Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

August 30, 2007

Obituary: William Ragan Stanton

William Ragan Stanton, emeritus professor of history, died July 29, 2007. He was 82.

Stanton, a native of Belton, Texas, was a Navy veteran and a graduate of Baylor University, where he earned a degree in history. He earned his master’s and PhD degrees in American civilization at Brown University, publishing his thesis, “The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-1859,” in 1960.

Stanton came to Pitt’s history department in 1962 and during his years at the University taught a variety of courses on American history.

He wrote his 1975 book, “The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842” while on a Guggenheim fellowship in Portugal. In 1987, Stanton served as a senior Mellon fellow in bibliography with the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Former Pitt colleagues praised Stanton’s writing and dry sense of humor. “He was a good writer,” said history professor Van Beck Hall, noting that Stanton’s study of the racial anthropology of the South prior to the Civil War, “The Leopard’s Spots,” has withstood the test of time and remains well known. “It’s a good read,” he said, adding that Stanton was among the first anthropologists to deal with race.

Seymour Drescher, who joined Pitt’s history department the same year as Stanton, agreed that the work “reads not like an ordinary history book, but with all the humor and flair one could want.”

Drescher said Stanton was known for his repartee, recalling a time when Stanton’s impertinence undid a rather serious scholar who had studied migration patterns in Boston in the 1800s. The visitor was speaking on campus about his finding that the movement of people within Boston had been clockwise.

Stanton raised his hand and, noting that Boston is in the Northern Hemisphere, asked whether migration in the Southern Hemisphere might move in the opposite direction in the same way water goes down a drain.

“It was uproarious,” Drescher recalls. “The guy was just destroyed. All that work to be turned into a bathtub.”

Stanton had a love for the water that played out in his passion for sailboats — particularly wooden boats, which Drescher said Stanton enjoyed restoring. “He loved to repair them at least as much as he loved his research of history,” he said.

Drescher recalled sailing with Stanton while Stanton was a visiting associate professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Instead of a wooden sailboat, Stanton had an iron one. Drescher joined Stanton for a day aboard it in the San Francisco Bay. On the return to shore, the weather turned stormy, leaving Drescher to question the wisdom of taking his family out in such a presumably sinkable iron craft.

“He kept assuring us it was perfectly fine,” Drescher said, although with the rise in the storm, he noticed that Stanton’s smile became progressively more frozen. The trip ended safely, and the colleagues remained friends, “But I never would go out on an iron boat again,” Drescher said.

Stanton retired — to a great send-off, Drescher recalled — from the University in 1994.

When he became emeritus, he spent time sailing the Atlantic coast. Stanton moved to Nova Scotia in 1995, spending his summers at East Ragged Island and wintering on his boat, Julep, in Gloucester, Va.

He is survived by daughters Jennifer Stanton Stuart, Alison Stanton and Susannah Stanton, and six grandchildren.

A celebration of Stanton’s life is being planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions of memories and anecdotes to share at the celebration be sent to Susannah Stanton, P.O. Box 331, Ellsworth, Maine 04605.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 1

Leave a Reply