AHA President, 1983


Johns Hopkins University

Read brief memoir in Perspectives, June 2009, and In Memoriam in Perspectives, November 2009

Philip D. Curtin (May 22, 1922–June 4, 2009)


From the 1983 Presidential Biography booklet

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Philip D. Curtin, president of the American Historical Association, is the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Professor Curtin spent the majority of his younger years in West Virginia, returning to Pennsylvania to finish secondary school, and to enter Swarthmore College in 1941. Interrupting his undergraduate work for three years’ service in the United States Merchant Marines, Professor Curtin completed the BA, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1948. Upon receipt of this degree he undertook graduate studies at Harvard University, gaining the MA and the PhD in 1949 and 1953 respectively. Professor Curtin’s dissertation “Revolution and Decline in Jamaica, 1830–1865” marked the beginning of an outstanding scholarly career addressing the social and economic influences shaping African and Caribbean history.

Dr. Curtin’s teaching experience is extensive. Beginning in 1950 with a teaching fellowship at Harvard University, he transferred in 1953 to Swarthmore College, rising from instructor to assistant professor of history before moving on to a nineteen-year engagement at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1956. While teaching at Wisconsin he founded and intermittently chaired both the Comparative World History and African Study programs, as well as the Department of African Languages and Literature (the first program of its kind in the United States); in 1970 he was appointed the Melville J. Herskovits Professor of History. In 1975, Dr. Curtin returned East to teach at Johns Hopkins University where he chaired the Program of Atlantic Studies in History and Culture from 1976–79, and in 1982 was appointed the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of Hi story, a position he currently holds.

Professor Curtin’ s expertise in teaching and academic administration is complemented by a strong interest in foreign study. Travel and research in countries of his speciality have consistently highlighted his career, often resulting in published works. In 1951, for example, an independently financed trip to Jamaica allowed for research resulting in his first major publication, Two Jamaicas (1955). Participation in a Ford Foundation Africa Area Training Fellowship Program (1958–59) provided an introduction to West Africa and led to his writing The Image of Africa (1964), winner of the American Historical Association’s Schuyler Prize, awarded every five years for the best work on British history by an American scholar. In 1962, acceptance of a United States–South Africa Leader Exchange Program Fellowship sent Professor Curtin on a tour of South African Universities, lecturing on the history of tropical Africa; while a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961, combined with a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1968, permitted travel and research in Senegal and Gambia and resulted in the two-volume work Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade (1975). Most recently, receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980 abetted research and travel for a forthcoming book concerning the world history of cross-cultural trade up to the nineteenth century (to be published in 1984).

The association’s current president is both a well respected and prolific writer. Over and above authoring four books, two pamphlets, and forty-plus articles on Africa and the Caribbean, he has found time to coauthor three books, has been contributing editor of two texts and ed i tor of another, has written book reviews for twenty publications, and has served on the editorial boards of nine scholarly journals, including the American Historical Review. Currently Dr. Curtin is working on his eighth book, “Cross-Cultural Trade in World History” and is on the editorial board of Journal of African Studies, African Economic History, Social Science History, History in Africa, and Plantation Society.

Throughout his career Professor Curtin has been an active member of several scholarly associations and councils. Among the more prominent positions he has held are: member, Africa Selection Committee of the Foreign Area Fellowships Program, 1961–62; president, the African Studies Association, 1970–71; member, Executive Committee, 1970–71, and Problems and Policies Committee, 1971–74, the Social Science Research Council; chair, the SSRC-ACLS Joint Committee on African Studies, 1971–73; vice-president representing the United States, the International Congress of Africanists, 1969–73; member, International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, UNESCO, 1975–; and member, Council of Scholars, Library of Congress, 1980–83. Professor Curtin was a member of the Council of the American Historical Association, 1967–71, before he was elected president-elect in 1982 and became president in 1983.

In recognition of his dedication to historical scholarship Professor Curtin has received two distinctive awards. In 1975 he was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1983 he was one of twenty Americans to receive the highly regarded MacArthur Prize, a fellowship granted to individuals displaying exceptional talent and creativity in their field of expertise.



Two Jamaicas; the role of ideas in a tropical colony, 1830-1865. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1955; Reprint with a new introduction by Franklin W. Knight. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998.

The image of Africa; British ideas and action, 1780-1850. Madison; University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

African history. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Africa remembered; narratives by West Africans from the era of the slave trade, edited by Philip D. Curtin. With introductions and annotation by Philip D. Curtin and others. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

The Atlantic slave trade; a census, by Philip D. Curtin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Imperialism. Edited by Philip D. Curtin. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Africa and Africans, by Paul Bohannan & Philip Curtin. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y., Published for the American Museum of Natural History, by Natural History Press, 1971; 4th ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1995.

Precolonial African history, by Philip D. Curtin. Washington: American Historical Association, 1974.

Economic change in precolonial Africa; Senegambia in the era of the slave trade, by Philip D. Curtin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Africans in bondage: studies in slavery and the slave trade: essays in honor of Philip D. Curtin on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of African Studies at the University of Wisconsin, edited by Paul E. Lovejoy. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Distributed through agreement by the University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Death by migration: Europe’s encounter with the tropical world in the nineteenth century, Philip D. Curtin. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

The rise and fall of the plantation complex: essays in Atlantic history, Philip D. Curtin. Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The tropical Atlantic in the age of the slave trade, by Philip D. Curtin; with a foreword by Michael Adas, series editor. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1991.

Why people move: migration in African history, by Philip D. Curtin. Waco, Tex.: Markham Press Fund, 1995.

African history: from earliest times to independence, by Philip Curtin … [et al.]. 2nd ed. London; New York: Longman, 1995.

Disease and empire: the health of European troops in the conquest of Africa, by Philip D. Curtin. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

The world and the West: the European challenge and the overseas response in the Age of Empire, Philip D. Curtin. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Migration and mortality in Africa and the Atlantic world, 1700-1900, Philip D. Curtin. Aldershot; Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001.

Discovering the Chesapeake: the history of an ecosystem, edited by Philip D. Curtin, Grace S. Brush, and George W. Fisher. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.