Montana State University

MSU historian wins Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct global study on asbestos poisoning

April 12, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Brett Walker is one of 175 scholars, artists and scientists across the nation to win a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - A Montana State University historian who is a world-renowned expert in Japanese environmental history has received a $48,000 fellowship that will allow him to pursue a global project on asbestos.

Regents' Professor Brett Walker was one of 175 scholars, artists and scientists across the nation to win a 2013 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He and D. Graham Burnett of Princeton University were the only fellows in the "History of Science, Technology and Economics" category.

In the midst of checking emails from students this week, "I got a piece of good news," Walker said.

Nicol Rae, dean of MSU's College of Letters and Science, said, "I'm very proud of Professor Walker. This adds to his long list of scholarly achievements and brings credit to the college and the Department of History and Philosophy. Brett is a stellar faculty member."

Walker applied for the fellowship by writing a proposal titled, "The Slow Dying: Asbestos and the Unmaking of the Modern World." Winning the fellowship will allow him to pursue a project that will look at the possibility of global poisoning as industrial infrastructures around the world are destroyed by terrorism, war or natural disasters, or begin to decay, Walker said. The poisoning could relate to the World Trade Towers' destruction in 2001, the tsunami that struck northeast Japan in 2011 or basically a century of industrial infrastructure that is slowly decaying.

The fellowship will help fund travel to Turkey, South Africa, Russia, Quebec and Japan where he will examine archives, conduct interviews and carry out other field work, Walker said. The project will also involve Libby, Mont., and other locations in the United States.

He will incorporate his findings in the classes he teaches in the MSU Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Walker said. He hopes it might dovetail with projects in the Institute on Ecosystems at MSU. He expects it will lead him to expand his asbestos research to related projects, such as the effects of moving materials containing asbestos across national borders.

In addition to teaching and conducting research, Walker is currently working on a textbook commissioned as part of a series by Cambridge University Press. He hopes to finish the book - titled "A Concise History of Japan" - this summer. In the past, he has written books titled, "Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan" and "The Lost Wolves of Japan." He has investigated ancient and modern Japanese mines in collaboration with MSU historian Timothy LeCain.

Walker served five years as head of MSU's Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies. The Montana Board of Regents named him a Regents' Professor of History in 2008.

Walker, 46, was born in Bozeman to MSU graduates Nelson Walker and Linda Harbers. He spent most of his summers growing up on a family wheat and barley farm near Cascade. It belongs to his aunt and uncle and MSU graduates Lee and Sue Belote. Every year when the family left the farm to return to San Francisco and other cities where his father's work took them, Walker said he vowed to himself, "I have got to get back."

He was thrilled when a job in Japanese history opened up at MSU and allowed him to return full-time to Montana 14 years ago, Walker said.

Walker taught at Yale University before coming to MSU, and he has had the opportunity to return there to teach. He has also received other job offers from Stanford University, Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota, but Walker said he has strong loyalties to Bozeman, Montana and MSU.

Walker's Guggenheim Fellowship is the fourth for MSU. Two were won by art professors Eric Hongisto and Deborah Butterfield. Hongisto won his in 2005, and Butterfield won hers in 1980.  James Hubert Pepper won his in 1947. He was a professor, former chairman of the Department of Zoology and Entomology, and one of the founders of the MSU Foundation.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu