Herbert P. Gambrell, historian, was born in Tyler, Texas, on July 15, 1898, the son of Joel Halbert and Victoria (Pickens) Gambrell. His father was a minister and editor of the Baptist Standard. After graduating from Dallas High School in 1915, Gambrell worked at Sears and Roebuck. In 1916 he entered Baylor University, where he was president of the class of 1920 and a sergeant major in the Student Army Training Corps during World War I. He later transferred to Southern Methodist University, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1921. Upon graduation he taught history at Temple High School and English at Weatherford College until he was offered a teaching position at Southern Methodist University in June 1923. At SMU he earned his master's degree in 1924, and, with the exception of a summer at the National University of Mexico and eighteen months of graduate work at the University of Chicago, he remained a permanent fixture of the university's history department, of which he became chairman in 1947. Students remember him as an unconventional, exciting professor, who told tall tales of Texas history. The joy he found in teaching was accented when he became the first managing editor of the Southwest Review.
In 1932 he cowrote his first book with Lewis W. Newton, A Social and Political History of Texas. His book Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar: Troubadour and Crusader (1934) won him praise from his peers and gave him incentive to continue his biographical studies of Texas historical figures. He became director of historical exhibits for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936 and the Pan American Exposition the following year. The Philosophical Society of Texas, established by Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar 100 years before, was given a rebirth under Gambrell. He was also involved in the founding of the Texas Institute of Letters and the museum of the Dallas Historical Society. He was honored as an Officier d'Académie for emphasizing the French role in Texas history.
On August 4, 1940, Gambrell married Virginia Leddy (see GAMBRELL, VIRGINIA LEDDY) of Greenville, Texas. She had been his archivist in the Hall of State. With her help, he completed his doctorate at the University of Texas in 1946 and published Anson Jones: The Last President of Texas in 1948. This book, a thoughtful study of a tragic figure in Texas history, won the Carr P. Collins Texas Book of the Year award and made the New York Times best-seller list. Gambrell's friend J. Frank Dobie called the book "high art." Gambrell was elected to the Royal Society of Arts in 1951. His last book, A Pictorial History of Texas (1960), a joint venture with his wife, received both the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History and the Summerfield G. Roberts Award of the Sons of the Republic of Texas.
Gambrell retired in 1964 and died on December 30, 1982. His life embodied his creed that "only an autocratic government can afford to have historically ignorant citizens, it is a luxury we cannot afford."