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Alfred Crosby, environmental historian of ‘Columbian exchange,’ dies at 87

Alfred W. Crosby helped establish the field of environmental history in the 1970s.
Alfred W. Crosby helped establish the field of environmental history in the 1970s. (Courtesy University of Texas)
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Alfred W. Crosby, a historian who illuminated the wide-ranging, oft-forgotten role the environment has played in human history — particularly in what he dubbed the “Columbian exchange,” when diseases, plants and animals crossed oceans and continents after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World — died March 14 at a hospital in Nantucket, Mass. He was 87.

His wife, Frances Karttunen, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, which he had lived with for about 20 years.

A professor of geography, history and American studies at the University of Texas before his retirement in 1999, Dr. Crosby wrote books on the hemp trade between the United States and Russia, the influenza pandemic of 1918, the development of projectile technology and what he described as “humanity’s unappeasable appetite for energy.”

But he was best known for his 1972 book “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492,” which helped establish the field of environmental history and stemmed in part from his lifelong interest in Columbus, a figure whom a young Dr. Crosby once idolized more than the comic-book hero Superman.

While Dr. Crosby’s book went on to inspire critically acclaimed works such as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and Charles C. Mann’s “1491” and “1493,” his interdisciplinary approach to history was so unconventional that the book’s manuscript sat on a shelf for three years, rejected by 21 publishers, before it was picked up by tiny Greenwood Press.

“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,” Harvard University history professor Joyce E. Chaplin wrote in an email. “Crosby pointed out an older history, showing how plants and animals, especially disease microbes, had radically changed human lives before the modern era.”

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Building on the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, botanists, medical historians and demographers, the book was a sweeping and sometimes lyrical overview of what Dr. Crosby described as “the catastrophic and bountiful effects” of two societies and ecosystems meeting for the first time.

Columbus, he said, “reknit the torn seams of Pangaea,” uniting continents that once hung together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

While earlier scholars often described the pre-Columbian Americas as a land of primitive, Hobbesian savages whose lives were “nasty, brutish and short,” Dr. Crosby highlighted the fact that Indian groups had independently invented the wheel and devised a world-class agricultural system, one that introduced the tomato to Italy, the potato to Ireland and corn to the world at large. Europeans, in turn, brought wheat and animals such as the horse, cattle and sheep.

Native Americans’ downfall, Dr. Crosby said, was not so much the superior technologies or fighting prowess of the conquistadors but the smallpox and other pathogens that Spaniards unwittingly carried on their ships. The result was what Dr. Crosby called a “virgin soil epidemic,” in which diseases ravaged a population that was exposed to them for the first time.

“For historians Crosby framed a new subject,” historian J.R. McNeill wrote in a foreword to the 2003 edition of “The Columbian Exchange.” “No one had put these pieces together before, and no one had written on these subjects with such wit and verve.”

Dr. Crosby broadened the scope of his research in his 1986 book “Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900,” which focused on Columbian-like encounters in New Zealand and Australia. Those regions were part of a larger stretch of what he called “Neo-Europes,” where settlers brought European farming practices to foreign soil and effectively began homogenizing the Earth’s ecosystems.

In part, his wife said, both books were written in an effort to make readers understand that indigenous peoples were not biologically inferior to European conquerors, as was sometimes thought, but victims of an ecological catastrophe beyond their control.

Alfred Worcester Crosby Jr. was born in Boston on Jan. 15, 1931, and raised in nearby Wellesley, Mass. His father worked in the commercial art trade and owned a blanket that was once used by a victim of the 1918 flu — a morbid keepsake that Dr. Crosby credited with stimulating his interest in epidemiology.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1952 and served in the Army, stationed in Panama, before earning a master’s degree in teaching from Harvard in 1956 and a doctorate in history from Boston University in 1961.

His work veered in new directions at Washington State University, where he helped start a black studies program and joined students in occupying the administration building during a demonstration against racism and the Vietnam War. Around that time, he also traveled to California, where he joined Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in building a health center for the United Farm Workers.

In his 2003 preface to “The Columbian Exchange,” Dr. Crosby wrote that it was the war that triggered his seminal work on the pre-Columbian Americas, which he completed before joining the University of Texas in 1977.

“If the Viet Cong were successful against the American armed forces, despite all the latter’s technological advantages, and if Africa had somehow repelled European imperialists for centuries before succumbing, then why were American Indians, all and all, so easily conquered? Did Cortés just huff and puff and blow Monctezuma’s house down or were there other factors at work?”

Asking big questions like these, Dr. Crosby wrote, was “like replacing the standard film in your camera with infrared or ultraviolet film. You see things you have never seen before.”

His marriages to Anna Bienemann and Barbara Stevens ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 35 years, linguist Karttunen of Nantucket; a son from his first marriage, Kevin Crosby of Shoreline, Wash.; a daughter from his second marriage, Carolyn Crosby of Austin; two stepdaughters, Jaana Karttunen of Cambridge, England, and Suvi Aika of Austin; and two grandchildren.

His later books included “America’s Forgotten Pandemic” (first published in 1976 as “Epidemic and Peace: 1918”), “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600” (1997), “Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History” (2002) and “Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy” (2006).

Their unifying thread, he said in a 2015 interview for the academic journal the Americas, was subjects that were “overlooked but of massive significance.”

“I think it’s more justified for us to bring our acquired wisdom, the lens of our wisdom, to bear on the search for the gale of changes which is sweeping over us now,” he continued. “One wonders what’s going on now to which we are paying little attention.”

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