In memoriam: Martin Sherwin

Martin Sherwin. Photo by Susan Sherwin

University Professor of History and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Martin Sherwin, 84, died Wednesday, October 6, 2021, at home in Washington, D.C. His family said that the cause of death was lung cancer.

Sherwin, who taught at George Mason University since 2007, was renowned for his scholarship on the nuclear age: the development of atomic energy and nuclear proliferation, and its impact on American and world history.

“The impact and reach of Marty’s scholarship is extraordinary,” said Brian Platt, associate history professor and former chair of Mason’s Department of History and Art History. “Only a few other faculty members at Mason can claim his combination of influence and respect within the academy and impact outside of it.”

Sherwin’s 2005 book, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” was the result of more than 20 years of research, written in collaboration with author Kai Bird. When Bird joined Sherwin on the project in 2000, he noted that Sherwin had more than 50,000 pages of archived documents and scores of interviews.

“Marty gathered the materials to tell a colorful and complicated story,” Bird said.

“American Prometheus” was a commercial and critical success, receiving the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, and the English-Speaking Union Book Award. Earlier this month, Universal Studios announced that filmmaker Christopher Nolan is writing a script for and will be directing a film based “American Prometheus,” to be released in July 2023.

Sherwin’s first book, “A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance” (Random House, 1975), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“It was one of the most important books of his generation,” said Melvyn Leffler, Edward Stettinius Professor of History Emeritus, University of Virginia, who worked with Sherwin on many projects. “That volume, to this day, remains incredibly influential. Many people who teach at universities still assign either that entire book or chapters of it.”

Last year, Sherwin published “Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Knopf, 2020), which set the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis into the context of the history of the post-World War II Cold War, and detailed how perilously close the United States and the then Soviet Union came to nuclear war.

Sherwin graduated from Dartmouth College in 1959 and earned his PhD in history in 1971 from the University of California at Los Angeles. He served on the faculty at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley, and as the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University, where he founded the Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center.

Sherwin was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of American Historians. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

He was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, at Harvard's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He also served as an advisor for many documentary films on the history of the nuclear age, and was the co-executive producer and NEH project director of the PBS documentary film, “Citizen Kurchatov: Stalin’s Bomb Maker” (1998).

Sherwin is survived by his wife, Susan (Smukler) Sherwin; his son, Alex Sherwin; a sister; and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Andrea Sherwin.