JDY Peel, 1941-2015

JDY Peel, FBA, SOAS Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, died peacefully at his London home on 2 November 2015, comforted by his loving wife and family. John was an intellectual giant in the field of African studies, with specialisation on the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria.

John was born in Dumfries on 11 November 1941 to Edwin Peel and his wife Nora (nee Yeadon), and was the eldest of four children. He attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and earned his Literae Humaniores with first class honours from Balliol College, Oxford (1963), and a PhD in sociology from the LSE (1966). His doctoral dissertation explored issues of syncretism and religious change in independent churches among the Yoruba. Published two years later as a book titled Aladura: a religious movement among the Yoruba, John’s study has become a classic work of historical sociology, grounded in a variety of vernacular sources that apportions considerable agency to Africans.

John enjoyed a brilliant academic career, first as Lecturer in sociology at the University of Nottingham (1966-70) and the LSE (1970-73); as a visiting Reader of sociology and anthropology at the University of Ife, Nigeria (1973-75); and then as the Charles Booth Professor of Sociology at the University of Liverpool (1975-89) where he served as Faculty Dean of Social and Environmental Studies (1985-88). While employed at Liverpool, he spent a year at the University of Chicago as a visiting professor (1982-83). In 1989, John accepted a chair in the department of anthropology and sociology at SOAS. According to colleague Professor Richard Rathbone, attracting John to the position “felt like a bit of a coup” for the School.i  During his 18 years at SOAS, John undertook numerous leadership roles, including Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Anthropology Research Tutor, and Head of Department, all of which he performed with characteristic drive and diligence.

Beyond duty to department and School, John served as editor for The Journal of Development Studies (1972-73) and Africa: Journal of the International Africa Institute (1979-86). From 1986 until his death he was the editor of the IAI’s monograph series, the International African Library, and from 2005 he acted as Chairman of the IAI Trustees. John served as President of the African Studies Association (1996-98) and, having been elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1991, he had the honour of serving as its Vice-President for one term (1999-2000). He was also active on HEFCE and ESRC committees, and was a member of the panel of judges for the ASA Herskovits Award (2005-08). After retiring from SOAS in 2007 and being made Emeritus Professor, John gave a series of presentation as the Birkbeck Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge (2009) and a second series of talks as the Winchester Lecturer in World Religions at the University of Oxford (2011). The contents of these presentations formed the backbone of his fifth and final monograph, Christianity, Islam and Orisa-religion: three traditions in comparison and interaction (University of California Press, December 2015), which examines the diverse ways in which Yoruba individuals and communities recognise themselves as belonging to a religious tradition. In 2012, John was awarded an Honorary DLitt by the University of Birmingham. In recent years, he was invited to Nigeria to deliver several keynote addresses. These events included the 80th birthday in 2009 of his close friend Jacob Ade-Ajayi, renowned Professor of History and former deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, and the 90th birthday celebrations in April 2015 of his friend Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, founder of one of Nigeria’s leading law firms.

John’s senior position in the School, and within the academic community more broadly, came with responsibility to make sometimes-difficult choices and decisions, and to fight corners. He consistently did so with an informed sense of conviction and a degree of tenacity, balanced by good humour and openness to reconciliation. In recounting a disagreement that she had with John over School plans for departmental restructuring, one former senior colleague reminisced with fond sentiment, “I can never resist old adversaries if we can both greet each other with humour in the hereafter. And he was certainly one of those: not dismissive or discourteous at all, having got through the grinding of clashing swords and glittering armour!” Emeritus Professor and former Head of Department Richard Tapper noted that John “was a hugely significant addition to the department, and [on] numerous occasions he was effective, supportive and encouraging when much needed.” Current HoD, Professor David Mosse, likewise remembers JDYP as “a formidable ally in the defence of academic independence, applying his particular talent with words in highly effective letters.” John’s prose was elegant, entertaining, and could sting with impeccable precision when results were needed.

