Professor Clifford Smith

Pioneer of Latin American Studies
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The Independent Online

Clifford Thorpe Smith, geographer: born Johannesburg, South Africa 11 July 1924; Assistant Lecturer in Geography, University College, Leicester 1948-51; Assistant Lecturer, then University Lecturer in Geography, Cambridge University 1951-70; Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1951-70; Professor of Latin American Geography and Director, Centre for Latin American Studies, Liverpool University 1970-82 (Emeritus); married 1949 Susan Machin (died 1973; two sons, one daughter), 1979 Jenny Orford; died Birkenhead, Merseyside 2 December 2003.

The early 1970s were, in many ways, the golden age of Area Studies in British universities, with expansion in research grants, staff numbers, and centres of expertise. As Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies and Professor of Latin American Geography at Liverpool after 1970, Clifford Smith was at the forefront of these developments, particularly through his role on the key Social Science Research Council committee on Area Studies, as well as his work specifically on Latin America.

Smith was born in Johannesburg in 1924, his parents having migrated to South Africa following the First World War. However, the family soon returned to Blackpool, where he spent most of his childhood. After a successful school career he won a scholarship to read Geography at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he studied for a year before being drafted to Bletchley Park for wartime intelligence service.

For long afterwards he said little about this experience, and, even when the first revelations about Enigma appeared and his erstwhile colleagues began to talk more openly about Bletchley, he dismissed his own role, with customary self-effacement, as involving little more than reading German pilots' complaints about their breakfast sausage.

Returning to Cambridge after the Second World War, Smith obtained a First in Geography, and lectured for three years at University College, Leicester, before returning to Cambridge, initially as Assistant Lecturer in Geography and later as University Lecturer and Fellow of St John's College. His reputation as a historical geographer grew.

He was a crucial member of the interdisciplinary research group that discovered that the Norfolk Broads, far from being some ancient landscape, were the flooded remains of medieval peat-diggings. During these years he also produced the first edition of A Historical Geography of Western Europe to 1800 (1967), a textbook that was to be consumed by generations of geography undergraduates.

By then, however, his attention had turned towards Latin America. In 1957 Unesco financed him to spend a year in Peru. He travelled the country widely, driving on very rough roads and camping in remote conditions. The paper that he delivered to the Royal Geographical Society on his return reflects him beautifully: a thorough piece of research ranging widely over key issues in Peru's development; a clear love of travelling; and the humour with which he answered a question about Andean microclimates:

The importance of diurnal freeze and thaw was brought home to me forcibly by camping one evening on what seemed a dry and well-sheltered site below a vertical cliff, until the following morning brought a steady and most uncomfortable trickle of meltwater.

Smith was one of the generation of scholars who mapped the path for Latin American Studies in the United Kingdom. His influence was felt in many directions, but he made three particularly important contributions. First, he continued his own research on the historical geography of Peru and on agrarian reform and colonisation in Peru and Venezuela; he also co-edited, with Harold Blakemore, another major textbook: Latin America: geographical perspectives (1971). Second, he was co-editor of the Journal of Latin American Studies for a decade after 1971, shaping it into one of the two leading interdisciplinary journals on Latin America in the world.

Third, after arriving in Liverpool as Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies in 1970, he negotiated a further tranche of "Parry" funding from the University Grants Committee, and, with the staff of the centre, he created an academic community that was both intellectually stimulating and one of the friendliest places to work in that one could imagine. This was almost entirely due to the affection and respect in which his colleagues and students held him.

When the first round of university-funding cuts arrived in 1981, the Centre for Latin American Studies was picked out by the UGC as worthy of retention. None the less, the future looked increasingly bleak, and in 1982 Smith decided to take early retirement, at least partly in the hope of protecting his colleagues from further cuts. This reflected the generosity that he had shown throughout the 1970s in encouraging younger staff, supporting them through personal crises, and in particular aiding refugees from Chilean authoritarianism who arrived in Liverpool after 1973.

Having remarried in 1979, he thoroughly enjoyed life after retirement. He continued to undertake research on Peru, while remaining as Chief Examiner in A-Level Geography for the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate until 1990. Thereafter he continued to examine for the International Baccalaureat. These appointments allowed him to combine his liking of travel with the need to visit centres undertaking Cambridge and IB exams overseas. Indeed, his love of travel remained with him till the end, and his last camping trip in France took place, at the age of 79, just three months before he died.

Rory Miller