Originally PUBLISHED ON JUL 11, 2016
William H. McNeill, AB'38, AM'39, Robert A. Milikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, passed away on July 8, at the age of 98. John W. Boyer, dean of the College and a former student of McNeill, shared this rememberance: "Bill was one of the most important historians to teach at the University of Chicago in the twentieth century. He served as chair of the Department of History during a crucial period in the 1960s, helping to rebuild the department and make it into an internationally preeminent place of historical research. From 1971 to 1980 he served as the editor of The Journal of Modern History. Bill was also one of the founders and chair of the History of Western Civilization core course in the College in the later 1940s, and thus contributed mightily to the history of general education at the university."
Photograph by Julie Brown
John R. McNeill, University Professor, Georgetown University, offered this summary of his father's life:
William Hardy McNeill died on July 8, 2016, in Torrington, CT, at age 98. He was a professor of history at the University of Chicago for forty years until his retirement in 1987, and a pioneer in the emergence of world history as an intellectually legitimate form of academic history. He was awarded a National Book Award, the Erasmus Prize, and a National Humanities Medal among other distinctions.
McNeill was born October 31, 1917, in Vancouver, Canada. He grew up in Toronto and, from age ten, in Chicago, while spending summers on a family potato and dairy farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada. He attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1938 with a BA in history. In later years he often said his most rewarding experience was serving as editor of the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, in which role he came to know and admire the president of the university, Robert Maynard Hutchins. He stayed at Chicago and earned an MA in 1939 from the Committee on History of Culture, writing a master’s thesis about Thucydides and Herodotus. He then began a PhD in history at Cornell University under the direction of the prominent intellectual historian, Carl Becker.
World War II interrupted McNeill’s studies but provided him with another education. He was drafted into the US Army in 1941 and served in the coast artillery in Hawaii, where he arrived weeks after Pearl Harbor. He became an officer and commanded artillery battalions in the Caribbean before a chance encounter in a mess hall in Puerto Rico with a Cornell professor resulted in McNeill’s appointment as assistant military attaché to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile in Cairo. It was in Cairo, in 1944, that he met his wife, Elizabeth Darbishire. They married in 1946.
McNeill reported on Greek and Yugoslav affairs for the army until discharged in 1946. He was among the first Americans in Greece in December 1944 after the departure of the occupying German forces. He was an eyewitness to the middle stages of the Greek Civil War, the subject of his first book, The Greek Dilemma (1947).
Upon returning to civilian life, McNeill completed his PhD at Cornell with a dissertation about the potato in Irish history. In 1947, thanks to Hutchins, he was appointed to the faculty at the University of Chicago, his professional home for the next four decades. In his early years he taught courses in Western civilization, but during the 1950s designed a new course in world history. From 1961 through 1967 he served as chair of the Department of History, in which role he helped to arrange for Henry Moore to cast a bronze statue commemorating the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The statue stands on the spot on the campus where, in 1942, the atomic age began. In 1985 McNeill served as president of the American Historical Association.
McNeill’s commitment to world history originated with his encounter with the early volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History in the late 1930s. His war experiences in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Egypt, and Greece further inspired him to try to see human history in the round. This outlook was rare in the mid-twentieth century, when academic historians in the United States focused tightly on the history of Europe, its colonies, and its former colonies. Most academic historians felt that world history was not proper history, because it could not be grounded in rigorous study of original documents in their original languages. McNeill, like Toynbee and very few others, contended that the virtues of a world-historical approach outweighed the intellectual vices.
McNeill departed from Toynbee’s vision in one important respect. Whereas Toynbee organized his vision of the past into a series of discrete civilizations, which he believed all followed the same trajectory, McNeill emphasized the exchanges between societies as the motor of history, drawing upon the anthropological teachings of one of his undergraduate professors, Robert Redfield, LAB’15, PhB'20, JD'21, PhD'28. McNeill developed his concept of world history in The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963) which won the National Book Award in 1964. He held to this approach to world history all his life with some alterations, evident in his last effort at global history, The Human Web (2003), co-authored with J. R. McNeill.
McNeill wrote more than twenty books in his career. He featured his world history approach in Plagues and Peoples (1976), a pioneering conspectus of the history of human disease and its impacts, and in The Pursuit of Power (1982), a study of the role of military forces, military technology, and warfare in human history since 1000 AD. He also wrote books on smaller scales, on modern Greece, on medieval and early modern Venice, on the life of Toynbee, and on the University of Chicago during the presidency of Robert M. Hutchins. McNeill regarded his contribution to the legitimation of world history as a rigorous academic endeavor as his principal professional achievement, embodied above all in The Rise of the West, Plagues and Peoples, and The Pursuit of Power. It was primarily for this work that he won the Erasmus Prize in 1996 and was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Despite a devotion to desk work that led him to say that he felt a day without writing was a day wasted, McNeill found time to enjoy playing tennis with friends, colleagues, and relatives. After 1987, in retirement, he and Mrs. McNeill lived in Colebrook, CT, where she had deep ancestral roots, until her death in 2006. He took up vegetable gardening in unpromising soil and derived particular pleasure from the performance of his potato crop. Forsaking earlier attachments, he acquired a taste for the New England Patriots.
He is survived by his four children and eleven grandchildren.
Hillel Italie, "Historian William H. McNeill Dead at 98," Associated Press, July 13, 2016.
Sam Roberts, "William H. McNeill, Professor and Prolific Author, Dies at 98," New York Times, July 12, 2016.
William Harms and Mark Peters, "William H. McNeill, World Historian and Distinguished Scholar, 1917–2016," University of Chicago News, July 12, 2016.
Robert Goodier, "A Germ of an Idea," University of Chicago Magazine, July–August 2010.
Meredith Hindley, "Awards and Honors: 2009 National Humanities Medalist," William H. McNeill," National Endowment for the Humanities, 2009.