Rhoads Murphey, Longtime Geographer and Historian, Dies at Age 93
February 08, 2013
W. Rhoads Murphey III, died of pneumonia on December 20, 2012, at his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 93. A professor emeritus of the University of Michigan’s Department of History, Murphey arrived in 1964 as a professor of Asian studies and geography. He retired in 1990, but continued to write, teach and advise undergraduate students. He stayed as the director the university’s Asian studies program until it was reorganized in 1996.
Murphey was a four-time graduate of Harvard University, receiving his A.B. in history magna cum laude in 1941 and his M.A. in history in 1942. After World War II, he earned an M.A. in international and regional studies in 1948 and his Ph.D. in Far Eastern history and geography in 1950.
He enlisted during the war as a conscientious objector and served with the British Friends Ambulance Unit in China from 1942 to 1946. Although not a Quaker, Murphey attended a Friends School in his hometown of Philadelphia. That environment shaped his belief that “killing wouldn't solve anything.” He resolved, however, to assist against the threat of the Axis powers. In the ambulance unit, Murphey and an international group of men drove old, charcoal-powered Chevrolet trucks throughout southwest China with medical supplies.
In traveling to such places as Kunming, Chunking, Yenan, Hanoi, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Murphey met Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung. Hong Kong was just an “outpost of colonialism,” Murphey recalled, and nothing like the huge metropolis that it became in post-war history.
After finishing his doctorate, Murphey joined the department of geography at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1952. He departed for the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, but returned the following year to the University of Washington. He remained there until heading to Michigan.
Murphey wrote more than 84 works in 218 publications, with translations into seven languages. He concentrated on history and geography drawn from his experiences in China and South Asia. His books included Shanghai: Key to Modern China (1953) and The Outsiders: Westerners in India and China (1977), the latter of which won a best book of the year award from the University of Michigan Press.
The University of Michigan gave Murphey its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, in 1974. Murphey also accepted AAG Honors in 1980.