By George Pangburn (Photo by Elizabeth Brown Pryor)

You really do meet some of the most interesting people at Osher. Elizabeth Brown Pryor is one of them. Elizabeth is a relatively new Richmonder, having moved here from Washington, DC just three years ago. She was introduced to the Osher program shortly after her move by a good friend and has been taking courses, as many as her busy schedule permits, ever since; however, there’s much more to Elizabeth’s story.

Elizabeth received her undergraduate degree in history from Northwestern University and the University of London and her master’s degree (also in history) from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing her studies, she served with the National Park Service. After a time she decided to sit for and passed the Foreign Service exam, which led to a career with the State Department. In her assignments with State, she held embassy positions in Europe and South Africa, negotiated arms control agreements in Vienna, and served on the staff of the National Security Council.

If those accomplishments were not sufficiently impressive, she has authored numerous books on the nineteenth century and is working on another. Her first major work was a 1987 biography titled Clara Barton, Professional Angel.  Her second, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters, led to Elizabeth’s 2008 receipt of the prestigious Lincoln Prize, presented each year for the outstanding non-fiction work related to the Civil War.

She has received several other notable awards. The latter work was based, in large part, upon Elizabeth’s being granted access by the Lee family to an extensive number of private unreviewed papers of the great Confederate general. The papers were discovered in two trunks in a bank vault in Alexandria, Virginia. She is currently at work on a book about Lincoln to be titled Democracy and Its Demons: Six Striking Encounters with Abraham Lincoln, in which she draws upon six anecdotal writings which provide different and sometimes challenging viewpoints of the President. 

Elizabeth has spoken all over the world on American history and American diplomacy and appears regularly on television programs based on her books. Most recently, she was named an Andrew Mellon fellow with the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.

This summer Elizabeth will be leading an Osher class that will be based upon some of the papers that she used in writing the Lee book. The class will place students in the role of professional historians where they will review primary sources and draw conclusions from those sources. If you’d like to meet a fascinating person and learn a little of what it’s like to do historical research, sign up for Elizabeth’s class Opening the Lee Family Treasure Chests.