Robert Whitney Bolwell, 89, professor emeritus of American literature at George Washington University who founded an American studies major there that became widely used by colleges and universities throughout the country, died Friday at a hospital in Ridley Park, Pa. He had exfoliative dermatitis, a skin ailment.

Dr. Bolwell organized the American Thought and Civilization major in 1936. It ignored established departmental lines to permit students to gain a broad background in American art, philosophy, history, economics and political science as well as in literature.

The program of studies was designed, he said, to give the student "a coordinated knowledge of American culture with its background of intellectual and social tradition in order that he may meet the activities and interests of modern life with superior understanding and conviction."

More than 80 major schools, including the University of Minnesota and Harvard and Princeton universities soon adopted the program after it was established at George Washington University.

Dr. Bolwell retired there as professor emeritus in 1957. In addition to his teaching duties, he also had served as chairman of the university's Graduate Council since 1939. A resident of Montgomery County for many years, he had moved to Swarthmore, Pa., in 1979.

Dr. Bolwell was born in New York City. He was a graduate of Western Reserve University and earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Columbia University where he taught before joining the faculty of George Washington as an assistant professor of English in 1920. He became a professor of American literature in 1929, and from 1932 to 1939 served as dean of the university's summer sessions.

Dr. Bolwell took a sabbatical in 1952 to teach at the University of Goettingen in Germany. At that time, both he and his colleagues at George Washington gathered hundreds of books on American literature to present to the university in Germany.

He was the author of a number of books and articles in his field.

He was a member of the Modern Language Association of America, the American Association of University Professors, Phi Beta Kappa, the Federal Schoolmen's Club and the Cosmos Club.

Survivors include his wife, the former Gretchen Rogers, of Swarthmore, and a sister, Beatrice Koster of Brooklyn.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Silver Spring.