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Peter Fay Oral History Interview with Shirley K. Cohen

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000073


  • Other: 2016 February 17


Interview in April 1997 with Peter Ward Fay, professor of history, emeritus, in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Fay, an authority on India and China, received a BA from Harvard in 1947 and from Oxford in 1949. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1954 and joined the Caltech faculty as an assistant professor in 1955. He discusses growing up in Cambridge, Mass., in a musical family; both parents were pianists. Early education at Browne & Nichols [now Buckingham Browne & Nichols] and Deerfield. Matriculated at Harvard in 1941, where he joined ROTC; called up in June 1943; Officer Candidate School, second lieutenant in field artillery at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. In February 1945, he was sent to the Italian front north of Florence, had six weeks of active service. He stayed in Italy for a year and then returned to Harvard as a senior, majoring in history. Rhodes scholar, 1947 to 1949, at Balliol College in Oxford; returned for a year of graduate work at Harvard, then spent a third year on the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, doing research on his PhD thesis on the rural constabulary. He was an instructor at Williams College 1951-1954 before joining the Humanities Division at Caltech. Recollections of the division chairman, Hallett Smith, his colleagues Alan Sweezy and David Elliot, and the humanities curriculum. He recalls the advent of social sciences, the friction within the division at the time, and the chairmanship of Robert Huttenback. Discusses the genesis of his research while at Williams; his interest in modern European history and in the Opium War; his visit to India, 1964-1966, resulting in publication of The Opium War 1840-1842 (1975, University of North Carolina Press; 1976, W. W. Norton). Recalls the research in India that produced The Forgotten Army: India's Armed Struggle for Independence 1942-1945 (1993, University of Michigan Press). Recalls his work on Caltech's Admissions Committee and his establishment of the "Introduction to Asia" course in Freshman humanities curriculum. Recruiting of historian/anthropologist Nicholas Dirks and the building up of Asian studies. Concludes by discussing the challenges in getting science students interested in history and his disapproval of the growing specialization in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.

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