Obituaries

Alfred W. Crosby, 87, of Nantucket, pioneering environmental historian

Dr. Crosby was viewed by peers as having launched a new discipline.
Dr. Crosby was viewed by peers as having launched a new discipline.

When Alfred W. Crosby published his 1972 book “The Columbian Exchange,” he charted for future historians a course that was as new as the one his subject Christopher Columbus had sailed nearly five centuries earlier.

“Sometimes the more obvious a thing is, the more difficult it is to see it,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2011. “I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses, even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.”

Dr. Crosby, who was 87 when he died March 14 in Nantucket of complications from Parkinson’s disease, was viewed by peers as having launched a new discipline: environmental history.

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To study the impact of Columbus’s arrival in the new world in 1492, he wove together culture, biology, ecology, and geography — and a sampling of other sciences as well. With concepts he coined, such as “the Columbian exchange” and “ecological imperialism,” he illuminated what he described as “the catastrophic and bountiful effects” of what happened with the ecosystems of different societies suddenly met through colonial exploration.

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“Before his work, people had tended to think that the environment only had really dramatic effects on humans in the modern era, and especially through disasters,” Joyce E. Chaplin, a professor of early American history at Harvard University, told The Washington Post. “Crosby pointed out an older history, showing how plants and animals, especially disease microbes, had radically changed human lives before the modern era.”

A professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught for more than two decades, Dr. Crosby also occasionally wrote book reviews and essays for the Globe.

He drew part of his inspiration for “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492” from a childhood fascination with Columbus.

“When I was very young, Columbus appealed to me for the same reasons as did Superman, the comic strip hero,” he told the journal The Americas in 2015. “As I grew up, I began to think of Christopher not as a generic hero, but a special kind of hero, one of the maritime variety. What had push-pulled him across the ocean?”

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The Columbian Exchange” has remained in print since first appearing in 1972, but his manuscript initially was not warmly greeted. “I had a great deal of trouble getting it published,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “Now, the ideas are not particularly startling anymore, but they were at the time.”

Ultimately, he added, “a little publisher in New England wrote me and asked me if I would let them have a try at it, which I did. . . . It has really caused a stir.”

“For historians, Crosby framed a new subject,” J.R. McNeill, a Georgetown University professor who has written about environmental history, wrote in a forward to a more recent edition of the book. “No one had put these pieces together before, and no one had written on these subjects with such wit and verve.”

Dr. Crosby’s other books included “Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900,” published in 1986, in which he focused on Columbian-like encounters in what he called “Neo-Europes” — distant places where settlers effectively began homogenizing disparate ecosystems by introducing European farming practices to other countries.

With “The Columbian Exchange,” Dr. Crosby examined how disease devastated indigenous populations after Columbus arrived. Dr. Crosby also showed how the subsequent movement of plants and animals — back and forth between Europe and the new world — forever changed global ecology. He wrote that when Columbus arrived on Oct. 12, 1492, the “two worlds” on opposite sides of the Atlantic, “which were so different, began on that day to become alike.”

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He added that the “trend toward homogeneity is one of the most important aspects of the history of life on this planet since the retreat of the glaciers.”

Born in Boston, Alfred Worcester Crosby Jr. grew up in Wellesley. His father was Alfred Crosby Sr., and his mother was the former Ruth Coleman.

After graduating from Wellesley High School, he studied at Harvard as a commuter student. “My four years there as an undergraduate were the emptiest of my life. I was a commuter for whom Harvard was in total no more than a lecture hall at the end of a subway tunnel,” he told John F. Schwaller for the 2015 interview published in The Americas.

Dr. Crosby’s one meaningful encounter with a faculty member occurred when, as a freshman, he stopped by the office of composer Aaron Copland to talk about jazz. “He listened patiently,” Dr. Crosby recalled.

Graduating from Harvard in 1952 with a degree in history, he served as an Army sergeant in the Panama Canal Zone, which also served as his introduction to Latin American culture. After the Army, he returned to Harvard for a master’s and then graduated from Boston University with a doctorate in history in 1961.

While teaching at Washington State University, he helped start a black studies program. He also became an activist, joining with students who protested against racism and the Vietnam War, and who occupied the administration building. Dr. Crosby also traveled to California, where he worked with the labor leaders and civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to help build a health center for the United Farm Workers.

Dr. Crosby’s other books included “Epidemic and Peace: 1918,” which appeared in 1976 and later was republished as “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.” He also wrote 1997’s “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600,” and 2006’s “Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy.”

The subjects he chose were “overlooked, but of massive significance,” he told The Americas, and added: “One wonders what’s going on now to which we are paying little attention.”

Dr. Crosby’s marriages to Anna Bienemann and Barbara Stevens ended in divorce.

He then was married for 35 years to Frances Karttunen, a linguist, historian, and author.

In addition to his wife, who lives on Nantucket, Dr. Crosby leaves a son, Kevin of Shoreline, Wash.; a daughter, Carolyn of Austin, Texas; two stepdaughters, Jaana Karttunen of Cambridge, England, and Suvi Aika of Austin; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Crosby was as perceptive about more recent history as he was about past centuries.

In a 1998 essay for the Globe, he mused about how people often seek “easy explanations” for murderous dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and their willing followers.

“Real administrators of death camps, as Hannah Arendt informed us, weren’t madmen; they were bureaucrats,” Dr. Crosby wrote. “Hitler and Stalin weren’t Godzillas. We cannot absolve ourselves of the responsibility of trying to understand them by categorizing them as such. They were human beings. So were those who worshiped them.”

And what, he asked, “is the preventive medicine for our foolishnesses, for our occasional penchant for looking the other way while some human beings slaughter millions of other human beings? I don’t know. Maybe institutionalized skepticism?”

Material from The New York Times and The Washington Post was used in this report.