Betty Wood obituary


Photo © Lorna McNeur

The History Faculty mourns the passing on Friday September 3, 2021, of Dr Betty Wood.

Betty was a pioneering figure in early American history in the United Kingdom, a devoted teacher of Cambridge undergraduates and postgraduates, and a cherished History colleague and Girton Fellow for more than forty years.

Betty took her first degree at Keele (BA, 1967) and her second at the University of London (MA, 1968).  Her decision to study for her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania (1975) was an early sign of the barrier-breaking that would characterize Betty’s entire career.  She became one of the first women appointed to the History Faculty, initially as an Assistant Lecturer in 1974, then as a Lecturer in 1978, and finally as a Reader in 1999, a post she held until her retirement in 2012.  With American History seriously under-resourced throughout her first two decades, Betty carried a punishing workload of lecturing and supervisions. She offered a pathbreaking special subject on women in the American Revolution and supervised scores of Part II dissertations.  At the postgraduate levels, she supervised numerous MPhil students and nineteen PhDs.  Her PhD students went on to permanent posts on both sides of the Atlantic and have been leading figures in early American History throughout the United Kingdom.

It is impossible to overestimate Betty’s contributions to the development of early American History in the UK. She along with the late Bill Speck founded the British Group of Early American Historians and made it the country’s leading association for this subfield.  BGEAH both assembled early Americanists from everywhere in Britain and brought important US-based scholars across the Atlantic to participate in important intellectual discussions going on here.  Sylvia Frey, the distinguished Tulane University early Americanist, was one of the scholars whom Betty drew to Britain, launching a remarkable series of Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World conferences across a fifteen-year span in the 1990s and 2000s.   

Betty entered postgraduate work just as the social history revolution was taking off.   Focus was shifting from politics to society, and from the study of elites to a study of “the people.” Groups long left on the sidelines and thought to be without meaningful histories—workers, the enslaved, indigenous peoples, women, rural whites—now became the subject of urgent and creative study.  Social history required its practitioners to uncover new research materials (and archives), develop new methods, and to think imaginatively about recovering lost pasts.  Betty embraced this historiographical revolution from the start.  She made her most important contributions to the study of slavery in eighteenth and early nineteenth century America, in books such as Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 and Women’s Work, Men’s Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcounty Georgia, 1750-1830 (1995). As the field of early America widened in the 1990s to include the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Betty moved with it.  Her co-authored study with Sylvia Frey, Come Shouting to Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (1998), was one of her most accomplished works, a seminal contribution to understanding the central role that Protestant Christianity came to play in the lives of the enslaved.

Betty delighted in uncovering new primary sources and exploring their meaning.  She was particularly good at reconstructing economic and religious practices of the enslaved that had slipped the attention of historians. Her work was always probing and sophisticated.  It resisted easy answers.  And it conveyed profound respect for the ordinary women and men whom she was studying.  These qualities made Betty a superb scholar, a special supervisor, and an irreplaceable colleague.  We will miss her.  

Gary Gerstle, with generous input from Tony Badger, Sarah Pearsall, Andrew Preston, Alistair Reid, and John Thompson