Nearing his upcoming retirement, Professor Philip Curtin recently went through one of his filing cabinets in the History Department on the third floor of Gilman Hall and discarded some files that had sat there for over 20 years. The research contained in the folders regarded pre-colonial Africa and was intended to be the second and third volumes of scholarly books on the subject--works that were never finished.
Curtin, a professor of African history, says he consigned months of research to an early death not because he had grown bored with the subject but rather because he wasn't finding anything that hadn't already been said in the first volume, The Image of Africa. Whereas many authors wouldn't so casually toss aside months or years of research, Curtin says he doesn't like to repeat what he's done.
In fact, like a butterfly that could regain its caterpillar form, Curtin has made a history of reinventing himself.
Since the early 1950s, Curtin has published more than a dozen books on topics ranging from Caribbean and African history to comparative world and environmental history. Most recently, this MacArthur Fellowship winner has shifted his academic gaze closer to home with his study of the ecological history of the Chesapeake Bay. And as he prepares for his newest regeneration, that of a retired history professor, some of his fellow colleagues can only look back and marvel at what has surely been a magnificent and prominent career.
"He is one of the best known scholars in the fields of African history and comparative world history," says Sara Berry, a fellow Hopkins history professor, who has known Curtin for more than 25 years. "But he has worked in a number of fields. I never cease to be impressed with the encyclopedic amount of detail and knowledge he keeps in his head."
Curtin has certainly not kept that "encyclopedic" knowledge to himself.
It's estimated that during his career at Hopkins and, earlier, at the University of Wisconsin, Curtin has supervised or co-supervised more than 70 doctoral students, many of whom are now leading scholars in their fields. On May 5, more than two dozen of these "Curtin alumni" will gather in Shriver Hall on the Homewood campus for a two-part seminar devoted to themes that marked focal points in their mentor's scholarly life, and to pay tribute to a distinguished colleague.
Curtin was born in 1922 and spent the majority of his youth in West Virginia. After earning a history degree in 1948 from Swarthmore College--an educational experience that was interrupted by a three-year stint in the Merchant Marine--he entered Harvard University, from which he received his doctorate in 1953.
Following a brief tenure as an assistant professor at Swarthmore, in 1956 Curtin began working at Wisconsin. It was there that Curtin, along with fellow professor Jan Vansina, helped establish African history as a legitimate field of academic inquiry. According to Curtin, up until that point many civilizations in Africa had been ignored.
"We need to understand how the world got to be here. If you don't study, you don't know," Curtin says. "A whole bunch of African societies have been neglected in the past. In trying to understand human history in general, if you leave out a lot of the evidence, you really can't evaluate a whole group of people."
Among his many published works, Curtin is perhaps regarded most for those focusing on the Atlantic slave trade between 1600 and 1800. It was one such article on the topic, titled "Epidemiology and the Slave Trade" and published in 1968 in Political Science Quarterly, that first drew the attention of Hopkins professor Gert Brieger.
Brieger, who upon learning of the article sent away for a copy of the journal, said it was truly a "landmark paper."
"He clearly set out to define the health problems of the slave and the slave trade. Nobody had done it before so explicitly," Brieger says. "He has brought health and medical history to the foreground." And, Brieger adds, he still has that copy of the article.
Curtin has taught history at Hopkins since 1975. In addition to his MacArthur Fellowship, given in 1983 in recognition of the quality and originality of his scholarship, Curtin was named a Fulbright Distinguished Fellow in 1986-87 and served as president of the American Historical Society in 1983. His colleagues say, however, that Curtin does not wear his many honors and accomplishments on his sleeve.
"He is certainly one of the most distinguished professors here at Hopkins," says Brieger, chair of the History of Science, Medicine and Technology Department, "but he is a very friendly and unpretentious man who wears his learning very lightly."
Despite his humble manner, Curtin has a reputation of being somewhat of a "task master" in class, and readily admits that he has been demanding of his students.
"I was terrified, I was so intimidated by him," says Tamara Giles-Vernick, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, who will be among the panelists to honor Curtin on May 5. Giles-Vernick says she remembers going to see Curtin when she was looking into graduate schools and marveled at how he was able to pull together her ramblings into a very "incisive and pithy comment."
"You would just feel dumbfounded. You could go on and on like a dog circling a pillow, and he would come out with this extraordinary insight and just pull out all the garbage," says Giles-Vernick, who studied at Hopkins in the early '90s and regards herself as a "younger generation of Curtin's legions."
Giles-Vernick adds that Curtin's ability to communicate well comes out in all his published works and is what has made him such an effective mentor to many students.
Yet, despite all the accolades, Curtin's career has been dotted with some setbacks.
Most notable was a column titled "Ghettoizing African History" that he wrote in 1995 for The Chronicle of Higher Education. One of the major points Curtin made was that many jobs in the academic field of African history were being reserved for black scholars and that non-blacks were being discouraged from entering the field. Curtin said one of the things he feared was the "brain drain" of African-born scholars from their homelands just so that they could teach in American schools.
Following the publishing of the article, there was backlash from some of his peers, who objected to the racial implications they saw in the article. Despite his strong convictions, people who were around Curtin at the time said he clearly felt a level of resentment.
"I think he was hurt by it. He is someone who has made such enormous contributions to the field of history, but that piece just made certain people very angry," Giles-Vernick says. "I had heard him talk about it, and although I disagreed with him, he was accepting of that and we spoke very frankly of it."
For his part, Curtin says it was certainly not a pleasant time in his life.
"It's embarrassing to have a room of 400 people shouting 'racist' at you," Curtin says, sitting in his office at the History Department, where he is surrounded by a myriad of photos he has taken on his many trips to Africa. "I didn't think it was quite fair. I'm not a racist. If I was, I wouldn't have devoted a lifetime of study to Africa and black people."
However, today, in a much happier time of his life, Curtin says it feels right to retire as he approaches his 76th birthday. He is looking forward to having more time to devote to his love of photography, he says, but beyond that he has no major plans.
"If you have to go, you should go as long as you can," Curtin says as he leans back comfortably in his chair. "I'm the oldest retiree the History Department has ever had. It just feels right for me to retire at this point; I'm just now finishing my last major project."
Curtin will give a valedictory address at 4 p.m. on May 11 in the Garrett Room of the Eisenhower Library.