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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 4, 2003 | Vol. 32 No. 41
Obituary: Eminent Historian John Higham, Longtime Faculty Member, was 82

John Higham in 2001

John Higham, an eminent historian of American culture and of the interplay of ethnic and national identity in the United States, died Saturday at his home in Baltimore of a massive cerebral aneurism. He was 82.

Higham graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1941 and returned 30 years later to be the John Martin Vincent Professor of History. He retired in 1989.

"He was enormously influential," said Ronald Walters, a professor of history and a colleague of Higham's since the early 1970s. "He basically shaped a field."

Walters cited Higham's first book as having a "monumental impact" in the field of nativism. Strangers in the Land (1955) was a comprehensive study of nativism during its heyday in the United States. Republished in 1963, 1975 and 1989, it remains the classic work on the hostility that native-born Americans showed toward immigrants outside the "Anglo-Saxon" fold.

Strangers in the Land marked Higham's interest in ethnic relations, a central topic in U.S. history, but one that fell out of favor for a time as many American historians turned their attention to race and to the social history of particular groups.

His persistence put him in a position to address debates about multiculturalism during the 1980s and 1990s and resulted in a book of essays, Hanging Together (2001). At the time of his death, he had just finished another innovative essay on immigration, race and ethnicity. Throughout his career, Higham maintained a commitment to a pluralistic and assimilationist national culture while remaining attentive to new and opposing points of view.

"For him, writing history was not just an intellectual exercise," Walters said. "It was also a moral act. He believed we should be morally accountable for what we write," a philosophy that, Walters noted, had great influence on Higham's colleagues and students.

Born in New York City, Higham received his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins in 1941 and served in the Historical Division of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II before earning a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1949. After teaching at UCLA, Rutgers, Columbia and the University of Michigan, he returned to Johns Hopkins in 1971.

Higham was elected president of the Organization of American Historians in 1973 and held a number of prestigious fellowship and lectureship appointments in this country and abroad. Last year he was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the American Historical Association and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Eileen, a clinical psychologist; four children, Margaret of Winchester, Mass., Constance Vidor of New York City, Jay of Sandy Hook, Conn., and Daniel of Baltimore; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned on Sept. 16 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Club.


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