UC Berkeley News


Nelson Polsby, leading expert on American politics, dies at 72
A widely admired mentor, adviser, and colleague, he helped make the Institute of Governmental Studies a national center for the scholarly investigation of U.S. politics

| 14 February 2007

Nelson W. Polsby, a leading expert on American politics and the U.S. Congress who inspired generations of students and colleagues at Berkeley and charmed them with his wit, died Tuesday, Feb. 6, at his home in Berkeley. He was 72.

Nelson Polsby (Liz Weiner photo)
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, colleagues say, Polsby reshaped both academic thinking about the American political system and the public's understanding of it.

"Professor Polsby's loss is irreparable - for the department, the university, and the discipline," said Pradeep Chhibber, chair of the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. "He was an intellectual leader and an icon in the study of American politics."

Polsby, the Heller Professor of Political Science, joined the Berkeley faculty in 1967 and never left, teaching courses on American politics, Congress, and presidential elections and serving as an adviser to numerous graduate students who went on to become prominent scholars.

From 1988 to 1999, Polsby served as director of the campus Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS), which colleagues say he built into an institution that nurtured some of America's leading scholars and policy practitioners. Through his work, they note, Polsby made immense contributions to the study of American politics, having an impact few of his peers could match with his books on Congress, presidential elections, political innovation, and party reform.

Remembering Nelson Polsby
Two of the late political scientist's Berkeley colleagues recall his welcoming spirit and commitment to collegiality.

Polsby's most recent book, How Congress Evolves (Oxford University Press, 2004), draws on data from his several decades of interviews and personal observations of Capitol Hill. In it, Polsby traced the decline of conservative southern Democrats in the House of Representatives and their replacement by a new generation of even more conservative Republicans. He also made remarkable contributions to the public's understanding of British politics with a seminal book, British Government and its Discontents, written with Geoffrey Smith (Basic Books, 1981).

Polsby not only wrote and edited scores of articles for scholarly publications - the best known of which, "The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives" (1968), was recently celebrated as one of the 20 most influential articles published in the American Political Science Review since its inception in 1906 - but wrote commentary pieces on politics for leading newspapers and news magazines across the country. He often was quoted in daily news stories about Congress and the presidency.

Polsby was born Oct. 25, 1934, in Norwich, Conn. His family members were farmers whose interest in public affairs and politics dated back to the turn of the 20th century. A great uncle of Polsby's ran for mayor of New Haven as a Socialist. Living in Washington, D.C., as a teenager further nurtured Polsby's interest in politics.

"When I was a teenager and my family moved to Washington, I used to get out and hang around Congress," Polsby said in a 2002 interview with Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. "In those days, no guard, no nothing, and you could just hang out and see what they were doing.... Sometimes I'd talk to people, but mostly I'd just watch."

Polsby went on to study political science formally, earning his bachelor's degree in that discipline from Johns Hopkins University in 1956, a master's degree in sociology from Brown University a year later, and a master's degree and Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 1958 and 1961, respectively.

Charles Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked with Polsby when they were both newly minted Ph.D.s. "We began our careers at the same time," recalled Jones. "We were fascinated by Congress and determined to find out how it worked by going there to watch, interview, and mingle. Nelson was never content just to write about the place, though he wrote seminal articles and books. He also wanted to promote scholarship of American politics more generally. We all wanted to know what he thought because his perspective inevitably improved our work."

Polsby served as a visiting scholar at many of the world's most prestigious universities, including Yale, Harvard, Oxford, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, building an extraordinary global network of students, friends, and colleagues. Polsby and his wife of 48 years, Linda O. Polsby, were renowned for opening their home to international political figures, journalists, students, and colleagues alike.

He won nearly every award and honor the discipline of political science has to offer, colleagues said. Just a few years ago, in 2002, the American Political Science Association (APSA) honored Polsby with the Frank Goodnow Award for distinguished service to the profession. During the 2005 APSA annual meeting, there was a special panel entitled "Nelson Polsby's Congress."

Polsby served as managing editor of the discipline's leading journal, the American Political Science Review; he held two Guggenheim Fellowships as well as fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Brookings Institution; and he was 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. He also received the Yale Medal, an award for outstanding service by alumni that is the highest honor given by the university's alumni association.

In addition to his wife, Polsby is survived by his three children, Lisa Polsby of Naperville, Ill., Emily Polsby of Berkeley, and Daniel Polsby of Mountain View.; his mother, Edythe Woolf Polsby Salzberger of Washington, D.C.; his brothers, Daniel Polsby of Fairfax, Va., and Allen Polsby of Bethesda, Md.; and two grandchildren.

Plans are pending for a campus memorial service, to be organized by the political-science department and the Institute of Governmental Studies.