There aren’t a lot of historians who deserve what some might see as hyperbolic language. By and large, most of us just build on each other, slightly shift a literature, and contribute to the broader expansion of historical knowledge. It’s a noble if rather anonymous profession that unfortunately is also one that is dying in the face of corporate hacks taking over higher education.
Anyway, one of the exceptions is the truly great Alfred Crosby, who helped pioneer both environmental and Atlantic history through his titanic books. Crosby died earlier this week.
His interest in demography and the role of infectious disease in human history led him to write The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492; America’s Forgotten Pandemic (originally Epidemic and Peace 1918); and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. His fascination with intellectual and technological history produced The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600; Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History; and Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy. His books have been published in Chinese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Slovene, Swedish, and Turkish translations. His work as a historian, he said, turned him from facing the past to facing the future. He lived by the maxim: What can I do today to make tomorrow better?
The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialisms at least were paradigm-shifting works. Nearly our entire broad understanding of the biological interactions between Europeans and Native Americans and how that impacted people around the world comes from Crosby, including the enormous demographic shift that disease created in the Americas. That’s the Columbian Exchange, an idea that largely came from Crosby. For those of you who aren’t historians, think of a more nuanced Jared Diamond with a far lower ego. Some of this is now being challenged, as it should be, by historians such as Andrés Reséndez, claiming that far more native peoples died from violence than Crosby admitted. But all work should be challenged and revised (please someone challenge Eric Foner’s 30 year old book on Reconstruction for instance; it’s just time and there’s 3 decades of new literature out there). Crosby was a true giant of the field.