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Pier M. Larson, Johns Hopkins University history professor and renowned scholar of African history, dies

Pier M. Larson was a champion on international studies.
Pier M. Larson was a champion on international studies.

Pier M. Larson, a longtime Johns Hopkins University professor and renowned scholar of African history who specialized in the history and culture of Madagascar and Indian Ocean islands, died of a heart attack July 25 at Union Memorial Hospital. The Radnor-Winston resident was 58.

“It’s an enormous loss for his colleagues and Hopkins,” said Dr. Michael Kwass, a history professor at Hopkins. “He was an extremely dependable and helpful colleague who showed me the ropes when I came to Hopkins in 2011. For the last three years I have been department chair, and I regularly consulted with Pier because knew Hopkins inside and out and was widely regarded by undergraduate and graduate students.”

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“Pier was a distinctive combination of having high standards for his graduate students but was also an incredibly humane person who cared deeply about his students,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Thornberry, a Hopkins Africanist who specializes in the history of law, gender and sexuality in South Africa.

“Pier’s reputation as a scholar can not be overstated, and he did a lot of important work,” said Professor Thornberry, a Wyman Park resident. “As an historian of South Africa, he did incredibly detailed archival work and he was able to combine their culture and the way they saw their world and reconstruct that world. In pre-colonial Madagascar he studied governance, and family and religious networks.”

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Pier Martin Larson, son of Milton Nordeen Larson, a boarding school principal, and his wife, Jean Mae Slocum Larson, an educator, was born in Paris and raised in Madagascar, where his parents were also missionaries.

As he was growing in Madagascar, Professor Larson steeped himself in the history, culture and people of the Indian Ocean island, which in turn became his life’s work.

Professor Larson earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1985 from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in African history from the University of Wisconsin in 1987 and 1992, respectively.

Before coming to Hopkins in 1998 as an assistant professor, he served in a similar capacity in the history department at Pennsylvania State University and also as a visiting professor in Stanford University’s history department.

Professor Larson was named associate professor in 2003 and professor in 2008. He also served as a visiting professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Madagascar, Antananarivo; and as director of the Krieger School’s International Studies Program in 2013-2014.

In addition to serving as acting vice dean for the humanities and social sciences, Professor Larson was director of the International Studies Program in 2013-2014, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee on Budget and Strategic Planning in 2012-2013, a member of the Homewood academic council in 2010-2011, and an executive board member of The Center for African Studies in 2003-2013.

Professor Larson’s academic work centered on the social, cultural and intellectual history in the early modern period of Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands, while his teaching and research focused on the history of East and southern Africa, Madagascar and the Francophone islands of the Western Indian Ocean, slavery, literacy, religion and the history of the French empire.

His first book, “History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina in Highland Madagascar, 1770-1800,” published in 2000, examined the impact of the slave trade on the politics, society and culture of central Madagascar.

Professor Larson’s second book, “Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora,” published in 2009, was an extensive study of the Malagasy diaspora on the southwestern Indian Ocean islands, which also included the eastern coast of Africa between the 17th and 19th centuries.

“These were two hugely important books for which he was widely honored, and he contributed to the field in so many ways,” Professor Thornberry said. “He had grown up in Madagascar and had studied its people and brought them to the attention of the world.”

At his death, he was working on two other books, the first a history of the state and bureaucracy of the Kingdom of Antananarivo, in central Madagascar, from the 1820s through the 1860s. It was to be the first history of that kingdom to be researched from its own archives rather than foreign sources.

The second book examined France’s Indian Ocean empire from 1750 to 1850, told through the “lens of a single family over many generations: based on Mauritius, the family — comprising Malagasy women and French men — conducted commerce spanning Madagascar, the Mascarene islands and St. Helena,” according to a Hopkins profile of Professor Larson.

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“Pier loved deep archival work, and he cared about evidence and getting it right,” said Professor Kwass, a Roland Park resident. “He didn’t speculate; he came to conclusions after giving them a lot of thought.”

Last spring, Professor Larson was the inaugural fellow in a new exchange program between Krieger’s history department and the Ecole des hautes études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France’s premier research institute in the social sciences.

“I spoke with him regularly while he was abroad and could tell how happy he was to be collaborating with French colleagues on numerous projects while conducting research for his own books,” Dr. Kwass said in the Hopkins profile. “He cultivated professional ties across the globe, and his own work was — and will remain — widely admired abroad. He was a world-class scholar of great renown.”

As a champion of international studies, Professor Larson played an instrumental role in securing Hopkins’ first Foreign Language and Area Studies grant in 2015 as well as its renewal last year. During the last five years, the grant has disbursed $1.5 million in funding to students studying foreign languages.

In addition to French, Professor Larson was fluent in Malagasy, Kif in Swahili, and Norwegian.

Professor Larson, who had not retired at his death, was a world traveler.

“Pier was truly a citizen of the world who was perfectly comfortable Europe and Africa,” Professor Kwass said. “He was never happier than when he was traveling.”

When not teaching, researching and writing, he liked to canoe and ride his bike around the loop trail at the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. He was also an accomplished gourmet cook who had a preference for French cuisine.

A virtual memorial service for Professor Larson will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday through the following link: http://rememberingpiermartinlarson.cm/

He is survived by his wife of 15 years, Michelle Laura Boardman, director of social marketing at the Institute for Innovation and Implementation at the University of Maryland School of Social Work; a son, Anthony Jule Larson of Houston; his mother, Jean Mae Larson of St. Paul, Minnesota; a brother, Nordeen Larson of Seattle; two sisters, Carolyn Larson of Lihue, Hawaii, and Maren Larson of State College, Pennsylvania; and several nieces and nephews.

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