Neil Whitehead, a professor and chair of UW-Madison’s Department of Anthropology, died Thursday March 22 from a sudden illness. He was 56 years old.
Originally from England, he received four degrees from Oxford University before accepting a job offer from UW-Madison in 1993.
In his classes, students found him as eccentric as he was captivating.
“Undergrads loved him because he was so charismatic, dynamic. When you heard Neil talk, you were enchanted. He had such a brilliant mind, and was such a big person,” said Erika Robb Larkins, a recent UW-Madison graduate student in a university press release.
In a February interview with the Daily Cardinal, Whitehead acknowledged students thought he was memorable.
“Kids get a kick out of a strange English professor,” he joked.
Whitehead was most widely known for his work on violence and shamanism. In his 2003 book “Dark Shamans,” he chronicles his ethnography of the Kanaima, shamanistic Amerindians in Guyana, and tries to comprehend their reasons for violently killing sought-out victims.
As he became more devoted to understanding Kanaima, he put himself more at risk of being a victim of Kanaima itself. Although he was poisoned on his first trip to Guyana in 1993, he returned twice more.
“It’s very important to use your education … to not shy away from the most unpleasant and unpalatable topics because if we don’t think about them, we can never solve them,” he said.
Stoically reflecting on his work, he emphasized the need to be skeptical of viewing the world in one way.
“There’s never one story, but whose story gets told, by who, and who gets to hear it. That’s what produces a historical truth,” Whitehead said. “Life has become nothing but field work, one constant ethnography.”
He is survived by his wife, Theresa, and their four children, Luke, Florence, Rose and Natalie.
There will be a memorial service held to commemorate his life at Governor Nelson State Park at 3 p.m on March 28.