Edwin S. Munger dies at 88; longtime Caltech geography professor and Africa expert

Edwin S. Munger, a longtime geography professor at Caltech whose specialty was Africa and race relations on the continent, has died. He was 88.

Munger died June 15 of prostate cancer at his home in Pasadena, said his wife, Ann.

A visiting lecturer at Caltech during the 1950s who became a professor there in 1961, Munger made more than 100 trips to Africa, his wife said. During his years there he worked with the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department and was the first Fulbright Fellow in Africa.

“He was really a human geographer,” said Thayer Scudder, a Caltech professor emeritus in anthropology. “He was interested in people, and Africa was in ferment .... He loved to travel — that’s what geographers are supposed to do.”

Edwin Stanton Munger was born Nov. 19, 1921, in LaGrange, Ill., the son of Royal Munger, a journalist, and Mia Stanton Munger. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate, all in geography, from the University of Chicago.

Munger, known as Ned to friends, first traveled to Africa in 1947, a trip financed by playing poker during a stint in the Army, his wife said.

“He fell in love with the continent,” she said.

He attended Makerere University in Uganda in 1949 as a Fulbright Fellow. During the 1950s, he served as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and worked with the American Universities Field Staff, living for a year each in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. As part of the field staff program, Munger shared his observations as a teacher at participating U.S. universities.

In the 1960s, Munger was a Peace Corps evaluator in Uganda and Botswana. In 1971, he was appointed to a State Department advisory council on African affairs. He also was involved in the African Studies Assn., a nonprofit group based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the U.S.-South African Leadership Development Program, an anti-apartheid group.

Munger served 14 years as president of the Leakey Foundation, founded to support the fieldwork and scientific priorities of anthropologist Louis Leakey. Munger started the foundation’s Baldwin Fellowships, which have helped more than 70 Africans receive advanced degrees in archeology and related subjects since 1978, according to the foundation.

Sharal Camisa, the foundation’s director, called Munger “an integral part of its legacy.”

In the 1980s, he started the Cape of Good Hope Foundation to help black universities in southern Africa. The group has sent schools more than $3 million in books, Caltech said.

“There’s a line from Dante that says, ‘There’s a special place in hell for those who are neutral to crisis,’ ” Munger told The Times in 1986. “I decided to do something positive.”

Munger, who became a professor emeritus at Caltech in 1988, wrote several books on Africa, including his 1983 memoir, “Touched by Africa.” His “Cultures, Chess and Art, A Collector’s Odyssey Across Seven Continents” is a three-volume work chronicling his collection of more than 400 ethnic chess sets from the countries and islands he visited.

“He was really interested in explaining history and culture through the chess sets,” his wife said.

In addition to his wife of 40 years, Munger is survived by his daughter, Betsy Owens, from his first marriage.

Services will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Athenaeum, 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena.