Deborah Kirkwood

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The Independent Online

My mother Deborah Kirkwood, who has died at the age of 92, was, among many other things, one of a generation of dons' wives who, though bright themselves, dedicated much of their younger adult lives to supporting their husbands and rearing large families in the rambling Victorian houses of north Oxford.

The role of being a wife was a subject that Deborah returned to in an academic sense when the responsibilities of caring for her six children eased. As her subsequent anthropological work showed, it was an interest that drew partly on her experiences of life in colonial Africa, long before she became a wife herself.

Born in Devon, Deborah spent much of her childhood in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where her father, a mining geologist, had found gold. After he died suddenly when she was just 11, her mother – in an attempt to broaden Deborah's experience – initiated a series of expeditions "home", resulting in an education that encompassed numerous different schools in England and Africa, plus a period of study at The Sorbonne.

It was a comfortable – though somewhat frivolous – life, she later recalled, until a wartime encounter changed all that. While she was nursing in Nairobi she met her future husband, a young South African soldier called Kenneth Kirkwood, whose background was wholly different from her own.

Although he was the first of his family ever to attend university, in 1953 Kenneth's academic accomplishments led to him being recruited from South Africa to become Oxford's first Professor of Race Relations. (By complete coincidence Deborah's uncle, Charles Loram, was the first Professor of Race Relations at Yale.)

The couple found in this – then very new – subject something that became a central core of their life and work together, and a colleague paying tribute at her recent funeral recounted how many people, on hearing she had died, also mentioned Kenneth, who predeceased her by 13 years. "They were an inspiring pair whose work, energy and great kindness will be long remembered," one said.

Through Oxford's International Gender Studies Centre Deborah contributed to – and co-edited – Women and Missions, Past and Present; anthropological and historical perspectives (1993). She also contributed two chapters to The Incorporated Wife (1984).

Earlier she had translated abook about Rhodesian land reform from French to English (1978), andtogether with Kenneth had a longassociation with the Budiriro Trust, which supports education in Zimbabwe , as well as the United Nations Association.

She had also been a chairman of the Oxford YWCA, a governor of local schools, a church warden and was a grandmother of 14 children and great-grandmother to eight.