When Erling Christophersen, the leader of the Norwegian Scientific Expedition to Tristan da Cunha in 1937 and 1938, first called youthful sociologist Peter Munch to his office to ask him whether he was interested in traveling to Tristan, Munch immediately replied, "Yes. Where is it?" That the world at large is aware at all of the history and culture of this tiny island in the South Atlantic is in large part due to Munch, who with his popular and scholarly treatments of the Tristan community enriched the world view of all who came into contact with his work.
Peter Andreas Munch was born in Nes, Hedmark, Norway on 19 December, 1908. He was descended from the noted Norwegian historian of the same name, as well as from musician Ole Bull, and another of his relatives was the artist Edvard Munch. Peter Munch was educated mainly at the University of Oslo, from which he received the degree of Candidatus theologiae in 1932 and that of doctor of philosophy in 1946, the latter being the first doctorate in sociology awarded by that school. Between 1933 and 1936 he also received research scholarships in Semitic languages and literature from Oxford University and in the social history of the ancient Near East from the University of Halle in Wittenberg, Germany. In 1946 and 1947 he pursued a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at such prestigious American universities as Chicago, Harvard, and Yale.
Munch was imprisoned in 1943 and 1944 at the German concentration camp Grini near Oslo while the University of Oslo, where he was a teaching fellow in sociology, was closed by order of the Nazis. In 1948 he began his American academic career by becoming a research associate in rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thereafter he served as associate professor of sociology at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota (1949-1951); professor and head of the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks (1951-1957), where he was also the director of the Social Science Research Institute; and as professor (later emeritus) of sociology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (1957-1984).
Munch was active in the Illinois Folklore Society and the Norwegian-American Historical Association as well as the Midwest Sociological Society, where he was a member of the Executive Committee (1952-1954) and editor of _The Sociological Quarterly_ (1960-1964). He was elected to the Norwegian Academy of Science for his contributions to the field of sociology, and received support for his research from the Social Science Research Council and the National Science Foundation. Munch first went to Tristan in 1937 with the Norwegian Expedition to that island. He himself described his relationship with Tristan this way, revealing a deep-seated empathy for the islanders that would not be denied: "Was invited to join Norwegian scientific expedition to Tristan da Cunha in 1937, took my PhD (University of Oslo, Norway) on the report, and dropped the subject. Then came the volcanic eruption 1961 and the evacuation--and complete involvement on my part." He spent the summer of 1962 with the exiled islanders at Calshot, England and returned to a resettled Tristan in November of 1964 for a six-month stay. In 1966 he contacted the descendants of old Tristan emigrants to New London, Connecticut, and in the summer of 1967 he met with those islanders who had elected either to remain in England or to return there after the resettlement of Tristan.
Munch emphasized that, in contrast to the work of "people who have never set their foot on Tristan da Cunha, and who had only a superficial contact with the Islanders while they were in England," his own research reflected the insight of "altogether twelve months participation in the social life of the community."
In 1934 Peter Munch married Helene Stephansen. The couple had three children: Cathrine, Mette, and Peter Andreas, Jr. Dr. Munch died on 10 January 1984 at his retirement home in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee.
Dr. Charles E. Marske, Professor of Sociology at Saint Louis University and a student of Munch at Southern Illinois University, says of his friend: "To students and colleagues, Peter Munch offered the finest example of caring and creative scholarship, clear thinking, and intellectual conviction. The gift of this extraordinary collection of Tristan material to Saint Louis University by Helene Munch is an enduring honor to the life and work of her dear husband Peter."