William H. (Bill) McNeill (1917-2016) continued to write for decades after his retirement from the University of Chicago. He published several books, including The Human Web, with his son J. R. McNeill, and an autobiography called The Pursuit of Truth. In that book he details his experiences on the 1992 Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Bill was no proponent of European superiority, and his knowledge of the importance of disease, the subject of one of his most famous books, Plagues and Peoples, came to the fore as he tried to explain the biological dimensions of the Columbian encounter. It was a frustrating experience as Bill had been pigeon-holed by the radical environmentalists as a promoter of Western civilization, while in fact, he was largely responsible for what he later called, in a speech and article, “Leaving Western Civ Behind.” His focus on the ecological dimension of world history began very early and came through in everything we did together.
This recording was made at the National Park Service Visitor Center in Salem, MA, as part of the 2009 World History Association. It took place on 26 June 2009 and was sponsored by Berkshire Publishing Group. It may be the last speech Bill delivered, but the following year he traveled to the White House to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.
He was senior editor of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, and when he gave this speech he was working with Karen Christensen on the second edition, to which he made major changes and contributed a number of new articles.
A PDF of the speech as published in Liberal Education can be downloaded by clicking here.
William H. McNeill was the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago. His many books include Plagues and Peoples, Venice: The Hinge of Europe 1081-1797, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, which received the National Book Award, Mythistory and Other Essays, History of Western Civilization: A Handbook, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, Moving Together in Time, The Pursuit of Truth, and The Human Web. He was senior editor of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History.