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Obituary for Douglas A. Chalmers

Douglas A. Chalmers, a beloved and esteemed professor of political science at Columbia University, died on April 4, 2022 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.


He was born in 1932 in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father, William Ellison Chalmers, then a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, also worked as a union organizer for the United Auto Workers union. His mother, Ruth Vinton Chalmers, born in what was then called Rangoon, Burma to Baptist missionaries, met his father when they both were attending Pembroke/Brown University. 

In 1936, his father moved the family to Geneva, Switzerland so that he could serve in the International Labor Organization's delegation to the League of Nations. Doug began school there, learning to ski and speak French. Just before WWII started in Europe in 1939, the family left Switzerland for Washington, D.C. and his father joined the U.S. Department of Labor. There, Doug attended the Phoebe Hearst School and Woodrow Wilson High.  In 1947, the family moved again, to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and Doug completed his early studies at the University Laboratory High School (Uni High), graduating in 1949.


Doug began college at MIT, focusing on chemistry and physics. Family issues brought him back to Urbana for a semester, where he temporarily enrolled in the University of Illinois. There, he began to move towards the humanities and social sciences. He finished at Bowdoin College (1953, Phi Beta Kappa, Philosophy High Honors).  

Doug met his future wife, Janet Gerard, in New York City in 1953 while working a summer job in the mailroom at Western Publishing in Rockefeller Center. He caught the eye of Janet, who was on summer break from Antioch College working in the layout department. As they tell the story, she contrived to spill a bottle of glue on the floor to ensure that the handsome mailroom boy would have to come clean it up. They were married in 1957 and their marriage lasted until the end of his life, 65 years later.

Because Doug had been in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) in college, he was obliged to provide two years of service after graduation. Though the Korean War was resolved before graduation, he spent two years in the army in Bordeaux, overseeing trucking. Upon completion of his service, he and his new wife moved to New Haven where Doug completed his PhD in political science at Yale in 1962. His first teaching positions were at Swarthmore College and Douglass College, Rutgers (Newark). 

His daughter Jessica was born in 1963, followed by the adoption of a son, Joshua, in 1965.  

In 1967, Doug was hired by Columbia’s Department of Political Science, where he was quickly drafted to join a group of administrators and faculty appointed to communicate with student protestors occupying Low Library. He spent the next 52 years at Columbia, teaching and writing in the field of comparative politics. He wrote and co-edited several books and articles, including The Social Democratic Party of Germany: from Working-Class Movement to Modern Political Party (author, 1964), The Right and Democracy in Latin America (co-editor, 1992), The New Politics of Inequality in Latin America (author and co-editor, 1997), Problems Confronting Contemporary Democracies: Essays in Honor of Alfred Stepan (author and co-editor, 2012), and Reforming Democracies: Six Facts about Politics that Demand a New Agenda (author, 2013). He served as Department Chair, Dean of the School of International Affairs, and Interim Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies.  

Over his professional career, the area-specific focus of Doug’s work shifted from Germany in the post-World War II period, to Latin America, specifically Brazil and Mexico. While his thinking on Germany focused on the stability of the postwar party system, his studies of destabilized democracies in Latin America compelled him to rethink the way political science understood the workings of political power. His book, Reforming Democracies, presented “six facts” or assumptions about politics that need to be reframed for a “new agenda.” It is a call for political scientists to give greater attention to the varied ways that political decision-making in democracies actually occurs as opposed to the way it is thought to normally occur through free elections of representatives who bring the will of the people to bear on the highest levels of government. Analyses of political decision-making, he argued, need to give greater attention to informal as well as to formal networks. He stressed the importance of paying serious attention to the important role of people and organizations ordinarily thought to be outside the usual decision-making structures of government, including non-governmental organizations and those he referred to as “quasi citizens.”

In a way, Doug’s success as an administrator and teacher can be partly attributed to his intellectual concern for under-recognized participants in the democratic political process. He was attentive to the workings of power within the academic hierarchy around him. He was an advocate for women in the university, especially where hiring, promotion and tenure were concerned. As a teacher, his dedication, patience and respect made him a favorite among students.  

