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Remembering scholar John Waters, a ‘proto-digital historian’

September 20, 2018
historical photo of professor John Waters arranging books in a library caseProfessor emeritus John Waters works on the exhibit "Freedom of Choice & Academic Change: University of Rochester Innovations, 1850-1920" in Rush Rhees Library for the first Meliora Weekend event in 2001. In his 33-year career at the University, Waters earned wide recognition as a leader in new social history. (University of Rochester photo / University Archives)

Fellow historians, faculty, staff, and students are remembering John Waters, a professor emeritus of history, for his inspired teaching, energetic enthusiasm, and trailblazing approach to the history of ordinary folks. Waters, an expert on American colonial history, the American Revolution, and the Civil War and Reconstruction, died September 14, at the age of 83.

“John was a passionate and imaginative member of the history department for over 30 years, from his arrival in 1965 to his retirement in 1998,” says Stewart Weaver, a history professor and the interim department chair.

“A pioneering scholar of colonial American history, he was also a dedicated and unforgettable teacher with a keen sense of historical humor. No one could tell a story quite like John. He was as erudite as he was funny—a winning combination that made for a remarkable classroom presence.”

After earning his PhD from Columbia University in 1964, Waters began a 33-year career at Rochester, earning wide recognition as a leader in “new social history”—an approach that examines the lives of average people—and for his pioneering work in cliometrics, a method that uses computer and statistical analyses to understand historical data. He was named emeritus in 1998.

Waters’s well-received book, The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts, was considered at the cutting edge of both new social history and cliometrics when it was published in 1968, says fellow Rochesterian Michael Jarvis, an associate professor of history.

Waters stood out as “one of the most memorable colleagues in my first years here,” says Jarvis, who was born the year that Waters published the Otis book. In the book, which won the Jamestown Prize from the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, Waters rooted causes of the American Revolution in a local community setting by looking at a family central to the history of early America.

“John remained committed to finding hidden patterns and historical revelations in mundane documents, teased out through close analysis,” making him perhaps a “proto-digital historian,” says Jarvis.

The lives of ordinary people fascinated Waters. A 1993 Campus Times article about his American Classical Period class recounts Waters asking students to write a letter home to their parents—telling them about the class. Former student Marcelo Aranda, who took Waters’s class in the spring semester of 1992, wrote about the experience for the student newspaper. According to Aranda, the letter became the first assignment in lieu of an essay: an exercise of “scribbling” something down, as Waters put it, for posterity—so that future historians had something to work with. Something left behind by regular folks—not luminaries, leaders, or legends.

Through analysis of demographic information, culled from property ownership records in the New England coastal town East Guilford, Connecticut, Waters discovered that almost 40 percent of all residents in the mid 1700s were interrelated, often closely so. One out of every four families, he found, had a child who had married his or her first cousin—commonly referred to as “kissing cousins.” Waters’s findings were not just interesting to historians but also reported by national media outlets such as the Atlanta Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Jackson Citizen Patriot in Michigan.

He also compiled a list of popular baby names in East Guilford between 1693 and 1759. He found, again widely reported in US media, that the people who came originally from the English counties of Surrey and Kent had abandoned English royal and papal names in favor of biblical ones, such as Jesse, Asa, Levi, David, Samuel, John, Nathaniel, Daniel, and Josiah—in what Waters called a new “chosen-people-in-the-promised-land mentality.”

Waters was part of a first group of historians to use a computer in his research, ultimately an early practitioner of what is now known as big data research. In a 1977 article in the former Rochester Times-Union Waters describes “his favorite language—Fortran.”

No longer widely used, in the 1970s, the computer language was thoroughly new. The same went for its users.

What did Waters find with his approach?

“We have tax assessment lists in the computer, cattle, land, pigs etc. for the entire town,” Waters told the Times-Union. Ultimately, he asked himself whether there was anything on these lists which would correlate somehow to marriages—a near-impossible task before the advent of computers. Waters found the needle in the proverbial haystack. Ultimately—it all came down to cattle.

“That makes sense when you think about it. Dowries are paid in cattle,” Waters said. “Once you see their way of doing things, you get a picture of their life. This was suspected before, but now it is a confirmed fact.”

Waters is preceded in death by his twin brother, Fr. James Waters, and his ex-wife, Brenda Meehan, who was also a history professor at Rochester, and with whom he retained a life-long friendship. He is survived by their two daughters, Megan and Karen Waters, and their families.

A visitation is scheduled for Friday, September 21, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Anthony Funeral Chapels in Brighton. The funeral will take place on Saturday, September 22, at 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester.

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