Barbara Mertz was born in Canton, Illinois on September 29, 1927. Her father was a typesetter and her mother was an elementary school teacher. Both of her parents encouraged her imagination and her love of books. She was also heavily influenced by her Great Aunt Ida Tregellas, a high school principal in Chicago who took her to museums and encouraged her to read broadly. The eldest of three daughters, Barbara attended Oak Park Township High School and then went on to college at the University of Chicago.
After completing her BA in 1947 at the age of 20, she went on to earn a PhD from the Oriental Institute (OI) in 1952 at the age of 25. She was proud to have worked with John A. Wilson, who oversaw her dissertation on “Certain Titles of the Egyptian Queens and Their Bearing on the Hereditary Right to the Throne.” Following her marriage to fellow OI student Richard Mertz, she had two children, Elizabeth and Peter; she divorced her husband in 1969.
In 1964, she published Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, which was followed by a second well-received non-fiction book, Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. She went on to publish mystery novels under the names Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, authoring over 70 books and a number of short stories by the time of her death at age 85. She was a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, and also belonged to the Egypt Exploration Society and the James Henry Breasted Circle of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute.
After her children were grown, Mertz settled in an historic farmhouse near Frederick Maryland, surrounded by her cherished cats, garden, and friends (not necessarily in that order). In 1989, nearby Hood College awarded Dr. Mertz an honorary degree, and the Elizabeth Peters-Barbara Michaels Scholarship is still awarded by Hood to students showing excellence in writing. Barbara Mertz died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Frederick on August 8, 2013.