Historian Philip D. Curtin dies at 87

Saturday, June 13, 2009 | 5:41 p.m. CDT; updated 10:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 13, 2009

WASHINGTON — Philip D. Curtin, a historian of the African slave trade who was instrumental in changing the way schools teach the subject, died June 4 at Chester County Hospital in West Chester, Pa., of pneumonia. He was 87 and lived in Kennett Square, Pa.

Curtin, winner of a 1983 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was a leading figure in reviving the neglected field of African history after World War II.

He applied more rigorous and scholarly methods to the study of the slave trade and brought the topic to the attention of a wider academic audience. He and a colleague started the department of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, which the American Historical Association said was the first in the United States.

He published more than a dozen books and "made himself a name as a brilliant historian who broke away from the dominant Eurocentric models of historiography of other continents to create a critical and pioneering body of scholarship on Africa, the Atlantic world, the British empire, and comparative history," Pillarisetti Sudhir said in an AHA blog post.

His 1969 book, "The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census," estimated that 20 million to 30 million Africans were loaded on slave ships but that only 9 million to 12 million survived the Atlantic crossing.

While documenting the history of the trade, Curtin questioned the importance of Goree Island, Senegal, which has become a major tourist draw as the "door of no return" where millions of Africans were shipped out as slaves.

"The whole story is phony," Curtin, a retired history professor at Johns Hopkins University, told the Baltimore Sun in 2004. Although the spot functioned as a commercial center, it was never a key departure point for slaves, he said, adding that most Africans sold into slavery in the Senegal region would have departed from thriving slave depots to the north or south.

Curtin's work was not limited to the study of the African diaspora. He wrote about the influence of disease on European colonization, imperialism in India and the ecological history of the Chesapeake Bay. He also wrote a memoir, "On the Fringes of History" (2005).

Curtin was born in Philadelphia on May 22, 1922, and grew up in Webster Springs, W.Va. He served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He graduated from Swarthmore College and received a master's degree in history in 1949 and a doctorate in the field in 1953, both from Harvard University. After teaching at Swarthmore, he joined the University of Wisconsin in 1956 and moved to Johns Hopkins in 1975, where he remained until retiring in 1998.

His career was not without setbacks. In 1995, he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education an opinion article headlined "Ghettoizing African History" that said many jobs in the academic field of African history were being reserved for black scholars, discouraging non-black scholars from taking up the field. He also said he feared the immigration of African-born scholars meant that white scholars of Africa would be pushed out of the field. Many of his colleagues objected to the racial implications of the article.

Among his honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship and presidency of the AHA.

His marriages to Phyllis Curtin and Patricia Romero ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Anne Curtin of Kennett Square, and their three sons, Steven Curtin of Northville, Mich., Charles Curtin of North Haven, Maine, and Christopher Curtin of West Chester; two brothers; and three grandchildren.


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