An innovator of history

Professor emeritus at USP, José Sebastião Witter was a pioneer in studies of soccer

Witter:  “I have always been a good teacher. I learned to teach by giving classes in primary and secondary schools”

Eduardo CesarWitter: “I have always been a good teacher. I learned to teach by giving classes in primary and secondary schools”Eduardo Cesar

Historian José Sebastião Witter, professor emeritus at the USP Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), passed away on July 7, 2014 at age 81, in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo. Witter graduated from FFLCH-USP with a major in history, and his advisor for his master’s degree and PhD was department chair Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, who he served as assistant.

As an expert on Brazilian history, over the course of his career, Witter published 15 books and numerous chapters in collective works and articles in specialized journals.  He also wrote about cultural topics. Witter’s research topics included German immigration, the founding of the first republican party, historical archives – and soccer. He headed the São Paulo State Public Archives from 1977 to 1987, the Institute of Brazilian Studies (USP) from 1990 to 1994 and the Paulista Museum (USP), better known as the Ipiranga Museum, from 1994 to 1999.

José de Souza Martins, Witter’s friend and colleague as well as professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP and member of the FAPESP Board of Trustees, told Agência FAPESP that “Witter was an exceptional innovator in the field to which he dedicated his life. He introduced something new into the culture of every institution he served in, working tirelessly for modernization and always taking on projects, without being held hostage to adversaries. He was also an innovative author and a pioneer in academic studies of soccer.”

Witter taught at a public school in Mogi das Cruzes and majored in history at USP with assistance from a special program established in the 1940s. This assistance allowed teachers who passed the USP entrance exam to take a leave of absence to enroll in a university-level course of study in their chosen field. Between the time he received his teaching degree and the time he was hired by the History Department at the invitation of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Witter taught in public schools, as mentioned in a Pesquisa FAPESP interview in June 2006. “I have always been a good teacher; I have no false modesty. I learned to teach by giving classes at the primary and secondary level,” he said.

In the 1970s, his innovation was the first academic treatment of soccer. As a professor in the FFLCH History Department, he taught the first course in the history of soccer at USP. Later, he organized works such as Futebol e cultura (Soccer and Culture), in cooperation with José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, and he wrote O que é futebol e Breve história do futebol brasileiro (About Soccer and a Brief History of Brazilian Soccer). In addition to this coursework, he always taught Brazilian colonial, imperial and republican history at the undergraduate level.

Witter worked to preserve and protect documentary collections and to upgrade historical archives. “He was a master of an innovative concept to protect and disseminate documentary collections, and he was very much responsible for the major improvement in the conditions for performing historical research in São Paulo State. Without him, we would, to a great extent, still have only the modest research conditions found here in the 1950s,” José de Souza Martins said.