsseldorf, Germany, Barth entered the German army at age 15 during World War II. He was seriously wounded twice, but was repeatedly sent back into action. His First Paratrooper Regiment surrendered in northern Italy at the end of the war. He spent two years as a British POW in Egypt and in hospitals.

Following the war, he worked as a journalist while attending classes at the University of Cologne. Part of his course work there was to salvage Chinese art works that had been buried to avoid damage from bombs.

His interest in Chinese history, though not sustained professionally, would be key in his future career. Winning a U.S. State Department fellowship enabled him in 1949 to spend a year at the University of Oregon.

Two years later, he returned to the United States as an immigrant, worked in New York City for a year in a wide variety of jobs, from construction worker to nightclub bouncer, to earn enough money to return to the University of Oregon. There, he completed his bachelor's degree in European history in 1955 and his master's degree in American history in 1957.

As his master's thesis, he edited a journal found in an attic of a soldier on the Oregon coast. His work won a prize and was published in 1959 as "All Quiet on the Yamhill: The Civil War in Oregon." It also helped him to win a five-year American-Far East Fund Fellowship at Harvard University, where he studied Chinese history and language and American history. His doctoral advisors, John K. Fairbank and Oscar Handlin, encouraged his doctoral thesis research on the immigration of Chinese to the United States.

Barth earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1962; his dissertation was published in 1964 as "Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870."

He joined UC Berkeley soon after obtaining his doctorate degree. After his retirement from UC Berkeley, Barth remained active as a scholar and teacher, and he continued to offer courses occasionally to UC Berkeley undergraduates.

UC Berkeley history professor Richard Abrams noted that Barth was "a scholar with a prodigious knowledge not merely of U.S. history but of world history, a gentle man and the truest of gentlemen, an invaluable colleague who willingly took on departmental and university work, and a tireless friend as well as teacher for scores of graduate students."

Barth is survived by his wife, Ellen Wood Barth, of Berkeley; two sons, Dominic Barth, of Boston, and Gilbert Barth, of Boulder, Colo.; a daughter, Giselle Barth, of New York City; and two grandchildren. His daughter Christina Barth, of London, died in 2003.

A funeral service for Barth was held Jan. 11. A memorial service is pending.