(Photo of Philip Curtin from The New York Times)
My friend Phil Curtin died a couple of weeks ago. William Grimes published one of his characteristically nicely researched and written obits in The New York Times yesterday, accompanied by a nice photograph that was probably taken by his wife, Anne. Phil was 87 at the time of his death, and his health had been quite poor for the last couple of years. Still, it is hard to lose Phil.
Adria and I have been close to Phil and Anne since those years in the 1960s when we all lived in Madison, where Phil and I taught in the history department of the University of Wisconsin. I was then an altogether obscure assistant professor of early American history, but Phil was already a genuine titan. He was, above all, one of the pioneers of serious African history — one of those who studied Africa in context rather than as an emanation of European imperialism. He collaborated with Jan Vansina in those years to produce an entirely new school of African history, the most important in the world.
But Phil was also one of the pioneers of comparative history. He began a program in comparative tropical history built on the premise that climate was a significant factor in social development. I was a very minor player in the program through my interest in the Carribean, but the program (in a large and diverse department) managed to draw in historians concerned with the entire equatorial world. For me, comparative tropical history was both an intellectual jolt and a passport to fields of scholarship that had not even been dreamt of at Harvard, where I had been trained. Wisconsin was an enormously exciting place to be in those days — sometimes too exciting. But one of the things that drew Adria and me to Madison was the friendship of the Curtins, and especially the wonderful outdoors weekends we spent with them at their country house.
Phil left Madison for Johns Hopkins University (just as so many of us left UW for other apparently greener pastures in the 1970s). He kept up his pathbreaking scholarship, continuing to explore new fields, especially the relationship between biology and history. Later he and Anne retired to the Philadelphia area, which gave Adria and me the chance to reconnect with them, mainly at the twice-yearly American Philosophical Society meetings, where we always had dinner at a great restaurant (Fork, at 306 Market St. in Philadelphia) partly owned by the son of our UW colleague, Domenico Sella. Small world! For me, remembering Phil is remembering Phil and Anne, and recalling countless evenings of friendship and wonderful conversation. Phil was the historian’s historian, and I am deeply grateful to him for what he taught me. And for his friendship.