Mark Finlay, 1960-2013

Today I learned through the scholarly grapevine, specifically from my colleague Audra Wolfe, that historian Mark Finlay was killed last week in a car accident.  My heart goes out to his family.  Details can be found here and here.

I’m sure Mark was missed this weekend in Portland, Maine, at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, where he might have attended the “envirotech” breakfast. Some years ago, at a similar meeting, that’s where I met Mark.  Personally, since then, I’ve always been glad to see him.  We walked in many of the same circles and shared lots of interests in history of science, environmental history, history of technology, and international relations.  Someone recently asked me to recommend an accomplished scholar with expertise relevant to all these fields, and Mark’s was the name that sprung to mind.  His prize-winning Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and Politics of National Security united all of them.

In addition to being an accomplished scholar, Mark was a genuinely nice person who was always fun to spend time with.  I’m sure that I speak for many others when I say that he was the ideal pub-mate at academic conferences: quick-witted, friendly, and with a wide range of historical interests.  And he was everywhere, not confining his interests to a single discipline or to a single scholarly community.  I remember once saying, “Mark, where did we meet? Lisbon?”  and he responded “No, Copenhagen!”  which made us seem worldly indeed.  We shared many laughs, on one continent or another.

Mark also was generous with his time, and I benefited from that when he agreed to participate in a roundtable discussion on early American agriculture for H-Environment.  Throughout that process he was so conscientious, trying to make sure that he was helpful and positive while also being analytical and critical.  I’m sure this was a habit he honed after all the time spent as book review editor for Agricultural History.

I saw Mark last month in Atlanta.  I was doing research at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, in what seemed to be a lonely research room.  And in walked Mark.  I don’t know who was more surprised, him or me!  We chatted about all manner of things, including the concert he was about to see with some friends in Atlanta before making the long journey back home.  But he was really animated about what had happened the previous day.  He pulled out his iPad and showed me, with no small amount of delight, a photograph of himself sitting down to lunch with Jimmy Carter.  He had managed to arrange the lunch conversation because of his recent project on coastal Georgia and Ossabaw island.  Ever the scholar, Mark started telling me about all the additional questions he wished he had asked the former president!

Thinking back to that final encounter, it’s hard to imagine that Mark would only live another month.  Yet it’s also comforting to think that Mark was clearly happy: about to go see some live music, having just met a former president, and geeking out about both with a fellow geek/historian in an archive reading room.  The memory makes me smile.

I’d like to express my sincere condolences to his family as we mourn the loss of a colleague and friend. Rest in peace, Mark.

2 responses to “Mark Finlay, 1960-2013”

  1. Jake, Thank you writing a fine tribute to a wonderful human being and scholar. I am still in shock after reading your blog. Aside from being a first rate historian Mark was first and foremost a good man and all who knew him will feel his absence. I saw him earlier his year at ASEH attending his Georgia coastal paper and we had a long chat afterwards. I would like to covey my condolences to his wife and family.


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