The Telegraph has a fine obit of a man I’d never heard of and am glad to know about, Gene Smith, “long regarded as the most knowledgeable of all Western scholars of Tibet and as the person who almost single-handedly ensured the survival of Tibetan literature after the Chinese invasion in 1950.” I’ll let you read about his remarkable work of finding and copying manuscripts there (“As a sideline Smith wrote introductions to the copied texts which far outstripped existing Western knowledge of Tibetan literary history and rapidly acquired cult status among academics”); here I’ll just quote this bit about his education in languages:

He was formidably intelligent as well as enterprising, and went on to study at small colleges in the north-west of the United States and at the University of Utah before turning to Asian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1960. There, studying with Deshung Rinpoche and other masters who had escaped from Tibet, he became fluent in both colloquial and classical Tibetan.
In 1964 he travelled to Leiden in Holland for advanced studies in Sanskrit and Pali (the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures) before winning the fellowship from the Ford Foundation which enabled him to go to India a year later.
Professionally, Smith was a librarian, and after leaving the New Delhi office of the Library of Congress in 1985, he went on to serve with it in Jakarta (1985-94) and in Cairo (1994-97), becoming expert in Indonesian and Egyptian cultures too (he was said to have been able to read in 32 languages).

(Thanks, Paul.)


  1. I happened to read a reminiscence of Smith on another blog recently.

  2. Thanks, that’s a great story.

  3. That’s a fascinating obit. I wonder whether the last decade or so of Telegraph obits forms some sort of golden age.

  4. Wad he by any chance a relative of Canned Smith? Then there would be continuity between this post of LH and the preceding one.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    When I worked in the Seeley Mudd Library at Yale (1985-87), there was a forlorn corner of the still largely-empty basement with a couple shelves full of such Tibetan “dpe cha”, stamped “P.L. 480,” which must have been among the fruits of Smith’s import-export business. Perhaps (per the other story linked by Tim May) they subsequently graduated to the Beinecke’s collection. That half of the basement — unlike the other half, in which I dutifully shelved the newly-issued bureaucratic publications of various foreign/international entities (e.g., Statistics Canada) as soon as they had been catalogued — seemed like sort of a miscellaneous and never-visited lumber room for things that otherwise had no home and weren’t particularly sought after. (There was another shelf full of the fancy paperwork evidencing honorary degrees issued to Kingman Brewster over the decades.) I knew nothing of either the Tibetan language or the script, but the books were very cool just as artifacts, and I should be glad if they now are actually doing someone some good in a more accessible location within the university’s collections.

  6. I thought it was the (late) Hugh Montgomery Massingberd ones that were supposed to be the golden age, dearie?

  7. Good point, AJP. But they still seem very fine to me. Perhaps all the best golden ages survive their founder for a bit.

  8. It is also the nature of obituaries to sit around for in filing cabinets until the subject ceases their unreasonable insistence on staying alive. So we may still be getting back-issues, for all I know.
    (Dutch krants and ‘bladets rarely have necrologie’s, and when they do they are rarely suggestive of golden ages past or present.)

  9. John Emerson says

    A people without obituaries? Someone must call the anthropologists!

  10. Trond Engen says

    Old Dutchmen never die. They just fly way.

  11. Trond Engen says


  12. Is “Dutchman” still correct? It’s not “Netherlander” or something similar?

  13. Person of Lowth.

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