Donald Quataert, distinguished professor of history, dies
February 15, 2011Tweet
Donald Quataert, 69, distinguished professor of history, died at his home Thursday, Feb. 10, following a battle with prostate cancer. Quataert joined Binghamton University in 1986 and was promoted to the rank of distinguished professor in 2009. Quataert, who earned his PhD in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, established an international reputation as a scholar of Ottoman economic, labor and social history.
A pioneer in archival research in Ottoman history, Quataert brought the stories of peasants and commoners to life, providing valuable perspective that had previously been ignored. He called it “writing history from below” because it was not about sultans, policy makers or the elite, but rather about the history of the peasants and their contributions.
Quataert spoke about history from below when he gave the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in November 2010 – a lecture he ranked in importance with the one he gave as part of his 1986 job interview at Binghamton. He summed up his remarks by suggesting that we think about giving more attention to history from below. “When you study people like coal miners, it doesn’t have to be a narrow study of that particular community, but it can be a total history of that society at a given moment and it will recover a past that will otherwise probably be forgotten and lost,” he said.
A prolific writer, Quataert’s publication record includes The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, a widely used textbook in its second edition that has been translated into Turkish, Greek, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic and Italian.
When asked what Quataert was most proud of in his life, his wife, Jean, professor of history at Binghamton University, said the answer is complicated, depending upon whether it pertained to his professional or personal life.
“Donald came from a very poor background and he was extremely proud of the work that he did,” she said. “He was a lover of life with a huge amount of enthusiasm and curiosity. He loved the kind of history he taught, his impact in the field, giving the distinguished lecture – they were all very important to him.”
Much of what he was proud of “centered on education and the sharing of education and knowledge,” she added. “That extended to his love of travel and of birds.”
However, a recent phone conversation with his son was also an indicator of what he held dear. “His eyes sparkled when he got off the phone,” she said. Family was so important to him. “He was very proud of the fact that he gave a wonderful obituary for his own mother, who had an eighth-grade education, and who supported his intellectual work.”
Quataert’s colleagues and students spoke of his passion and enthusiasm for his work and for life. John Chaffee, distinguished service professor of history and Asian and Asian American Studies, chaired the search committee when Quataert was interviewed in 1986. “Don was the clear choice,” Chaffee said. “He was easily the most qualified person in the pool.
“Don was really a world-class historian and he built up the Ottoman history program quietly over time with more and more outstanding students,” Chaffee added. “He also played a very important leadership role in the History Department in terms of moving toward a more global perspective and into non-Western history. He and Jean were pioneers in creating a world history course that is now one of the department’s mainstays.”
Nancy Appelbaum, associate professor and chair of history, said Quataert was the first person she met at Binghamton. He was the chair of her hiring committee and picked her up at the airport after an exhausting trip.
“He picked me up with bags of chocolate covered raisins and snacks to bolster my spirits,” she said.
“His enthusiasm motivated me to do the best job that I could at the interviews,” she added. “He’s the reason I’m here. He was one of the best things about Binghamton—very passionate and very well respected by everyone.”
As a new graduate student from Turkey in 2008, Irfan Kokdas was asked by Quataert what he termed a deceptively simple question: “You came from the other side of the Atlantic and were already engaged in issues of Ottoman historiography, but what is your problématique in your research?”
Quataert was a patient, yet exuberant teacher and mentor for Kokdas and many others, inviting them to his home, opening his private library to them and guiding them through their studies.
“He indefatigably tried to ignite my passion to ask questions rather than to give static/idealistic descriptions regarding the lives of ordinary people, workings of the state and social change in the Ottoman world,” said Kokdas, who added that Quataert “always brought energy, optimism and an infectious love of original research to our intellectually stimulating meetings in his office; and while reading Ottoman archival documents or discussing his last project on the 19th-century Ottoman kaymakam, it was impossible not to see enthusiasm in his eyes.”
Quataert even offered Kokdas ‘‘critical’’ tips for choosing wine on a romantic date and gave him invaluable information on bird types. With a common interest in tennis, Quataert also “suddenly became my guru in tennis though we could never agree on which grand slam tournament is the best.”
A former graduate student, David Gutman, recalled his first meeting with Quataert, who took him to lunch at the Park Diner, a place they returned to frequently during his years at Binghamton. “Throughout the visit, his kindness and warmth never flagged,” said Gutman. “Despite being a world-renowned scholar at the top of his field, he never condescended to a very green prospective graduate student, only one year removed from undergraduate school. Rather, his genuine interest and enthusiasm put me instantly at ease. I knew after that first visit that Professor Quataert would be both an excellent and caring advisor.”
Quataert is survived by his wife, Jean, son Eliot and Eliot’s wife Bethany Hoffman, four sisters and brothers-in-law, three brothers and two sisters-in-law, and many nieces and nephews. Donations can be made in his name to the Don and Jean Quataert Research Grant at Binghamton University through the Binghamton University Foundation, P.O. Box 6005, Binghamton, NY 13902-6005. There will be a celebratory memorial service in April.