This is to inform all that Jan Vansina, the MacArthur Fellow and Vilas Research Professor Emeritus in History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has passed away. Jan died this week after a protracted battle with cancer. He was just 87.
Jan was born in Antwerp, Belgium on September 14, 1929 to Dirk and Suzanne Vansina. Caught up in the uncertainty of the Second World War, Jan and his parents migrated to Bruges and later to Leuven where Jan enrolled at the Catholic University of Leuven to earn a degree in medicine. His experiences both in Bruges and Leuven were captured in his memoir: Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II (2014). Jan dumped medicine and transferred to the Law program, while taking History, as a minor at Catholic University of Leuven. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Law.
After completing his graduate studies in Medieval History in 1952, Jan accepted a job with the Institute for Research for Central Africa (IRSAC) where, in conjunction with the University College, London, he trained, as a Research Anthropologist. This position not only changed his life, but also changed the trajectory of his career. He was assigned to Central Africa with the Bakuba. This was at the dying days of European colonial rule in (Central) Africa. Jan watched helplessly as European scholars, administrators and Christian missionaries denied the existence of an Africa history. Having used medieval dirges as raw historical material in his law program, Jan recognized oral traditions everywhere he turned in Africa. Convinced of the possibility of using oral traditions as sources of dependable historical information, he began collecting them, as materials for his doctoral research, which he completed in 1957.
Jan’s main contribution to African Studies lies in the use of oral tradition to historiography and methodologies of African Studies. His works straddled not just Anthropology and History, but also Sociology, Literature, and a broad spectrum of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It was also in the course of his fieldwork in Central Africa that he met his wife, Claudine Herman, a Rwandan.
Phillip Curtin invited Jan to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1960 to build a program in Comparative Tropical History. He remained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the rest of his academic career. At Wisconsin-Madison, Jan established himself as an academic authority on the full range of central African history, publishing a total of 15 books and 160 articles. Among his most distinguished works are Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (1965); Oral Tradition as History (1985); Living With Africa (1994); Kingdoms of the Savannah (1966), Paths in the Rainforests (1990); Antecedents to Modern Rwanda (2004); Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880-1960 (2010); and Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II (2014).
In 1981, Jan was appointed as a central member of the editorial committee of the 8 volume UNESCO General History of Africa. He served in this position between 1981 and 1993. The African Studies Association awarded Jan the Distinguished Africanist Award in 1986. The American Historical Association awarded him the Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2000 and the the American Philosophical Society elected him as a member for his over 50 years’ work in the Social Sciences.
Jan Vansina who retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994 as a MacArthur Fellow and Vilas Research Professor in History and Anthropology was survived by Claudine, his wife, and Bruno, his son.