Obituary: Professor Paul Wheatley

AMONG THE ex-servicemen that good fortune brought to Liverpool University at the end of the Second World War was a navigator from Squadron 150 of Bomber Command and the Pathfinder Group 205. A lean and lithe Paul Wheatley had begun his geographical studies at King's College London in 1939 and, seeking to resume them, found immediate rapport with the newly appointed occupant of the John Rankin Chair of Geography, H. C. (later Sir Clifford) Darby. In 1949, Wheatley graduated with first class honours and was immediately appointed to an assistant lectureship at University College London.

Influenced by Clifford Darby, Wheatley contributed on Staffordshire to The Domesday Geography of England (1954), and he might well have continued to work on the historical geography of England. Instead he turned his attention to South-East Asia and China and, although this new direction chimed well with the department at University College, where area studies were being actively promoted, he moved to the University of Malaya (Singapore) in 1952.

Here he rapidly developed his research interests in the region, stirred the Department of Geography to action, founded the Journal of Tropical Geography and renewed contact with his erstwhile Liverpool acquaintance C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson, recently appointed Professor of History, was an authority on the commercial history of South-East Asia, a topic of direct interest to Wheatley. The Golden Khersonese: studies in the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula before AD 1500 (1961) and more than a dozen cognate research papers are a lasting testament to the Singapore years.

Wheatley moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1958 as Professor of Geography and History, two years later taking on the chairmanship of the Centre for South-East Asian Studies. At Berkeley, he found a kindred spirit in the geographer and historian of ideas Clarence Glacken. During his years at Berkeley Wheatley became increasingly interested in the relationships between social structures, religion and urban origins, and in this context he began to explore Chinese sources. He was in the midst of his second - and most influential - monograph, The Pivot of the Four Quarters: a preliminary enquiry into the origins and character of the ancient Chinese city (1971), when in 1966 he accepted an invitation to return to University College London.

Wheatley had an immediate impact upon the college community with his inaugural lecture, City as Symbol (published in 1969), and he followed this with a definitive paper on "the concept of urbanism" which was published in Man, Settlement and Urbanism (1972). As graduate tutor in the Geography Department, Wheatley made a deep impression. He brought to bear the critical standards of the Berkeley school and introduced theoretical concepts to the established empirical traditions of the department. He became something of a geographical guru - and still found time to serve on the editorial boards of half a dozen journals.

There was dismay at University College when Wheatley was invited in 1971 to accept a chair at the University of Chicago. Six years later, he was named Irving B. Harris Professor and Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, a research appointment which lasted until his retirement in 1991. To chair for so long this diverse and distinguished "committee of prima donnas" was a signal achievement. During his chairmanship he published Nagara and Commandery: origins of the South-East Asian urban tradition (1983), wrote jointly with Thomas See From Court to Capital: a tentative interpretation of the origins of the Japanese urban tradition (1978) and edited with a friend from University College days, Kernial Singh Sandhu, the two- volume Melaka: the transformation of a Malay capital c1400-1980 (1983).

Shortly before his death Wheatley had completed the manuscript of The Places where Men Pray Together: cities in Islamic lands, seventh-tenth centuries, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2000.

Wheatley was a man of ideas, of exacting standards and often of forceful expression. He was the first British geographer to explore sources in Chinese and Arabic as well as in English for the historical geography of South-East Asia and the Arab world. Only the grand thesis was good enough for him. A belief in the value of a comparative world view and an inter-disciplinary approach inspired his lifelong exploration of urbanism and his conviction that the emergence of the city was a turning point in the history of human society.

W. R. Mead and D. R. Harris

Paul Wheatley, geographer: born Stroud, Gloucestershire 11 October 1921; Professor of Geography and History, University of California at Berkeley 1958-66; Professor of Geography, University College London 1966-71; Professor of Geography and History, University of Chicago 1971-77, Irving B. Harris Professor and Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought 1977-91 (Emeritus); married 1957 Margaret Ashworth (two sons); died Porter, Indiana 30 October 1999.