PROFESSOR MICHAEL WILLIAMS
1935–2009

Authors

  • Hugh Clout


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Professor Michael Williams died at Oxford, on 26 October 2009, aged 74. He is remembered for his work in historical geography and environmental history, which ranged in scale from the regional to the global, for his superb editing skills, and for his excellence as a teacher. Born in Swansea on 24 June 1935, the son of Benjamin Williams and Ethel (née Marshell), he attended secondary school in the city, first at Emmanuel Grammar School and then at Dynevor Grammar School. In 1953, he entered University College Swansea, University of Wales, where William Balchin was professor of geography. Michael graduated 3 years later with a first class BA. In 1955, he married Eleanore Lerch, always known as Loré. Between 1957 and 1960 he was a demonstrator in his home department and undertook doctoral research on a part-time basis, focusing on the draining of the Somerset Levels, just across the Bristol Channel. In 1960, he completed his doctorate, which was supervised by John Oliver and benefited from additional advice from Stuart Cousens. Although Balchin was not involved directly in supervision, there can be no doubt that his experience researching the historical geography of Cornwall was influential. Also in 1960, Michael moved to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he gained his Diploma in Education.

Academic jobs were few and far between at this time, which just pre-dated the rapid expansion of British higher education later in the 1960s, however there was a vacancy for a human geographer at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Michael and Loré stayed there for 17 years, with Michael developing great expertise in the historical geography and rural settlement of South Australia, where the imprint of European colonisation dated only from the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1978 the Williams family returned to the UK, with Michael moving to a lectureship (1978–89) and then a readership (1990–96) in geography at the University of Oxford. In 1996, he received the title of professor of geography, becoming professor emeritus in 2002. His academic base was at Oriel College, where he was Sir Walter Raleigh Fellow (1993–2002) and served as Vice-Provost (2000–02). He was also director of studies at St Anne's College from 1978 to 2002. Between 1994 and 1998, he served as director of the MSc programme at the newly founded Environmental Change Unit in the School of Geography. In addition to his posts at Adelaide and Oxford, Michael was visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1973, 1994), the University of Chicago (1989), and the University of California, Los Angeles (1994). He taught at University College London in 1966 and again in 1973, where he lectured on Australasia and on historical geography. Professor W.R. Mead described him as: ‘immensely enthusiastic about his work, fertile in ideas, much enjoyed by students, and completely integrated in our company’. He regretted that funds were not available to offer a permanent position in London. In 1979 Michael received the John Lewis Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia for his research in historical geography, and 10 years later he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, only the fifth geographer to receive that honour. In 1991, the University of Wales awarded him a higher doctorate (D Litt) for his corpus of published work.

Over and above his personal academic commitments, Michael Williams never failed to serve the wider scholarly community. He was secretary of the Institute of Australian Geographers from 1969 to 1972, and then performed the very exacting role of editor of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1983–88). He then became co-editor of Progress in Human Geography (1991–2001) and Global Environmental Change (1993–97), and was a member of the editorial boards for three scholarly journals. Literally hundreds of authors benefited from his editorial talents, wise advice and unfailing enthusiasm for their work. Michael's letters always convinced recipients that their writing was worthwhile and that there were just a few little ways (actually, sometimes, quite large ones) to make their manuscripts more effective. This was a rare and much appreciated skill that was conveyed with unfailing courtesy. Michael was chair of the Historical Geography Research Group of the IBG between 1983 and 1986, hosting the memorable international conference of historical geographers at Oriel College in 1983. Within the British Academy, he was a member of Council (1993–96) and was also chair of the geography and social anthropology section (1994–97). Not surprisingly, geographers in the Academy were delighted when Michael agreed to join Ron Johnston in editing A century of British geography (2003) to coincide with the Academy's centennial.

