Start a Profile  Forgot Password
Close this search box.

Joel Colton, Class of 1933

Joel Colton, Who Kept History Current for 50 Years, Dies at 92

Reprinted from The New York Times, April 21, 2011


Joel Colton, a historian who for over 50 years helped regularly update a textbook that has introduced generations of college students to modern history, died Sunday at his home in Durham, N. C. He was 92.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Kenneth.

The textbook, “A History of the Modern World,” was written in 1950 by the Princeton historian R. R. Palmer and published by Knopf. Dr. Colton, a professor at Duke University, collaborated with Dr. Palmer on the next nine editions. About 2 million copies have been sold.

McGraw-Hill, the current publisher, said the textbook has been translated into 10 languages and has been used in more than 1,000 colleges, universities and high schools. The 10th edition was published in 2006 with a third contributor, Lloyd Kramer. In 1987, The New York Times included it on a list of 19 textbooks considered classics in their field.

Despite high sales and accolades, some readers bemoaned the book’s dense prose and considerable heft (about four pounds). Dr. Colton was quick to defend it.

“It’s both scholarly and readable,” he told The Times in 2002. “It was never intended to be only a textbook. It was meant to be a book to be read.”

Joel G. Colton was born on Aug. 23, 1918, in the Bronx. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from City College in 1937 and a master’s in history from Columbia in 1940, but his studies were interrupted by service in the Army.

Dr. Colton began teaching at Duke in 1947 and completed his doctorate in history at Columbia in 1950. He published his first book, “Compulsory Labor Arbitration in France,” in 1951. He followed it with the biography “Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics” in 1966 and “The Twentieth Century,” part of Time-Life’s “Great Ages of Man,” series in 1968.

He was the chairman of Duke’s history department from 1967 to 1974, when he left to serve as director for humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. He returned to Duke in 1982 and retired in 1989.

His wife, Shirley, died in 2003. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Valerie Woodbury, and five grandchildren.