Obituary: Professor George Kerferd

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GEORGE KERFERD became, while still quite young, an elder statesman in the world of classical learning. His career may remind some of that of Gilbert Murray, starting out on a high level in Australia, marrying romantically, and becoming absorbed into British society.

Some of his early publications had considerable impact, but later, although he continued to publish, it was as much the critical exercise of scholarship and the many enterprises which he stood behind that were important, as well as his untiring activity on committees, and his standing as one who was consulted on high appointments. For, although the number of students reading Classics at the highest level may have declined during his lifetime, classical activities at many levels have flourished exceedingly, and in many of them Kerferd was involved.

He enjoyed his life. At a conference when some of his colleagues were bemoaning their inadequate pay, he burst out that he himself would gladly pay for the privilege of a life spent in studying Classics; remuneration was a bonus. But he was no ascetic: he also once expressed his admiration for the wonderful dispensation of nature by which one could have the enjoyment of eating and then, only a few hours later, repeat the experience with equal enjoyment. This zest for living continued into retirement, so that he was known for visiting London several times a week for meetings and social intercourse, and almost to the end, when very crippled, he attended seminars in the north of England to study Greek texts.

He was a leader in the movement away from, or at least beyond, the established philosophical texts of Plato and Aristotle. His first works on the Sophists were published in what might have been the obscurity of the Durham University Journal, but soon achieved renown, and his continuing interest in the Sophists culminated in a book, The Sophistic Movement (1981). Later he shared in the revival of interest in post-Aristotelian philosophers, especially the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics.

In addition, he lent his immense influence to the international Project Theophrastus, which was concerned to bring together the scattered evidence to the verified activities of Theophrastus, the leading pupil of Aristotle, then known only by some, mainly scientists, as the Father of Botany, and by others, mainly students of literature, as the author of the works known as The Characters. Now there are two large volumes of text and translations, and several volumes of explanatory commentary are appearing. Attention has also been turned to other members of Aristotle's circle.

By joining in seminars with Manchester and Liverpool colleagues Kerferd also helped in the revival of Neoplatonist studies, and thus in the project of translating the so-called Aristotelian Commentators, where again volumes are appearing in rapid succession. He served for some years as President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies and was editor of the leading ancient philosophical journal Phronesis.

He was both recipient and contributor to a volume called The Criterion of Truth (1989), the centre of which was a text and translation of the work of that name by Ptolemy on which he and the Manchester-Liverpool seminar had spent many productive terms. Friends contributed essays on related themes to produce an unusually coherent Festschrift.

Kerferd was born in 1915 into a distinguished Australian family in Melbourne, where he was educated at school and university, and took his first degree. He proceeded to Oxford to study Greats, after which he became Lecturer in Greek at Durham University. His time there was interrupted by a spell back home at Sydney University, which he reached after an extended and exciting wartime voyage. It was while in Sydney that he married his Russian wife, Marick, who was to become a gracious hostess to students and colleagues in later years. But he was captivated by the British cultural scene, and returned permanently first to Durham, then to Manchester University as Senior Lecturer in Greek and Latin, then for a while to Swansea as Professor of Classics and then back to Manchester where he held first the Chair of Latin and then that of Greek.

On retiring he remained in Manchester in his spacious and book-lined house in Didsbury, though still travelling far and wide, until his own ill-health and that of his wife, followed by her death, limited his activities. Even then loyal friends helped him to keep going.

In spite of fitting so well into the British scene, he retained his Australian nationality and passport, and would surprise colleagues returning with him from an overseas conference by leaving them in the entry queue for British citizens and seeking his own way in.

His linguistic skills were not limited to Latin and Greek, and with D.E. Walford he translated a number of early works of Immanuel Kant into English. It gave Kerferd great pleasure and pride to see his son develop even more remarkable linguistic powers, which he now uses in Brussels, and he was able to see the birth of two grandchildren by his daughter Charlotte.

Pamela Huby

George Briscoe Kerferd, classicist: born Melbourne, Australia 15 January 1915; Lecturer in Greek, Durham University 1939-41 and l946-51; Lecturer in Greek, Sydney University 1942-46; Senior Lecturer in Greek and Latin, Manchester University 1951-56, Hulme Professor of Latin 1967-73, Hulme Professor of Greek 1973-82 (Emeritus); Professor of Classics, University College, Swansea 1956-67; married 1944 Marick Clapiers de Collongues (died 1997; one son, one daughter); died Manchester 9 August 1998.

Comments