Michael Williams will, of course, be remembered for the quantity and excellence of his published work, always beautifully written with perfect clarity, and illustrated with a fine array of maps, photographs and contemporary prints. The draining of the Somerset Levels (1970) grew directly from his doctoral work for which Professor H.C. Darby, the distinguished historical geographer, was external examiner. Michael once told me that Darby was very satisfied with the thesis but did not approve of the use of quartiles to determine class intervals on quantitative maps. All trace of them would be expunged before the manuscript was passed to the Cambridge University Press. The viva was going well and seemed to be drawing to a close, but then Darby threw in a bombshell, asking: ‘Mr Williams, if you had to cut out a chapter from your thesis, which one would it be?’ The question left Michael speechless, but Darby leant across the table to declare: ‘Only joking’. The ordeal was over and Michael's life-long respect for Darby and his work was sealed. The draining of the Somerset Levels remains a superb piece of historical scholarship that demonstrates how and why the landscape of this expanse of wetland changed over the centuries. But it is more than an exemplar of one of Darby's favourite themes –‘the draining of the marsh’– since it carried the story up to the time of writing and hinted at environmental concerns for preserving a rare habitat. In its conclusion, it proclaimed an approach that was very different from the traditional notion that ‘improvement’ could only be achieved through ridding the land of excess water and thereby increasing agricultural output.

After working with centuries of environmental change in Somerset, Michael Williams found a very different chronology in South Australia where there was less than a century and a half of European presence. He also found a small group of Australian historical geographers and joined Joe Powell in drawing together some of their ideas in Australian space, Australian time (1975). Michael's own research during the 1960s and early 1970s focused on rural settlement and urbanisation. His problématique was the same as that advanced by Darby and by W.G. Hoskins, namely: ‘How and why has this landscape come to look the way that it does?’ The title of his second research monograph, The making of the South Australian landscape (1976), echoed Darby's famous lecture course on ‘The making of the English landscape’. In his introduction, Michael surveyed and analysed the scene from his office on the ninth floor of the University of Adelaide, looking not only at the city and its suburbs, but lifting his eyes to the farmland and country towns on the horizon. Chapters on ‘clearing the woodland’ and ‘draining the swamps’ certainly had the ring of Darby's work, but they were complemented by ‘survey and the landscape’, ‘irrigating the desert’ and ‘building the townships’ that had no parallel in the long-settled scenery of England.

Michael's third monograph, Americans and their forests (1989a) revealed not only a change in scale but also a manifest concern for environmental degradation and conservation, alongside the ‘historical geography’ of its subtitle. Its origins were two-fold: first, and in a general sense, in the writings of Darby, but second, from an encouraging discussion with Professor Andrew H. Clark of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Michael was visiting on sabbatical leave in 1973. Michael recalled: ‘At that time the idea of dealing with forest clearing was relatively novel, and there was not the wealth of material or interest then that there is now. Therefore, [Clark's] encouragement and suggestions were doubly important’ (1989a, xviii). Fortified by subsequent visits to the USA and to the rich library resources of Oxford and London, Michael proceeded to produce a masterpiece, whose chapters sketched American woodland before 1600, then traced the impact of pioneering up to 1850, before analysing the lumberman's assault on the forest, and finally raising profound questions concerning exploitation, conservation and resource management. In 1990, this most impressive book was awarded the Weyerhauser Prize of the American Forest and Conservation Society. At the same time as this enormous intellectual commitment to the American woodlands, Michael was planning two emphatically environmental volumes: an edited collection of essays entitled Wetlands: a threatened landscape (1991), and another edited book on Planet management (1993). With contributions from physical scientists and economic geographers, Wetlands demonstrated a genuine intellectual shift from the document-based historical geography of Michael's early days; it comes as no surprise to learn that three of the 11 chapters were from his own pen.

