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Johns Hopkins Historian John R. Russell-Wood dies

August 19, 2010
CONTACT: Tracey A. Reeves 


Anthony John R. Russell-Wood, the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University and a widely published expert in the history and culture of pre-Columbian and colonial Latin America, died Aug. 13, after a brief illness.

A faculty member at Johns Hopkins since 1971, Russell-Wood, 70, was a prolific author, and one of the world’s foremost historians of Brazil and the Portuguese seaborne empire.      Mr. Russell-Wood photo

His voracious appetite for knowledge and the impressive breadth of his interests was reflected in his many publications on administrative and urban history, history of art, technology, public health, women, race, slavery, and historiography. He wrote or edited 10 books, most recently Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil (2002), and had more than 80 contributions to scholarly articles. Dr. Russell-Wood’s eclectic research interests led to a teaching portfolio that was just as diverse; he taught graduate seminars on Brazil and colonial Latin America, and undergraduate courses such as The Age of Exploration, The African Diaspora, Shipwreck and Empire, and Gold and Society. His stature within his field of work was often leveraged for video and film documentaries shown on National Public Television, and the History Channel.

Anthony John Russell-Wood delighted in teaching and nurturing his students and in guiding graduate level candidates through their dissertations. In the classroom, former students praised his even-handedness and availability to answer questions or offer support. But he went beyond the books, often holding “refugee parties” at his home, inviting those students who stayed in town rather than go home for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holidays, to dine and mingle with his own family. His charisma lent itself to offering both grace and charm to any conversation in which he was a part.

William T. Rowe, chairman of the History Department and the John and Diane Cooke Professor of Chinese History, called Russell-Wood the “solid backbone of Hopkins’ history department for many decades.”

“John was the one colleague you could always count on for help, or turn to for advice,” Rowe said. “He graciously mentored me ever since my own arrival here, as he has so many others thereafter.  It is no exaggeration to say that he was loved by us all.”

Russell-Wood served as director of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Program in Latin American Studies and twice as chairman of the History Department, from 1984 to 1990, and from 1996 to 1999. He also contributed significantly to the Center for Africana Studies and served on the Academic Council at the university’s Homewood campus. He won tenure in 1976, and in 2001was named to the endowed Herbert Baxter Adams Professorship in History, where he succeeded his friend, the late Philip Curtin, founder of U.S. scholarly studies in African history.

“John was held in great affection by his colleagues, students, and staff, and he was known for his compassion, and his generosity, as well as his wry sense of humor,” said Michela Gallagher, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “He will be deeply missed.”

In describing why he chose to become a historian, Russell-Wood wrote in his curriculum vitae that his interest in the discipline was not a case of “love at first sight.” Rather, he said it was “derived from the gradual realization that many of the sources I was reading on medieval Portugal or the chronicles of the Portuguese in Asia, from the perspective of a student of literature or because of their philological content, possessed a strong historical component which I found irresistible.”

“I am a firm believer in how the study and writing and teaching of history can be highly enjoyable and fun,” he wrote.

Outside the office, Russell-Wood treasured the personal time he spent with his family and his dog, Abby, a stray pit bill that his wife, Hannelore, adopted many years ago. Russell-Wood possessed an unrelenting curiosity, a trait he satisfied through constant exploration of the world and people around him. His own youth was spent traveling the far corners of Europe, often times relying on his intrinsic good fortune and the benevolence of others to accommodate him. These early encounters served to mould his magnanimous nature in dealings with all going forward. In raising his sons, Russell-Wood fostered cultural awareness, strong ethics and a firm command of oneself in all situations that life presents. He took his sons on trips to his native Wales and encouraged them to continue traveling and expanding their horizons by visiting other faraway places. It was while on these trips, as well as at home, that Russell-Wood would instill in his sons the importance of hard work and the value of a strong education. John’s love of The Johns Hopkins University contributed to the decision of both Christopher and Karsten to pursue undergraduate and graduate experiences at the institution.

His interests beyond history included cycling, sailing, hiking and bird watching. An avid squash player, he was internationally recognized, representing both Oxford University and the United Kingdom in international competitions.

Away from his work, Russell-Wood was a passionate community volunteer. As chairman of the Maryland Committee for the Humanities, he was asked in 1981 to serve on the Maryland Heritage Committee to organize and coordinate Baltimore County’s celebration of the state’s 350th anniversary. In 1983, Russell-Wood received gubernatorial and mayoral citations for public service.

Russell-Wood’s early schooling was at Rossall School in North West England’s Lancashire area where both his mother and father were educators. Later, he would go on to earn his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Oxford, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in modern history from Oxford. He was mentored by the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, Earl Dacre and late Sir Peter Russell, and the late Charles Boxer of the University of London. Boxer and Russell especially reassured and reinforced Russell-Wood’s delight in education. He also held a diploma in Portuguese studies from Coimbra University.

 British by birth, AJR Russell-Wood’s life identity was intimately bound to Portugal and Brazil. Pursuing his studies, completing academic research, and supporting local charitable trusts for indigent education, he spent over 6 years living in Brazil. Russell-Wood was awarded numerous honors during his career, including the Portuguese National Order of Knighthood, Commander of the Order of Dom Henrique (Comendador da Ordem do Infante), presented to him by the president of Portugal. He was also accorded the title of “Benemerito” by the Santa Casa da Misericordia of Bahia for his contribution to scholarship. In 2000, Russell-Wood was named Commander of the International Order of Merit of the Misericordias, and in 2002, he was made Officer of the Order of Rio Branco (Oficial da Orderm DeRio Branco). In 2006, he was granted honorary citizenship in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Anthony John R. Russell-Wood is survived by his wife of 37 years, Hannelore, his two sons, Christopher and Karsten, and their wives, and by four grandchildren, Karrigan, Elisabeth, Isabelle, and Haviland.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, located at 4 East University Parkway.

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