David McCullough, Dist.M.ASCE, one of the nation’s most celebrated historians, whose books on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal earned him ASCE’s honorary member status (now distinguished member), has died. He was 89.
McCullough died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts, as announced by his publisher, Simon & Schuster. His wife Rosalee, who co-edited his works, died in June. They married in 1954 and had five children.
His 1972 volume The Great Bridge brought to life the unprecedented achievements behind the Brooklyn Bridge’s design and construction from 1869-1883. A large part of the book detailed the lives and achievements of bridge engineers John A. Roebling, his son Washington Roebling, and the pivotal role of Washington Roebling’s wife Emily Warren Roebling. His research tapped virtually unseen Roebling family papers bequeathed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Rutgers University. He also received research assistance from ASCE. This included several papers on facets of the bridge that were presented at ASCE conventions from 1871-1879.
The Great Bridge ranked No. 48 on the Modern Library’s list of the best 100 nonfiction works of the 20th century and is still considered the definitive text. In 2013, his native Pittsburgh renamed the 16th Street Bridge the David McCullough Bridge.
McCullough focused on another astonishing engineering feat for his next book. The Path between the Seas, published in 1977, chronicled the challenges of designing and building the Panama Canal. He again turned to ASCE in his research. The volume received the National Book Award and was cited by President Jimmy Carter as influential in turning the U.S.-controlled canal over to Panama.
In 1981, ASCE expressed gratitude to McCullough by bestowing him with Honorary Member status. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
He credited civil engineers with transforming the United States during the Industrial Revolution, telling Naval History magazine in 1984, “Civil engineers were at the forefront of a tremendous shift in emphasis toward science and technology and a romantic aura that Jules Verne made so much of. Science and technology were conferring on mere mortals the powers of the gods.”
His biographies of famous figures including John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, the Wright brothers, and Harry Truman served to reshape their reputations.
McCullough also achieved fame as a host and narrator of history-oriented documentaries such as PBS’s American Experience series and several of Ken Burns’ works, notably The Civil War.
“David McCullough was a national treasure. His books brought history to life for millions of readers,” Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp said in a statement.