John revelled in the beauty of words, and authored letters and correspondence with the same consideration and artistry that he applied to writing books and his numerous other scholarly publications. Emeritus Professor Paul Gifford noted in his moving obituary, “[John] was a beautiful stylist, and incapable of writing an unintelligible sentence.”ii  John’s second monograph, Herbert Spencer: the evolution of a sociologist (1971), reflected his early training in classics and his life-long interest in the history of sociological ideas. George W. Stocking, who reviewed the book for the American Journal of Sociology, wrote that JDYP offered “a brilliant reading of Spencer’s whole sociological corpus, a reading grounded in biographical and cultural context, informed by a wide-ranging knowledge of later social theory, and moulded by a historical and critical sensibility of unusual subtlety.”iii  SOAS colleague Dr Kit Davis observed, “[John’s] was the kind of holistic intellectual biography that was possible when scholarship lay at the heart of academic life. We are lucky to have known him.” Echoing those sentiments, John’s dear friend and fellow West Africanist Professor Richard Fardon, astutely remarked that there is “no chance another scholar like JDYP will pass our way, given they largely went out of production around the end of his beloved eighteenth century.”

In addition to teaching West African cultures and societies for many years, John’s pet course was Social Theory. That first-year undergraduate core course for anthropologists allowed John to indulge his curiosity in the history of modern Western thinking, beginning the term with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and moving through seminal Enlightenment thinkers in America, Britain, France and Germany to trace the intellectual trajectories that resulted in the distinct sociological and anthropological traditions of those countries. Dr Stephen Hughes recalled that John “was always ready to discuss [the evolution of social theory] at anytime, with that excited little giggle.” Indeed, John’s laugh could be mischievous, wringing his hands together with glee when he spotted contradiction or a hole in an argument. Referring to one of John’s renowned course handouts, Dr Hughes remarked that his favourite arrow in the diagram was the one that leads to ‘Much Diffuse Influence’: “I reckon that all those arrows pointing off the bottom of the page all joined up in John’s head and seamlessly poured forth for his students, colleagues, and in his scholarship.” Over the many years, numerous PhD students assisted in teaching John’s tutorial classes, and he developed special mentoring relations with each. Dr Jenn Law, former GTA for John’s Social Theory course, recollected, “John was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, and he taught with passion and humour. He was a great mentor to me. The experience I gained working with John laid the foundations for my own research and continues to impact my work.” Dr Kai Kresse, also a former GTA for John, recollected that, “He was an immensely generous, fair, and vivacious person; and, as a mentor, he passed those qualities on. As an academic he stood for intellectual ‘curiosity’ in the very best sense of the word.”

An acute sense of curiosity kept John returning to Nigeria to deepen his ethnographic knowledge of the south-western region. In 1983, he published a second monograph about his beloved Yoruba people, Ijeshas and Nigerians: the incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom, 1890-1970s. The book blends history, sociology, and anthropological inquiry to establish, in the words of Professor Toyin Falola, “an excellent account of the pre-colonial social and political structures of the Yoruba Kingdom as well as the history of Ilesa in connection with the formation of modern Nigeria.”iv  Ijeshas and Nigerians was awarded the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology by the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Herskovits Prize for African Studies by the African Studies Association. John’s next monumental monograph, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (2000), argues compellingly that the genesis of Yoruba identity sprung from the encounter between the Yoruba and evangelical Protestant missionaries in West Africa. John was again awarded both the Amaury Talbot and Herskovits Prizes for this groundbreaking work – a staggering accomplishment. In celebration of his pioneering scholarship and already-established intellectual legacy, a festschrift was held in John’s honour and the proceedings were published under the title Christianity and Social Change in Africa: essays in honour of JDY Peel (2005, edited by Toyin Falola).

Something more needs to be said about JDYP, the person. John’s demanding nature was checked by his compassion, understanding, and the sincere interest he had in his fellow human beings. When deadlines came raining down and duty beckoned, his mantra was “Just get on with it, man!”. But John also recognised when colleagues were unduly hard on themselves, and he counselled “Do take it easy now, man!” “One could always rely on John’s sound and proper advice”, remarked Dr Gabriele vom Bruck. For fellow West Africanist Dr. Marloes Janson, “John was indeed a tower of strength, somebody to look up to but at the same time a dear friend who gave me the feeling that my work mattered.” In face of the mounting political and bureaucratic absurdity that mires higher education, he had a proclivity for unearthing the humour in most situations. “I rarely had a conversation with John when I didn't laugh out loud”, recalled Richard Fardon. Even after retirement, John remained an active participant in the department, “central to our band”, observed David Mosse. “He continued to mentor many of us in different ways, to join our social gatherings, events, and celebrations.” Social events and celebrations had a special place in John’s calendar. All who enjoyed John’s friendship will remember, as Gabriele vom Bruck does, that “he was a generous host” and regularly opened his home to colleagues and friends from London and abroad. “He was happy to share his love of country walks, the arts, good food, and – last but not least – life!”

