William H. McNeill, world historian and distinguished scholar, 1917-2016

William McNeill portrait horizontal
Courtesy of
Special Collections Research Center

Prof. William H. McNeill, a pioneer in the field of world history and author of the seminal work The Rise of the West, died July 8. He was 98.

McNeill, AB’38, AM’39, was a teacher and scholar for four decades at the University of Chicago. The Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in History, he was the author of more than 20 books, from the sweeping history of human disease Plagues and Peoples to a memoir of the University during the presidency of Robert Hutchins.

McNeill was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1996 and National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2010. The Rise of the West, which traces civilizations through 5,000 years of recorded history, received the National Book Award for history and biography in 1964.

In a 1987 interview at the time of his retirement, McNeill said it was important for historians not to be too narrow in their outlook. “History has to look at the whole world,” he said. “And that means you have to know how the rest of the world is, how it got to be the way it is.”

McNeill was critical in launching the field of world history at a time when the discipline was narrowly focused on the history of Europe and its past and present colonies. In his work, he emphasized the connections and exchanges between civilizations rather than placing them in a vacuum.

“Bill McNeill was a scholar of extraordinary boldness, range and high creativity,” said John W. Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Professor in History and dean of the College. “He was able to see patterns and relationships among highly complex and disparate historical phenomena on a global level in ways that enabled him to write magnificent and courageous books of large intellectual compass.”  

Boyer said McNeill provided decisive leadership during his chairmanship of the Department of History in the 1960s, rebuilding it into a preeminent site for international historical research after the department had lost much of its luster in the 1940s and ‘50s.

An early interest in history

McNeill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father, John McNeill, was a historian of Christianity whose efforts to tell the story of faith through the connections among denominations inspired his son.

McNeill arrived at the University of Chicago as a 10-year-old when his father was appointed to the University faculty. He graduated from the Laboratory Schools and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UChicago before attending Cornell to pursue a PhD in history.

McNeill’s studies were interrupted by his service in World War II, which included an assignment as assistant military attaché in Cairo. The position led to his working with Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile, making him an eyewitness to the middle stages of the Greek civil war. He wrote his first book from that experience, The Greek Dilemma: War and Aftermath, published in 1947.

In Cairo he met his future wife, Elizabeth Darbishire, who worked for the Office of War Information. She became his proofreader, critic and collaborator. They had four children together.

After the war, he completed his PhD at Cornell, and in 1947, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago.

While in graduate school, McNeill stumbled across Arnold Toynbee’s The Study of History, which was an attempt to chart the rise and fall of world civilizations. Although he later worked under Toynbee at Chatham House in London, McNeill broke with Toynbee in his own work, seeing an interconnectedness among societies that didn’t exist in Toynbee’s writings.

A love of teaching and UChicago

At the University of Chicago, McNeill devoted himself to teaching in addition to his research. “Teaching is the most wonderful way to learn things,” he said in an interview. “You have to get up before a class at 10 o’clock the next morning and have something to say.” In 1983, he received the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

McNeill helped design the History of Western Civilization Core sequence at the University in the late 1940s and played a major role in introducing the history of other world civilizations as key elements of the College’s curriculum in the 1950s and ‘60s.  He had a deep love and respect for the University and its intellectual community, dedicating The Rise of the West to “the community of scholars constituting the University of Chicago.”

“My father loved the University of Chicago wholeheartedly, its traditions and its people. A good-natured argument was his favorite form of entertainment, and he felt his colleagues and students at the University provided that in full measure,” said his son John McNeill, a professor of history at Georgetown University.

After his retirement, McNeill and his wife moved to Connecticut, where he continued to write. He completed a biography of Toynbee in 1989 and wrote The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History with John McNeill, published in 2003. In 2005, he published The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir.

In an essay for the American Historical Association, McNeill explained the importance of studying history. “Ignorance of history—that is, absent or defective collective memory—does deprive us of the best available guide for public action, especially in encounters with outsiders, whether the outsiders are another nation, another civilization or some special group within national borders.”

McNeill is survived by his four children and 11 grandchildren.