William H. McNeill was born in Vancouver, Canada, the son of a Presbyterian minister and historian of Christianity and his wife. The family moved to Chicago when he was 10. He graduated from the University of Chicago, where he was editor of the student newspaper, in 1938, and earned a master’s degree with a thesis on Thucydides and Herodotus.
In 1941, during World War II, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in various posts, including as assistant military attaché to the Greek and Yugoslavian governments-in-exile in Cairo. There he met his wife, Elizabeth Darbishire, with whom he had 4 children. He wrote his first book from his wartime experience, The Greek Dilemma: War and Aftermath (1947). After the war, he earned a doctorate in history at Cornell University and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he rose to full professor and remained until his retirement in 1987.
He became a distinguished scholar with great range and a prolific author, his most famous works being The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), which won the National Book Award, and Plagues and Peoples (1976). Other books included Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081-1797 (1974); The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (1982); the biography Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (1989); and Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (1995). In 2005, he published The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir.