The Legendary Giovanni Costigan: Specialist in English and Irish History

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"These are the qualities that Giovanni has brought to us in his public lectures, his courses and his books and articles: careful scholarship, yes, but even more than that, profound thought and in full measure, imaginative power, which enables him and us to recognize the relationship of values to fact, and above all, the compassionate understanding that history is about human individuals, each one unique, each one capable of greatness or villainy, sometimes both, each one acting or acted upon."

--Solomon Katz, 1975footnote 1

An intellectual fighter for humanism and freedom.
--Jere Bacharach, 1990footnote 1

Giovanni Costigan, noted historian and popular lecturer, was perhaps the University's best known teacher among several generations of students. A specialist in Irish and English history, he also was known as a fighter for liberal social causes and an outspoken critic of American involvement in Southeast Asia and Central America. Costigan joined the UW faculty in 1934 and served for 41 years until his retirement in 1975. After his retirement, until his death in 1985, Costigan continued to serve the community as a scholar and popular lecturer.

One of the highlights of his career was the famous 1971 debate on the UW campus against the well-known conservative William F. Buckley. Over 8,000 people filled the Hec Edmundson Pavilion to hear the two-and-a-half hour sparring match on the subject of U.S. foreign policy in Asia. An article in the Seattle Times noted the event out-drew a Seattle SuperSonics game at the Coliseum that night.footnote 2 The event made major headlines and was replayed on television and radio afterwards.

His lectures were legendary. In a UW Daily article that appeared after Costigan's death, then-chair of history Jere Bacharach characterized Costigan as one of the University's most popular professors. Costigan had a great impact on his students, many of whom were much more conservative than Costigan but who enjoyed his lectures because of his articulate and entertaining presentations and provocative insights.

"Costigan made history come alive by giving us modern parallels, often in pithy asides, for what had taken place in the past," notes a former student, David M. Buerge, in a tribute in the Seattle Weekly.footnote 3 "What impressed me as much as his magnificent lectures was the genuine concern he had for his students. Somehow he had time for every one of us, and he listened."

Costigan was born in 1905 in Kingston-on-Thames, England, of Irish parents. He graduated in 1926 from Oxford University and received a bachelor of literature and MA degree from Oxford in 1930. Later he earned another master's degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. He joined the history faculty at the University of Idaho in 1930, before coming to he UW history department in 1934.

Among his many books and articles are a History of England, a History of Ireland, Sigmund Freud: A Short Biography, Makers of Modern England, and Sir Robert Wilson: A Soldier of Fortune in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1970, Costigan received the first Distinguished Teaching Award given by the UW Alumni Association. In 1975 he became the first UW professor to be invited to take part in the UW's Jessie and John Danz lectures, which were established to bring outside scholars of national and international reputation to lecture at the University.

Costigan received numerous humanitarian awards, including "Man of the Year" in 1958 by B'nai B'rith in Seattle and the Paul Beeson Peace Award from the Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1989.

  1. "Giovanni Costigan dies in Spain at 85," Paula Reynolds, The Daily, Mar. 29, 1990.
  2. "Costigan vs. Buckley," Don Hannula, The Seattle Times, Nov. 12, 1971
  3. "A Man of Wisdom and Kindness," David M. Buerge, Seattle Weekly, April 4, 1990.

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