Obituary: John Sprague, professor emeritus of political science, 89

John Sprague, the Sidney W. Souers Professor Emeritus of Government in the Department of Political Science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. He was 89.


Sprague was a Fulbright Scholar who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Stanford University. He taught at WashU for 35 years and once served as chair of the department. He also served as president of the Midwest Political Science Association and as a member of the National Election Studies board and of a National Science Foundation political science panel.

Innovative and analytical, Sprague was one of the early social scientists to embrace the power of computers to conduct quantitative analysis to better understand human behavior. Under his teaching and mentorship, students in WashU’s political science program were well versed in the latest data processing tools and social science research methods.

Timothy McBride, the Bernard Becker Professor at WashU’s Brown School, is one of Sprague’s former mentees. He remembers his former mentor as the “complete academic and scholar,” and also someone who was funny and great to be around.

“John Sprague was brilliant and inquisitive, with an amazing academic record,” McBride said. “He was also a great academic leader at WashU and across the country. As a mentor and teacher, John was instrumental in the careers of many people including mine and my wife’s. If he had not shown such great interest and care in our work and lives we would not be here. We know we owe all that to John and his wife, Carol.”

Sprague authored or co-authored seven books, including in 2004, “Political Disagreement: The Survival of Diverse Opinions within Communication Networks,” which detailed evidence that political debate remained alive and well. Twenty years later, the book is still an indispensable text in both American and comparative politics.

The American Political Science Association created an award in honor of Sprague. The John Sprague Award is given annually to the best paper on political networks presented by a graduate student at a political science conference in the previous year.

Sprague’s family described him as a “renaissance man.” In a memorial tribute, they said he was “known not only for his brilliance in the classroom, but also for his love of music, proficient skills as a chef, prolific gardening, sailing, fishing, enthusiastic eating and his passion for bird watching.”

Sprague is survived by his wife, Carol Weitzel Kohfeld, who earned her doctorate degree in political science from WashU in 1976, and children: Michael Sprague, Robert Sprague, Peter Sprague, Nell Ruby, Kurt Kohfeld and Karen Kohfeld.

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