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Professor Ralph Smith

A short biography

Prof Ian Brown

Head of Department of History,

University of London

Ralph Smith, who died in January, was born on 9 May 1939 in Bingley, Yorkshire. He attended Burnley Grammar School and then went to Leeds University where he obtained a First in History, and in 1963 completed his doctorate a study of land and society in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the first half of the sixteenth century.

By this time his retraining as an historian of South East Asia was already well advanced. During 1961-62, while attached to the Institute of Historical Research in London, he was employed in the History Department at SOAS as a part-time tutorial assistant in British history since 1760. Subsequently he was appointed as Assistant Lecturer in the History of South East Asia, and for the next four or five years he devoted himself to building up a teaching competence in South East Asian history and to developing a research expertise in the history of Vietnam; he also acquired a command of modern Vietnamese and began the study of classical Chinese. In 1966 he made the first of many research visits to Vietnam, and an important achievement of that period was the publication in 1968 of Viet-nam and the West, which, together with a number of specialist articles, established his reputation as an historian of Vietnam. Ralph was promoted to Reader in 1971.

In the mid-1970s Ralph began work on what became his major scholarly project, a multi-volume study of the Vietnam War. The first volume, An International History of the Vietnam War: Revolution versus Containment, 1955 61, appeared in 1983 and, like its two successors The Struggle for South-East Asia 1961 65 (1985) and The Making of a Limited War, 1965 66 (1991) was extremely well received. Four volumes, at least, had been proposed; but even in this truncated form, this is a major contribution to a huge subject. In recognition of this achievement and of the shift in his scholarly focus, Ralph was promoted in 1989 to a personal Chair in the International History of Asia.

During the final years of his life Ralph suffered from increasingly poor health, but in these years he devoted his efforts to his many research students, and his generosity in time and hospitality to them and to his friends in his fiat and in a well-researched cluster of restaurants in Bloomsbury and Soho was legendary.

Source: Alumni Newsletter (SOAS, Edition 22, Spring 2001, p. 13)


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