As a Virginia Tech history professor, A. Roger Ekirch is accustomed to lecturing on revolutions. And as a scholar, he has sparked a revolution of his own — in the clinical practice of sleep medicine.
“It is a rare historian whose work elicits profound changes in medical practice,” said Rosemary Blieszner, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Dr. Ekirch’s accomplishments illustrate the power of transdisciplinary scholarship.”
The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors has unanimously approved Ekirch’s appointment as a University Distinguished Professor, Virginia Tech’s preeminent faculty rank.
Ekirch, an award-winning author whose books have been translated into eight languages, has achieved international acclaim both within and outside the academy.
His extensive body of research has included the surprising discovery, captured in “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” that the dominant sleep pattern in Western societies was, until the Industrial Revolution, segmented into two parts. The two intervals were bridged by an hour or more of wakefulness shortly past midnight, during which people did “anything and everything imaginable,” from reciting prayers to pilfering a neighbor’s chickens.
For sleep scientists, this stunning revelation offers insights into today’s sleep disorders.
“Professor Ekirch has made a major contribution to both the history and our scientific understanding of sleep,” said Charles Czeisler, director of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. “His findings have led to changes in the practice of sleep disorders medicine, particularly for patients with middle-of-the-night insomnia — quite a feat for a historian.”
The most recent of Ekirch’s five books, “American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution,” published in 2017, has been selected for several national recognitions, including a Main Selection of the History Book Club and a Book of the Week designation from Publisher’s Weekly.
“American Sanctuary” opens in 1797 with the bloodiest mutiny ever suffered by Britain’s Royal Navy, aboard the frigate Hermione in the Caribbean. The mutiny had far-reaching implications for U.S. politics and policies both in the past and the present, with aftershocks that both helped shape the country’s identity and led to the historic decision to grant political asylum to refugees from foreign governments.
Ekirch’s fourth book, “Birthright,” tells the true story of James Annesley, a presumptive heir of five aristocratic titles, whose abduction inspired the Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel “Kidnapped.” “Birthright,” published in 2011, in turn inspired a BBC television documentary for which Ekirch served as the program consultant and a commentator.
In addition to his books and scholarly articles, Ekirch has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Humanities, Harper’s Magazine, the Huffington Post, Smithsonian magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, for which he has been a regular book reviewer.
Before joining the Virginia Tech faculty in 1977, Ekirch earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Johns Hopkins University. He served as the first Paul Mellon Fellow at Cambridge University, received four National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, and was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.
Ekirch’s honors at Virginia Tech include the Phi Beta Kappa Sturm Award, the Alumni Award for Research Excellence, and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Scholarship twice.
“The quality and impact of his scholarship, the praise he has received from undergraduate and graduate students for his inspiring teaching, and his extensive university and professional service all prove that Dr. Ekirch embodies the crucial characteristics of a University Distinguished Professor,” Blieszner said.
Ekirch joins three other University Distinguished Professors in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences: Nikki Giovanni in English; Timothy Luke in political science; and Karen Roberto in human development and family science.
The college also has five Alumni Distinguished Professors — Jacqueline Bixler in modern and classical languages and literatures; Rosemary Blieszner in human development and family science; Gary Downey in science, technology, and society; and both Tom Gardner and Lucinda Roy in English.