Neil L. Whitehead passed away peacefully surrounded by family early morning March 22nd 2012. He was born 3/19/1956 to Ken and Irene Whitehead in Harrow, London. He was raised in a quiet little house on the outskirts of London with his sister Kim. Even at an early age, he was the child you always knew was at the party.
In his youth, Neil enjoyed pursuits as diverse as playing rugby and reading Nietzsche. Though trained at the finest schools in England he was just as comfortable with the lads in the localities. Politics were never far from his mind, and he was active in the Troops Out Movement in 1970s England, even visiting Northern Ireland.
He studied Philosophy and Psychology at Balliol College, University of Oxford, from 1974-81, and received his MA and D. Phil in Anthropology from University of Oxford in 1984.
He met and married the love of his life, Theresa Murphy, in Oxford where they lived until 1992. Friends said they were the perfect pair, since 'T' as he affectionately called her, was just as crazy as he was. The couple had four children and together made a lively household with numerous cats, birds, and dogs.
The family moved from their native Britain in 1993, when Neil accepted a post at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Anthropology. A brilliant scholar, he is well known for his significant contributions to Amazonian anthropology, historical anthropology, and shamanism, as well as his pioneering work in the study of violence. His diverse interests and expertise were reflected in recent contributions to post-human theory and the future of anthropology. He also recently conducted ground breaking archeological work on early large-scale settlements in Guyana, which will likely rewrite the pre-history in the region. He was an inspiring teacher, caring mentor, and generous friend.
He was skillful with a fly rod in the pursuit of trout, and well as on the hunt, whether for pheasant, deer, bear or jaguar. Students were then invited to meals prepared by Theresa and made with the bounty of his hunt. Neil was an avid swimmer and boater who swam daily laps, both at the Natatorium and at the Shorewood Pool. He loved his dogs and the family cats (though he pretended not to). The sound of classical on 88.7 provided the soundtrack for his mornings and his day often ended with chants from his favorite shaman.
Neil was a man of tradition, of habits. He was a humble person who was always surprised by the affection and admiration he received in response to his teaching and research. He was a philosopher at heart with the soul of poet.
Neil is survived by his wife Theresa, and children, Luke, 25, Florence, 23, Rose, 17, and Natalie, 13, as well as his sister Kim, and nieces Begum, Indira, and Banu in England.
The family wishes to thank all the caregivers on the 8th floor at Meriter and Michelle, Suzy, and Erika.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations for a scholarship fund to be established in his name be sent to the UW Department of Anthropology.
A memorial will be held lakeside at Governor Nelson State Park on Wednesday, March 28th at 3pm.
May his boat drift merrily down the stream. (Life is but a dream.)
I suppose I didn't want to believe what I heard and it took me some time to find this through a google search. I suppose I was in denial. I think Neil Whitehead was one of the most exceptional professors for whom I have ever had the privilege to be a student. I purposely took classes he taught and he only made anthropology that much more cool, even though I was a botany/zoology major! I will never forget his generosity and character and his wonderful addition to the campus, especially after September 11th when there was much discussion of war. You will be missed Neil Whitehead.
I know this is a little late, but I just found out. Neil was one of the best professors I've ever had the pleasure of taking a class with. He had a skill for getting students interested in the matter at hand. He was even the driving force that convinced me that I could make it through grad school and do what I want with my life. He was even willing to talk to me after the class was finished in order to help me with my pursuits in a different field.
Not only will I miss Neil very much, his absence will actually leave a hole in anthropology that really cannot be filled by others. Neil had an exceptionally sharp mind; his writings inspired me greatly; and he was a cutting edge thinker combining lots of exciting new work. He always innovated and broke new ground. Neil was also hilariously funny and a great source of encouragement, advice, and criticism. This is exactly the kind of man I expected to be forever young, and forever around. I cannot express my shock and sadness, still, after his passing. Thank you Neil for everything.
I only now found out about Neil's passing, and nothing comes as a greater surprise. I thought he'd live forever, continuing to deliver the fiery speeches for which he was notorious. Neil took a special interest in me because I was an anthropologist who also had experienced war. As a student, he shared his research with me on violence and we'd debate the finer points. I was so impressed by his work, and so privileged by his genuine attention, that I considered coming back to UW to finish my PhD under his guidance (I started one in archaeology). The news of his passing will not fade lightly for me, and I wish Neil's family all my love as they learn to move forward without him.
Even though I am a graduate student in the English Department, Neil was the first faculty member to ask me to meet with him to talk about my dissertation. When he asked me to come by to talk about my dissertation, I was so surprised that I had to reply that I didn't have one yet. But he was still willing to take time to meet and talk about ideas. Not only was he a talented and interesting scholar, but he was also a committed teacher and mentor. Neil's example and encouragement have been enormously helpful and will continue to influence my own work. I can't say enough about how much I respect him for his work as a scholar and as a teacher. While his death is a great loss for the university, I don't have words to express how sorry I am for your loss. My sincere sympathy, Ana
Unfortunately I never met Neil, we had only exchanged e-mails, especially in the last few months as he had accepted to write a chapter for a volume I'm editing (with Davide Torri) on the topic 'Shamanism and Violence'. His abstract (with the title 'The cannibal-war machine') was charming and powerful as all his works. I consider Neil Whitehead one of the most important voices in modern anthropology. I will keep talking about his view on violence in my courses. His contribute will be always alive. Have a nice a safe trip, Neil. Diana Riboli (Panteio University, Athens, Greece)
We are so sad to hear hat Neil is not any more among us. We met him during the Stadenconference 2007 in Wolfhagen/Germany. We will never forget his vivid an inspired personality.
I met Neil on one of his early visits to Guyana in the 1980s and we sustained that friendship for nearly 30 years. He was a brilliant, humble and visionary friend who had so much more to offer. Our last exchange was early this year when he acknowledged receipt of a book I had written. I shall miss catching up on his field work over lunch, or attending his illustrated lectures or poring over historical maps with George Simon but his rich legacy will endure through his books and the shared experiences. May the happy memories of his earthly sojourn provide comfort to his dear wife and family. May the Great Spirit watch over them.
Neil was a friendly and attentive college from whom many people learned and benefited. My condolences to his family.
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