In 2010, John began making trips to Liberia with his future wife Anne Obigbo who had a United Nations posting in Robertsport. The following excerpt from a letter sent 6 January 2010 captures John’s irrepressible love of life:

“Now into my third week here and having a fascinating time. Following Anne on her professional forays […] It’s like having all the ethnographic doors opened for one. Weather is sweltering by 11am every day, and one feels rather drained by 7pm. Then a Kir or a cold-cold Heineken is needed to restore vitality! Living conditions simple; no A/C except in Anne's office in the little UN base (about 5 mins walk from her house) and no piped water; but electricity much more reliable than it was in Nigeria. Wonderful fish - barracuda, crabs, lobster as I haven't eaten for 30 years - and fufu, sweet potato or rice - potato-greens, rather like spinach, very nice. We munched coconut cut for us from the tree as we drove back from visiting a village some miles up a rutted bush-road yesterday afternoon. Life's been quite social.”

That same year, John was diagnosed with a melanoma. Metastases were detected again in early 2012, but treatment put the cancer into remission. That summer John corresponded, “I must say I feel generally just fine, and had a wonderful two days walking last weekend – 41 miles in all – reaching Leicester along the Grand Union Canal to my son David’s [house].” During the following years, John continued to travel, take long rambles across fells and through the English countryside, tend his magical urban garden, and delight in the company of his many friends and his family. He worked with enthusiasm on his new book Christianity, Islam and Orisa-religion, published a month after his death, and gathered material for a planned book on great French churches that hold special interest for English visitors. John and I shared a passion for architecture, and we took numerous “architectural walks” through districts of London, to National Trust properties, and in English villages. After returning from one of his travels, John wrote, “France was great: those cathedrals! I hope you got my card from Bourges. Later came the Abbaye aux Hommes (founded by William the Conqueror at Caen), a prototype for many great Norman churches here, and yesterday the stupendous cathedral at Amiens, biggest in France. Those builders were possessed!” For those who had the precious opportunity of accompanying John on a visit to an historic church, his abilities to translate the ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions on tombs and commemorative plaques and to “read” the heraldry (yet another passion of John’s) that adorns banners and is carved in stone opened new windows onto the past, and onto the people and patrons who built them.

In 2014 John married Anne, and they travelled together that year for the last time to Liberia. In 2015, the cancer spread with renewed vigour, and JDYP’s health deteriorated rapidly during the month of October. He assured those who visited during the final days that he was prepared and would depart with contentment, having lived a full and rewarding life. “By Saturday”, Richard Fardon reported to anxious fellow colleagues, “John was losing speech, and by Sunday consciousness. He would have hated to linger in that condition.” John David Yeadon Peel died on 2 November 2015, just before 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He was 11 days shy of his 74th birthday. His wife Anne survives him, along with sons David, Tim, and Francis (from John’s first marriage to Jennifer Parre), six grandchildren (each one special to John), and his three siblings.

John’s intellect, warmth, friendship and contagious joie de vivre will be deeply missed by a great many. Following a tradition popular in many parts of Africa, Marloes Janson has marked her remembrance of John by preserving the trunk of the big tree that collapsed in her garden on the same day that many of us learned of John’s rapidly deteriorating condition. Kit Davis fittingly summarised the loss that many felt, and will continue to experience for a long time to come: “John had such robustness about him and such a talent for living that I'm surprised death had the nerve.....”

i See obituary for JDY Peel, by Prof. Richard Rathbone at https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem107075.html
ii See obituary for JDY Peel, by Prof. Paul Gifford at https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem107075.html
iii George W. Stocking, Jr., 1972. Reviewed Work: Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. by J. D. Y. Peel, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Jan., 1972), pp. 769-771.
iv See obituary for JDY Peel, by Prof. Toyin Falola at https://groups.google.com/forum/m/#!topic/usaafricadialogue/0S-tK09SN4A



To cite this article:

MARCHAND, TREVOR H.J.. 2016. ‘JDY PEEL, 1941-2015’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, 7 January 2016. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/jdy-peel).