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Nelson Polsby, distinguished scholar of American politics, dies at 72

– Nelson Polsby, a national authority on Congress and the presidency who inspired generations of students and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, and charmed them with his wit, died Tuesday (Feb. 6) at his home in Berkeley. He was 72.

Nelson Polsby
Nelson Polsby

His death was caused by complications associated with heart disease.

From his early work on community power to his most recent book on the transformation of the U.S. House of Representatives into a centralized and fiercely partisan body, Polsby made immense contributions to the study of American politics in his four decades of scholarship, colleagues said.

The political science professor's 1968 article, "Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives," for example, recently was listed as one of the 20 most influential articles published in the American Political Science Review since its inception in 1906.

Polsby joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1967 and never left, teaching courses in American politics, Congress and presidential elections. He served as director of the campus's Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) from 1988 to1999.

The afternoon tea that Polsby hosted regularly at IGS is legendary, according to Pradeep Chhibber, chair of the campus's Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. The informal afternoon political discussions attracted graduate students and faculty from all over and created an unparalleled intellectual community.

"Professor Polsby's loss is irreparable - for the department, the university, and the discipline," said Chhibber. "He was an intellectual leader and an icon in the study of American politics. His research and insights inspired a generation of political scientists. Nelson will be missed not only for his wide-ranging scholarship, his deep and profound knowledge of American politics, but also for his dry wit and humor that enlivened many a department meeting."

In 2004, the American Political Science Association honored Polsby with its distinguished service award. His other honors included two Guggenheim Fellowships, two fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and a Brookings Fellowship. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Public Administration.

"Nelson was a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader of IGS, and a caring teacher," said Bruce Cain, director of IGS. "His work was nationally and internationally acclaimed, furthering our understanding of Congress and the presidency. We will miss him very much, as a friend and colleague."

A full obituary will be posted soon on the campus NewsCenter.