Pier Larson, professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of History and
renowned scholar of African history, died of a heart attack on Saturday, July 25,
2020. He was 58.
Pier was the beloved husband of Michelle Boardman; devoted father of Anthony
Larson of Houston, Texas; loving son of Jean Larson (nee Slocum) of St. Paul,
Minnesota and the late Milton Larson; cherished brother of Nordeen Larson
(Arlene Libby) of Seattle, Washington, Carolyn Larson (Jan Tenbruggencate), of
Lihue, Hawaii and Maren Larson (Ying Liu) of State College, Pennsylvania. He
was the dear uncle of Milan and Frank Liu and of Van, Sophie, and Cooper
Born in Paris, Pier grew up in Madagascar. He was the son of American educators
who ran the American School in Fort Dauphin. The beaches and landscape of
southern Madagascar were the land he called home. He came to the United States
in 1980 for university training. Pier earned a B.A. in History from the University
of Minnesota in 1985 and a Ph.D. in African History from the University of
Wisconsin--Madison, in 1992. Author of two books and many articles, his
interests revolved around Africa in world history.
Pier’s life was marked by an insatiable curiosity about the world around him.
When he was not busy traveling for work to Europe, Africa, the Indian Ocean,
Australia, and throughout the U.S., he traveled with his wife. They shared a love of
the American southwest, were married in 2005 in Algodones, New Mexico, and
hiked throughout the national parks of Utah, Arizona, and Texas. Pier was a
marvelous cook with the remarkable ability to whip up a fantastic meal with
whatever lay on hand. He had a ready smile for all those around him and an
infectious laugh. In the days before each of his yearly trips to Madagascar, his wife
would hear him happily singing in Malagasy while in the shower. Throughout
Pier’s life, he captured his loved ones and his travels through photography; many
of the photographs shown here were taken by Pier himself.
In his academic work, Pier specialized in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean
islands, focusing on social, cultural, and intellectual history in the early modern
period. His teaching and research revolved around 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.
"Behind Pier Larson's quiet and modest demeanor stood a prodigious intellect and
a deep commitment to Johns Hopkins, where he was a devoted teacher and
mentor," says Peter Jelavich, professor and chair in the Department of History.
"Above all, he was consummately cosmopolitan: equally at home in the United
States, France, and Madagascar, with prodigious linguistic abilities, he bridged
cultures with ease, at the same time that he understood and appreciated their
differences. This truly humanistic attitude allowed him to uncover hitherto
unperceived connections among peoples and cultures in the past—and it guided his
life in the present."
His experience of growing up in Madagascar laid the groundwork for his academic
interest in, and deep personal understanding of, the people, languages, and culture
of that island, says Jelavich. His scholarship was based on extensive research in
archives throughout Europe, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean, and he was known
for his extensive use of Malagasy documents as well as interviews with local
His first book, History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina
in Highland Madagascar, 1770-1822 (2000), examined the impact of the slave
trade on the politics, society, and culture of central Madagascar. His prize-winning
second book, Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean
Diaspora (2009), which was an extensive study of the Malagasy diaspora on the
southwestern Indian Ocean islands as well as along the eastern coast of Africa
from the 17th through the 19th centuries, opened up new vistas on the cultural and
linguistic complexity of those areas.
Larson was working on two ground-breaking book projects. One was a history of
the state and bureaucracy of the Kingdom of Antananarivo (central Madagascar)
from the 1820s to the 1860s, which promised to be the first history of that kingdom
based primarily on its own archives rather than foreign sources. The other explored
France's Indian Ocean empire from 1750 to 1850 through the lens of a single
family over many generations: based on Mauritius, the family of Malagasy women
and French men conducted commerce spanning Madagascar, the Mascarene
islands, and St. Helena.
Peter Jelavich describes Pier’s work in the history department this way: "he played
a central role in teaching African history, as he inspired generations of
undergraduates and mentored a large cohort of doctoral students. He also
contributed to the Krieger School more generally, as executive board member of
Africana Studies, as director of International Studies, and as vice dean of
humanities and social sciences. He was responsible for many initiatives, such as
acquiring the first Foreign Language and Area Studies grants, which have allowed
dozens of Hopkins students to acquire language and cultural competence training
throughout the globe. He also provided generous service to the historical
profession in the United States, France, and Madagascar."
Michael Kwass, professor in the Department of History, describes Larson's love for
working in Africa and Europe, where he collaborated with colleagues from around
the world. Last spring, he was the inaugural fellow in a new exchange program
between Krieger's history department and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences
Sociales in Paris, France's premier research institute in the social sciences.
In addition to his scholarship and teaching, Larson was a valued mentor. "Less
visible than all his hard work on committees and in the dean's office but equally
important was his commitment to mentoring junior faculty and graduate students,"
Kwass adds. "He read their work assiduously, offered valuable feedback, and
guided them steadily through the labyrinth of the academic profession. As chair of
History, I relied on him for sage advice about the inner workings of the university."
He continues: "Pier was a brilliant, conscientious, and highly principled colleague.
His loss is unfathomable. His colleagues in the history department, across the
Krieger School, and throughout the world will miss him dearly."
He came to Hopkins in 1998 as assistant professor after serving as assistant
professor in the Department of History at the Pennsylvania State University and
visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at Stanford University. He
was named associate professor in 2003, and professor in 2008. He served as
visiting professor at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Madagascar, Antananarivo;
and as director of the Krieger School's International Studies Program in 2013-14.
Among other awards, he received the Wesley-Logan Book Prize in African
Diaspora History from The American Historical Association (2010); a Johns
Hopkins Kenan Grant for Innovative Teaching (1999 and 2005); a Charles A.
Ryskamp Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies
(2003); and a Fellowship for University Teachers from the National Endowment
for the Humanities, Division of Research (2003).
Please visit the Guest Book below and leave a Tribute to Pier Martin Larson. We would love to hear your memories, see your pictures, and read your kind words.
Gifts in support of graduate work in African Studies may be made in Pier's memory to the
Johns Hopkins Department of History.
select “Department, Center, or Institute” from the drop-down menu, and specify “History in memory of Pier Larson.”
The gallery below is a tribute to Pier Martin Larson from his family and friends.
Please select an image to view it within the gallery.