Woodrow Borah, UC Berkeley Latin American history expert, dies at age 86

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- "Woodrow Borah, a leading expert in Latin American history and a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus, died Friday (Dec. 10) at age 86.

Borah, who lived in Berkeley, died at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland following a long illness.

For several decades Borah was one of the most active and influential scholars working to reconstruct the colonial experience in Spanish America.

Borah's scholarly contributions covered disparate topics, from early inter-colonial trade to the Indian legal courts of Colonial Mexico. For many years he researched the demographic impact of the Spanish conquest and colonization on the native population.

Borah and his colleague, the late Sherburne F. Cook, are known for groundbreaking demographic work that lead to their conclusion that the Spanish conquest brought about a fall in the population of MesoAmerica on the order of at least 80 percent, said Tulio Halperin, a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of history and former colleague of Borah's. Their conclusion is now universally accepted, said Halperin.

Borah's 1951 essay, "New Spain's Century of Depression," was also an important contribution to the field. It traced the impact of the "demographic catastrophe" at all levels of the colonial experience in Mexico.

"It is in itself a stunning historiographic achievement and continues to provide an obligatory term of reference for the students of the colonial history of that country," Halperin said.

-Borah received numerous awards and honors. In 1983 the Conference on Latin American History, an association of scholars in that field, honored him with its Herbet E. Bolton Prize for the best book in English on Latin America.

The American Historical Association awarded him its distinguished service award in 1986. Various Latin American historical groups gave him numerous honors and medals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Borah was born Dec. 23, 1912 in Utica, Miss.. He graduated from high school in Los Angeles and attended UC Berkeley, where he earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees.

He taught briefly at Princeton University before joining the U.S. State Department from 1942 to 1947, working as an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services.

He joined UC Berkeley's History Department faculty in 1948. Borah served as chair of the campus's Center for Latin American Studies from 1973 to 1979. He retired from active teaching in 1980.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Terry Borah, of Berkeley. He also leaves two children, Jonathan Borah of Oakland; and Ruth Borah of Voorschoten, the Netherlands.

Plans are underway for a memorial service next month at Temple Beth El in Berkeley.


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