Betty Wood obituary | History books

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My friend and mentor Betty Wood, who died of cancer at the age of 76, was a Cambridge scholar and historian of the study of slavery, gender and religion in the Atlantic world. She was among the first to study slaves, and particularly female slaves, at an elite British university and was instrumental in shaping the profile of American history in the United Kingdom.

Born in Melton Constable, Norfolk, daughter of Marjorie (née Green) and Stanley Wood, a railroad keeper, she was educated at Fakenham and Scunthorpe High Schools and became the first in her family to attend the university, studying geography at Keele. Graduating in 1967, she obtained a master’s degree in social and economic history the following year from the London School of Economics.

Betty then undertook doctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, where she lived for three years, experienced race riots in the mid-1960s, and it was there that her interest in American history and the origins of her racial color was sparked.

Obtaining a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge in 1971, she obtained her doctorate in 1973 and became one of the first women appointed to the Faculty of History at Cambridge. She has built her career around a constant flow of groundbreaking publications and a duty of care to her students.

Betty’s research was ahead of its time. It reflected her interest in people, power, and behavior – as she painstakingly traced the contours of 18th-century slavery and gender relations between the inhabitants of colonial America and the Caribbean. His book Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 (1984) traces the origins of racial slavery in a state at the heart of the civil rights movement.

Eight other books explored the informal economies of enslaved people and their working models in early America. Her work focused on white privilege, black life, gender identity, class solidarity, and spiritual community. Her best-known book, Come Shouting to Zion (1998), co-authored with Sylvia Frey, is a rich investigation into the rise of black Protestantism in the American South and the West Indies.

I met Betty in 1997 and the following year she became the director of my own doctorate. She was a wonderful role model on how to teach and learn with passion, humility and generosity in an academic world that can often lean towards privilege and competition. Always supportive of early career researchers and other female academics, in 1999 she was appointed Cambridge Lecturer.

Betty has also had a huge impact on university networks in Europe and North America. She received the title of Honorary Fellow of the American Historical Association in 2018.

In 2003, she retired from teaching and devoted more time to her love of wildlife and historical documentaries, sports and gardening. She was also an avid Scunthorpe United fan and sports enthusiast.

Betty is survived by her brother Philip, her nephew Timothy, her niece Tamzin, as well as two great-nephews and two great-nieces.


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