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Robert Forster, a social historian who taught at Johns Hopkins for 31 years specializing in French history, dies

Robert Forster's major scholarly interest was history before and after the French Revolution.
Robert Forster's major scholarly interest was history before and after the French Revolution.

Robert Forster, a social historian and scholar of French history who taught at the Johns Hopkins University for more than three decades and invented a French version of Monopoly, died May 13 of congestive heart failure at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville. The former Roland Park resident was 93.

“Bob was a fine gentleman, a superb scholar and a great teacher,” said Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, retired Maryland State archivist and commissioner of land patents, who was Professor Forster’s neighbor on Oakdale Road in Roland Park and former graduate student.

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“I was a grad student and had taken his course on the French Revolution. It was extraordinary and we learned an enormous amount about the depth and scope of his intelligence,” Dr. Papenfuse said.

“Students adored him and if he knew you had your shoulder to the wheel, he’d cut for you,” said Jack R. Censer, who studied with Professor Forster at Hopkins.

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“The undergraduates loved him because he was very organized, fair and friendly to those he thought were trying,” said Professor Censer, a Fairfax, Virginia, resident, and former chair of George Mason University’s department of history and art history, who was also dean of the college until his retirement in 2015.

“He was a really great lecturer and extremely approachable. There was always a line of waiting students outside of his door, and when you got to see him he gave you all the time in the world. He was very enthusiastic and had very high standards. If you didn’t want to work, then he could be pretty hard and quite direct.”

Said Dr. Papenfuse with a laugh: “He was intense at getting us to remember and was very good at getting us to move. He kept us writing furiously as he wrote with his left hand and erased with his right."

Robert Forster, son of Theodore Forster, owner of a paint company, and his wife, Elise Forster, a homemaker, was born in New York City and raised in Catonsville. He was a 1943 graduate of Catonsville High School, and was drafted into the Army the next year, serving as a private with the infantry in Italy.

In 1946, he enrolled on the G.I. Bill at Swarthmore College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 in history. He obtained a master’s degree in 1951 in modern European history from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1956.

His dissertation was based on the nobility in and around 18th-century Toulouse, France, a city he loved and where he met his future wife, the former Elborg Hamacher, a Ph.D. and professional translator, whom he married in 1955.

Professor Forster was an instructor in modern European history from 1956 to 1957, and was the Bissing Fellow at the University of Toulouse from 1957 to 1958, when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska. From 1962 to 1965, he was an associate professor at Dartmouth College, and in 1966 was appointed professor of history at Hopkins.

His major scholarly interest was French history both before and after the Revolution.

“He made major scholarly contributions through his study of a notable family from the Bordeaux region and a ducal family from Burgundy,” according to a Johns Hopkins profile announcing his death. “Deeply interested in social history, he studied social rank and the relationship between wealth and dignity. In later years, his research turned to Haiti.”

“In general, Bob was extremely gentle, cultured and intellectually curious man,” Christine Adams, a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who had studied with Professor Forster at Hopkins, wrote in an email.

“He was a great historian, and nothing excited him so much as a great find in the archives (he was thrilled that my first two books involved extensive research in provincial archives). He spoke French beautifully and unpretentiously — he was probably one of the least pretentious individuals I have ever known, which is unusual in a professor at an elite university,” she wrote.

In 1991, Professor Adams returned from her dissertation research trip to France and discovered she was pregnant. When she told Professor Forster in the fall, he was nothing short of supportive and reassured her that she would finish her dissertation.

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“I’m guessing that not all grad mentors are as supportive of female students who have family lives, but he was nothing but joyful about the baby on the way,” wrote Professor Adams, an Alexandria, Virginia, resident.

Professor Forster was Professor Censer’s dissertation adviser.

“He wrote notes in every sentence in pencil,” Professor Censer recalled with a laugh. “He was indefatigable when it came to writing notes and basically rewrote my dissertation.”

“His commitment to his graduate students and their well-being ran deep,” Lisa Jane Graham, one of his last graduate students and a history professor at Haverford College, wrote in an email from Paris.

“We were an eclectic bunch with different backgrounds but Bob treated us all with respect and affection. He taught me the importance of encouragement tempered by judicious criticism,” she wrote. “He favored plain language over jargon, clarity over complication. He taught me to think about the reader when writing anything.”

He retired in 1996.

Professor Forster was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey; a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford; and a U.S. representative to the International Congress of the History of Sciences.

He was also a member of the International Commission for the Study of the French Revolution; the Society for French Historical Studies, serving as its president in 1974; the French Colonial Society; the Association of French Caribbean Historians; the American History Association, serving on its council from 1985 to 1988; and Phi Beta Kappa.

Professor Forster was the author of “The House of Saulx-Tavanes: Versailles and Burgundy, 1700-1830” and “Merchants, Landlords, Magistrates: The Dupont Family in Eighteenth-Century France,” and several other books.

A Francophile, Professor Forster invented a version of Monopoly that is set in 18th-century France. He was a stamp collector and enjoyed classic Hollywood films and old games.

He was also a master solitaire player.

“Bob was always great fun to be with,” Dr. Papenfuse said. “We had a long-term solitaire game and he charted it. He kept score of every game, noting down the winners and their point score. Until recently, we played double solitaire, accumulating thousands of points with only a point spread between us of a couple hundred points. In the end he won more games than he lost and had five notebooks to prove it.”

And he won his final game of solitaire, Dr. Papenfuse said.

“He was, after all, an economic historian of the French aristocracy and carefully measures the fortunes of the families he studied as well as the solitaire opponents he generally outplayed.”

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Plans for a celebration of life gathering are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Forster is survived by two sons, Marc R. Forster of Ledyard, Connecticut, and Thomas T. Forster of Danville, Vermont; and four grandchildren.

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