George Camp Keiser, the founder of the Middle East Institute and, until his untimely death in 1956 at the age of 55 its principal benefactor, was an architect by training. It was his longtime interest in Islamic architecture that led to a broader and more profound interest in the Middle East.
The U.S. had not yet assumed an active role in the affairs of the Middle East in 1946, the year Keiser brought together other like-minded individuals to found the Middle East Institute. His associates were Christian Herter, then a congressman from Massachusetts, Halford Hoskins, director of the School of Advanced International Studies, Ambassador George Allen, and Harvey P. Hall, a former instructor at the American University of Beirut and Roberts College in Istanbul. Anticipating the role the U.S. would play in the postwar world, they resolved to promote among Americans an interest in the Middle East, an appreciation of its history and culture, and an insight into the region’s political, economic, and social issues.
Keiser was born in Milwaukee on November 2, 1900. He was the son of George Edward Keiser of Muncie, Indiana and Mary Bigelow (Camp) Keiser of Milwaukee. The family later kept homes in New York City and Cannondale, Connecticut. The senior Keiser was the founder of a sugar brokerage firm, president of the Cuban-American Sugar Company, and a member of the New York Coffee and Sugar Exchange.
George graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. degree in 1924. He then earned a degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1930. He was a draftsman for David Hyer and then a designer for James Gamble Rogers II until he opened his own practice in 1938. A younger brother, David, took an active role in the management of the Cuban-American Sugar Company, the Guantanamo Sugar Company and a number of other sugar trading companies. George became a director of the Cuban-American Sugar Company and the Guantanamo Sugar Company.
He married Nancy Hull of Yonkers, New York in 1938. The couple divided their time between Connecticut and Winter Park, Florida, where Keiser built for themselves a home inspired by Islamic architecture. They had two daughters, Mary Damaris and Anne Blossom.
During WWII he was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Signal Corps. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects, a trustee of the Foreign Service Educational Foundation, of the American Research Center in Egypt, and later, of the Visitors Committee of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He was also president of the Symphony Orchestra of Central Florida.
Keiser died on March 23, 1956 after a brief illness. He was buried in Wilton, Connecticut. Following his death, his widow, Nancy, joined the Board of Governors of the Middle East Institute and served until 1981. Upon her death in 1990, her daughter, Anne, a travel photographer and author of three books on famed mountain climber Sir Edmund Hilary, took a seat on the Board of Governors.