Meet Dr. Barbara Mertz, also known as Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters. She was an Egyptologists and a famous author of fiction mystery novels. Her novels often contain strong female characters that were smart, witty, and adventurous. She also frequently used her knowledge of ancient Egypt and archaeology of the 19th century to enhance her characters, especially those in the Amelia Peabody series.
I have a very personal connection with Dr. Mertz, even though I had not heard of her or her books until after her death in 2013.
In the summer of 2013, I had just graduated high school and was preparing to go to college to study Archaeology and Creative Writing. I was excited when I attended orientation at my new school in New York and signed up for my first archaeology class. When I returned, my mother had cut out an obituary from the Washington Post. That was when I first read about Barbara Mertz, who by day wrote mystery novels about educated, smart female characters, and by night held a Ph.D. in Egyptology.
She was the perfect role model for me because her two passions fell directly in line with mine. I have been writing novels since I was 13 and originally wanted to study creative writing in school, with archaeology being a “safe, backup job” (oh, little did young Melissa know how the world works). What really struck me was that she died the day that I signed up for my first college classes. Some don’t believe in fate or coincidences, but I definitely do, so I saw this as a sign that I was on the right path. That I could follow in Barbara’s Mertz footsteps. I have kept her obituary hanging in my dorm and apartment ever since to remember that there are lots of paths and there is no right path.
Now…let’s get to know Dr. Barbara Mertz!
She was born Barbara Louise Gross in Canton, Illinois on September 29, 1927. Even though there was no public library in her little town, her parents were avid readers and turned her on to the classics when she was quite young. When she was in fourth grade, her family moved to Chicago and her horizons expanded. Barbara’s aunt took her to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, which is a large research organization and museum within the University of Chicago when she was 13 which she has stately originally sparked her interest in archaeology and Ancient Egypt.
She didn’t begin writing until she went to high school, where she was once accused of plagiarizing a sonnet she wrote, presumably because her teacher thought it was too good. Even though more women were beginning to attend colleges, archaeology was not a typical major to choose from. Barbara originally attended the University of Chicago to become a teacher (a “typical” job for women at the time). But she stopped after two classes and transferred to the Oriental Institute because she wanted to become an archaeologist.
She graduated from the Oriental Institute with her BA in 1947, her Masters in 1950, and her Ph.D. in 1952. She studied under John A. Wilson, an Egyptologist, and epigrapher who worked with James Henry Breasted in Luxor and was the chairman of the UNESCO Consultative Committee for the Salvage of Nubian Monuments when the Aswan High Dam was built in Egypt. Her Ph.D. Dissertation was called, “Certain Titles of the Egyptian Queens and Their Bearing on the Hereditary Right to the Throne.”
After she graduated with her Ph.D., she found it very difficult to find positions in Egyptology. She even once overheard her colleagues say that they would not have to worry about her, “because she’ll be married soon.” Egyptology is an extremely hard career to enter, but at the time it was even harder for females to do so.
Barbara did get married to a fellow Oriental Institute student Richard Mertz and eventually had two children, Peter and Elizabeth. She sought to find work as a secretary but had to omit her Ph.D. from applications because she was seen as overqualified. When her family moved to Germany, Barbara began writing mystery novels. Her first book did not sell, but it got her an agent who advocated for her. She was then able to write and sell three non-fiction Egyptology books under her married name, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, Red Land, Black Land, Two Thousand Years in Rome (which was co-written with her husband).
The Birth of an Author
After her divorce, Barbara began writing more fiction, mostly mystery and thriller books. Because she had already published three books under her married name, her agent suggested using a pseudonym, so readers wouldn’t get confused with her non-fiction work. Under Barbara Michaels, she wrote gothic and supernatural thrillers. And under Elizabeth Peters, which is a name created from her two children’s names, she wrote mysteries series. Funnily enough, Barbara thought the names were a “horrible nuisance.”
Her most popular book series was arguably the Amelia Peabody series. The series focuses on Amelia Peabody who is an Egyptologist in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The stories relate to specific dig seasons in Egypt and the near east and archaeologists that were occurring during that time period. Her stories have been commended on their accuracy and humor. Many have speculated that many of the characters are based on real-life Egyptologists and even herself. The series contains 20 books, though the last book was published after her death with the help of Joan Hess.
Her other books and series feature strong female characters, such as Vicky Bliss, an American Art History Professor who keeps getting involved in international crime, or Jaqueline Kirby, a middle-aged librarian with a knack for solving mysteries. Her books have been nominated and received many awards including the Anthony Award and the Agatha Award. Barbara also was named a Grandmaster at the Anthony Awards and the Mystery Writers of America.
She has been commended as a strong feminist through her writing and her actions. Barbara founded Malice Domestic, which is a Washington D.C. based organization for women mystery writers, “because she thought men were getting all the prizes.” She received a Lifetime Achievement Award and the first Amelia Peabody Award at the Malice Domestic Convention. She also started a scholarship for female writers at Hood College, who later gave her an honorary degree.
Back to Egyptology for a sec!
Dr. Mertz went to Egypt early on in her writing career which I’m sure continued to spur her to write more stories. She was a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of KMT, which is a modern journal of Ancient Egypt, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the James Henry Breasted Circle of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Although she was never a prominent member in the academic world of Egyptology, her books have continued to inspire new interest in history and ancient Egypt.
In her spare time, Barbara collected vintage clothing, and her hobbies included gardening, reading, music, embroidery, and hanging out with her 1800s house in Maryland. She had a multitude of cats that were either named after Egyptian gods, or Washington Redskins football players.
She died in her sleep on August 8th, 2013 at the age of 85 in Maryland.
I personally loved learned more and more about her and her amazing life. I was surprised to find that even though her archaeology career did not turn out like she may have wanted, in 2018 a bioarchaeology lab at the British Museum was named after her, so that her name can continue to educate. I can’t wait to purchase her non-fiction and fiction books to both learn and enjoy!
You can learn a lot more at rememberingbarbaramertz.wordpress.com
Sources and Further Reading
All pictures come from Rememberingbarbaramertz.wordpress.com