During the 1990s Michael directed his energies to two major projects. The first of these was his fourth monograph in the form of a truly magisterial study of the history and geography of deforestation on a global scale. Appearing in 2003 as Deforesting the Earth, from prehistory to global crisis, it ran to 715 pages and came out in an abridged form 3 years later. Structured into three parts, this massive work examined ‘The deep past’ when problems of information and interpretation were profound, then ‘Reaching out’ that dealt with the surer ground of changes occurring in Europe and in territories it affected overseas after 1500, and finally ‘The global forest’ and the great onslaught on the world's forests in the twentieth century. Interestingly, Michael gave Darby the first word, when he quoted a letter dating from July 1954 that proclaimed: ‘Probably the most important single factor that has changed the European landscape (and many other landscapes also) is the clearing of the woodland’ (cited in 2002, xv). The last word was, of course, his own and expressed his deeply felt commitment to the Earth's increasingly scarce resources: ‘The process of land-cover transformation and destruction is never ending. In a decade or so, perhaps another chapter will have to be written, outlining how humans grappled with problems of the use and abuse of their incomparable heritage – a global mantle of forest’ (2002, 478). Once again, Michael was awarded the Weyerhauser Prize (2004) and Deforesting the Earth earned him the Meridian Prize of the Association of American Geographers (2004) for ‘the most scholarly work in geography’. It was runner-up in the 2004 competition for the British Academy's Book Prize.

The second project was historiographic and embraced the lives, ideas and scholarly contributions of Darby and of another great historical geographer, Carl Ortwin Sauer. Following the death of Terry Coppock, Michael agreed with characteristic generosity to act as lead editor of Darby's unpublished methodological writings, which appeared as The relations of history and geography: studies in England, France and the United States (2001). Michael not only dealt with the North American material and edited contributions from Coppock, Hugh Prince and myself, but also managed miraculously to raise funds for secretarial help and bibliographic checking. In his appraisal of Darby's writings, conceived in the 1950s and early 1960s (and possibly earlier), Michael confirmed his respect for the great man but was not afraid to demonstrate his awareness of Darby's limitations as a scholar in his time (1989, 2001). The second and far more original strand of research on Carl Sauer (1889–1975) formed Michael's abiding passion in his final years, being nourished by visits to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, California, where Sauer's materials are housed, and by countless interviews with his former students and contacts. Sauer was a giant among geographers and environmental thinkers, famed for his work on Latin America, plant and animal domestication, the entry of early man into the Americas, and the nature of landscapes. Several publications give a flavour of Michael's early investigations but while all 14 chapters of his monograph had been written, the arduous task of checking references was not complete (1989b). Many geographers on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, beyond, live in the hope that it may be delivered for publication very soon.

A few years ago, Michael confided in me that he was perplexed by many of the strands in contemporary human geography, and he preferred to think of himself as an ‘environmental historian’. Whatever his chosen title, Michael Williams was a fine scholar, a wonderful editor, an inspiring teacher, a truly international person, and a passionate citizen of the Earth. It is hard to accept that we are deprived of the twinkle in his eye and the chuckle in his voice. Michael is survived by Loré, his daughters Cathy and Tess, and by four grandchildren.

Selected publications

Williams M ed 1969 South Australia from the air Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Adelaide

Williams M 1970 The draining of the Somerset Levels Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Williams M 1976 The making of the South Australian landscape Academic Press, London

Williams M 1977 The changing rural landscape of South Australia Heinemann, London

Williams M 1983 ‘The apple of my eye’: Carl Sauer and historical geography Journal of Historical Geography 9 1–28

Williams M 1989a Americans and their forests: a historical geography Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Williams M 1989b Historical geography and the concept of landscape Journal of Historical Geography 15 92–104

Williams M ed 1991 Wetlands: a threatened landscape Blackwell, Oxford

Williams M ed 1993 Planet management Andromeda and Oxford University Press, New York

Williams M 2002 Americans and their forests (abridged edition) University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Williams M 2003 Deforesting the Earth: from prehistory to global crisis University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Williams M and Coppock T, Clout H and Prince H eds 2001 The relations of history and geography: studies in England, France and the United States Exeter University Press, Exeter

Williams M and Johnston R J eds 2003a A century of British geography British Academy and Oxford University Press, London and Oxford

Williams M and Powell J M eds 1975 Australian space, Australian time Oxford University Press, Melbourne and London

Ancillary