In 2005 he officially retired from Columbia, though he continued to be very active as an emeritus professor for another 14 years. He served as Executive Director of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia, an association of Columbia professors who continue teaching after retirement, as Special Assistant to the Provost for Faculty Retirement, and as President of Emeritus Professors in Columbia (EPIC). 

As president of EPIC from 2014-16, Doug counseled hundreds of prospective retirees. He advocated for the organization with the university’s higher administration and recruited other leaders who shared his vision of the group as "a world for retirees.” EPIC became reinvigorated under his leadership, evolving from an every-other-week lunch club for a few to a community that today offers a variety of activities, connections and resources to members every week and attracts new members every year. 


One of his great joys was teaching undergraduates, and he continued to do that long after his official retirement. He had started teaching Contemporary Civilization (CC), an intensive undergraduate seminar in Columbia’s signature Core Curriculum, in 1984. He loved the seminar’s discussion-based format, which permitted an easy back-and-forth with a small group of students. He loved encouraging them to debate the larger ethical and political questions raised by the seminar’s reading list of classic texts. He continued teaching CC and contributing to the evolution of its syllabus over the years until he left Columbia in 2019.  


Everyone who knew Doug described him as calm, thoughtful, intelligent, and sweet. He was unfailingly interested in all intellectual and artistic endeavors, and brought his quiet and attentive approach to loved ones and acquaintances alike. 


Despite several heart surgeries, he rose every morning at 5:30 and walked across campus to the gym, where he joined a dedicated klatsch of morning pals who chatted about world affairs, philosophy and family while stretching or pedaling on stationary bikes. He was a lover of music, a first-adopter of new technologies (he bought one of the first mac computers in 1985 and began using email in early days), a bread baker, and an elaborate and scholarly Easter-hunt clue-maker.

He had a particular love of classical music, including the complex, experimental type. For many years while a tenured professor he attended one or more concerts a week of this “new” music. He also took programming and composition classes at Columbia’s Computer Music Center, one of the first electronic music centers in the U.S. In these days before virtual instruments and composition pre-sets, Doug spent hours in the computer lab painstakingly programming single notes. Under the tutelage of the director, Mario Davidovsky, Doug made several musical compositions, including at least one that featured a recorded voice reading poetry written by his wife Janet. Another work musically conveyed the horror of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, alternating passages representing the steady onward movement of government tanks with others representing the student activists.


On a hot summer day in 2019, Doug was one of those awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by Columbia. President Lee C. Bollinger’s recognition of Doug focused on his teaching and his leadership as director of the Institute for Latin American Studies, during which, Bollinger said, the Institute “blossomed.” “As a mentor to generations of budding scholars and public servants, you offered guidance without ego or orthodoxy, creating networks of Latin American experts across disciplines and schools. In so doing, over the span of your illustrious career, you transformed the field.” 

Doug left the University that same year at the age of 87, as Parkinson’s began to take its toll. He and Janet moved to Bristol, Rhode Island to be closer to Jessica and Joshua. The Covid shutdown brought the unexpected silver lining of precious time with his adored granddaughter, Lola, who, while forced by the situation to spend her second semester at home on Zoom, was thus free to play chess with him, and entertain him with her banjo.  

Doug is survived by his beloved wife, Janet, children Jessica and Joshua, granddaughter Lola, sister Tiela and many nieces, nephews, and cousins. Doug was predeceased by his parents and his sisters Jean and Meg. 


EPIC, the Association of Emeritus Professors in Columbia, has decided to establish a new lecture series for graduate students in Doug’s honor, The Douglas Chalmers Research Presentation Award, with the inaugural lecture set for fall of 2022.

A memorial is being planned as well as a fund in his name. Details of both will be announced as they come available. If you would like to be alerted, please put your name into the form on the home page of this website.


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