Elise Boulding; sociologist studied peace, conflict; at 89

By Jeffrey Fish
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2010

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Dr. Elise Boulding, an international peace activist, saw life as an unpredictable adventure.

“We never know what’s going to happen next,’’ Dr. Boulding said in a 1990 interview with Alan AtKisson called “Concentrating on Essence: An interview with Elise Boulding.’’

“We can’t simplify the world. There’s no wand we can wave to remove the complexities around us,’’ she said. “So, in a profound sense, we have to take responsibility for living on the planet.’’

Dr. Boulding, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for five years, died June 24 while under hospice care at North Hill Nursing Home in Needham. She was 89.

Dr. Boulding was born in Oslo but moved to the United States when she was 3 years old. The Nazi invasion of Norway “greatly affected her perception on what a safe place was,’’ said Dr. Boulding’s third child and only daughter, Christie of Wayland.

Dr. Boulding became a pacifist and devoted her life to the academic discipline of peace and conflict studies, which she was largely involved in creating. She also began attending Quaker meetings. She became a member of the Religious Society of Friends and then met her husband, Dr. Kenneth Boulding, a fellow Quaker and noted economist who also worked on peace and conflict resolution. He died in 1993.

Dr. Boulding’s Quaker beliefs influenced her desire to study peace.

“She was tremendously enthusiastic. She had an incredible energy level,’’ said Ginny Benson of the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge.

She “spoke in really down-to-earth ways about what peace as a way of life was,’’ Benson said. “She also had a spiritual presence that wasn’t sectarian, that was universal. She embraced other understandings of spirituality.’’

Benson, who is a Buddhist, recalled many discussions with Dr. Boulding about spirituality despite their different religious opinions.

Dr. Boulding received a bachelor’s degree in English from Rutgers University’s Douglas College in 1940. She received her master’s in rural sociology in 1949 from Iowa State University and her PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1967.

She became a sociology professor, first teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1967 to 1978. From 1978 to 1985 she worked at Dartmouth College, where she served as Sociology Department chairwoman and developed the first peace studies program in the country, her daughter said.

Dr. Boulding wrote numerous books and essays, including “The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time (1976)’’ and “Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (2000).’’

After her retirement in 1985, she remained active in organizations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the International Peace Research Association, and the National Peace Academy Advisory Board, on which she served as chairwoman. She received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1990 for her work.

Christie said her mother’s networking skills helped her be successful. “She always looked for the good in people. She was a master networker and was always trying to find connections between people and organizations,’’ she said.

She recalled her mother cutting and pasting mimeographs and using them to develop relationships between organizations.

“It’s extraordinary how deeply related you can feel to people whom you may never have met, by working with them and networking with them,’’ Dr. Boulding said during her interview with AtKisson. “When you do meet, it’s as if you’d always known each other anyway. It’s a marvelous experience.’’

Dr. Boulding’s oldest son, Russell, of Bloomington, Ind., said “she was an amazing mother and amazing in everything that she did.’’ He recalled his parents holding “family councils’’ where they would discuss conflicts and assign chores. “It was really quite amazing to be treated as more than children and to have had a voice in what was happening in the household. Everyone worked together to help the household function.’’

Gordon Fellman, a Brandeis University sociology professor who worked closely with Dr. Boulding after she moved to Wayland in 1996, said: “There was just a joy about her. [She was a] very upbeat person and had an upbeat attitude,’’ even after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Benson continued to visit Dr. Boulding at the nursing home as her disease progressed. “Her desire was ‘I want to use this time to live in the moment and not worry about do I remember this or do I remember that?’ She was such an inspiration for how to deal with the memory issues that come with Alzheimer’s.

“Amazing philosophical wisdom came out because she didn’t let herself get frustrated. Remaining an example of building cultures of peace to the end was so inspiring to me.’’

In addition to Russell and Christie, Dr. Boulding leaves three other sons, Mark of Denver, Philip of Olalla, Wash., and William of Durham, N.C.; 16 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be held for Dr. Boulding on what would have been her 90th birthday, today at 4 p.m. in Houghton Memorial Chapel at Wellesley College.

Jeffrey Fish can be reached at

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