Dr Colin Mcevedy

Polymathic psychiatrist who produced an authoritative series of historical atlases

Colin McEvedy was a psychiatrist, historian, demographer and polymath. If you wanted to know something, Google had failed you and the British Library seemed too far away, the obvious move was to ask McEvedy. Whether it was the cataloguing system in the library of Caracalla's Baths, the Finno-Ugrian language question, the population of Yucatan at the time of the Toltecs, or recent refinements in carbon dating, McEvedy would have the answer in more detail than you needed.

He followed his various professions in parallel, effortlessly it seemed, but in fact he was economical with his time. He enjoyed the stimulus of sharp minds and there were few topics of conversation which he did not illuminate with the exceptional range of his knowledge but he rationed his social life, firmly sidestepping invitations which promised no intellectual nourishment, so that he never spent too long away from his study.

His father, Peter McEvedy, was a noted surgeon whom he greatly admired and no doubt this is why Colin became a doctor, but his earliest love was the classical world. He was a clever boy at Harrow and from there he gained a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he kept a python in his rooms and read Medicine. He moved to Guy's Hospital (with the python) and qualified in 1955. After a year on the wards, he joined the RAF for his National Service and was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, where he took part in research into the effects on pilots of oxygen deprivation in high-altitude flying.

He left the air force in 1959 and the following year joined the Maudsley Hospital, the leading postgraduate centre for psychiatry. While there he pursued his historical interests along with his psychiatric training and worked on his first historical atlas, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, which was published in 1961. The Director of the Maudsley, Professor Sir Aubrey Lewis, a formidable scholar much feared by his students, was impressed by this young doctor's intellectual achievement, and invited him to join his professorial unit.

After taking his DPM (Diploma in Psychological Medicine), McEvedy moved to the Middlesex Hospital where, in 1970, he published, with his consultant Bill Beard, two highly controversial papers in the BMJ on "Royal Free Disease". An obscure epidemic had descended on the nursing staff at this hospital, characterised by fatigue, a variety of subjective symptoms and some ambiguous neurological signs. No causative organism was ever found but it was given the impressive label of benign myalgic encephalomyelitis.

McEvedy and Beard argued that it had originated with one or more cases of poliomyelitis, or a similar known infection, which had induced high levels of anxiety among the living-in nursing staff that resulted in the more susceptible souls among them developing a form of conversion hysteria. The paper caused outrage among the hospital staff and provoked a number of papers rebutting their interpretation. McEvedy also wrote papers on mass hysteria in two North Country girls' schools which had a more friendly reception - they were, of course, no threat to medical dignity.

With his DM thesis on hysteria accepted in 1970, he was appointed Consultant Psychiatrist to Ealing Hospital and St Bernard's Hospital in 1972. The latter, an old Victorian asylum in extensive grounds, was soon to be overtaken by the new plans to close down the old asylums and treat the patients in the community with the new neuroleptic drugs. St Bernard's was a leader in successfully putting these changes into practice and McEvedy was proud of the new acute unit he helped to design in which each patient had his own room - a far cry from the old asylum days.

Meanwhile, he was continuing his historical work. Why he didn't read History at Oxford, which he never regretted, probably had to do with his suspicion that the work he loved might be constrained by the conformity of the academic world; he preferred to do history his way.

This turned out to be a condensation of Western history in the form of historical maps. Historical atlases are familiar enough but, as he said, they tend to "illustrate discrete fragments of history" and offer no understanding of "the unfolding of history in Europe and the Near East as a continuous story". He settled on a standard map stretching from the Iberian peninsula to the Indus valley and from North Britain to the Nile valley which is repeated across the centuries throughout the atlases with a commentary on the facing page for each map. This is written in a lambent style that, here and there, becomes pungent with witty digs at established views.

Over the course of 20 years he published four atlases, still in print, starting from the emergence of Homo erectus in Europe in around 500,000 BC and ending with a population map for the year AD 2000. Such a feat would seem impossible without a score or two of specialist contributors but McEvedy was not interested in being an editor, he wanted to be the storyteller. As the maps unfold, the population movements, the spread of language and trade and the growth of cities move and change like a Victorian kinetoscope; therein lies their originality. Over the next 20 years, he revised them and wrote other historical atlases on Africa (The Penguin Atlas of African History, 1980), North America (The Penguin Atlas of North American History, 1988) and the Pacific (The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Pacific, 1998).

Although, as McEvedy wrote, his atlases are a work of compilation, not original research, in the field of demography his thinking was often original (see Atlas of World Population History, written with Richard Jones, 1978). He believed that historians, and classicists in particular, greatly overestimated the size of ancient cities and cultures. For instance, the figure accepted by classicists for Rome at the turn of the millennium was a million, which McEvedy had persuasive reasons for regarding as too high by a factor of four.

Many professional demographers were at first dismissive of his estimates as those of an amateur - such is the arrogance of academia - but over the years more and more references to his work have appeared in demographic journals and his ideas are now to be found in the standard textbooks. A couple of years ago, McEvedy was invited to a conference of demographers in Florence where he found his work much quoted and discussed, rather I think to his surprise - and satisfaction. In 1995 he retired from his hospital appointment to spend more time with his maps.

Holidays were a serious matter. Cities, monuments, museums and galleries were the steps on a rigorous itinerary, each stop being allotted so many hours or days and when it was "done" there was no lingering over fine views or pretty villages. His friends received brief laconic postcards, sometimes didactic, sometimes witty. An example from Greece, written after stopping for a picnic, ran, "Et in Arcadia eggo".

McEvedy was married first to Jenny McKinnon Wood, by whom he had a daughter, Binky. His second marriage in 1966 to Sarah Leakey ended in 1988 with her tragic and untimely death. McEvedy, who, until then, had not been a notably hands-on father, turned out to be a loving and supportive tower of strength to his two teenage daughters Flora and Allegra, and he took great pride in the subsequent successful careers of all three girls.

The day before he died we were watching the Hungarian grand prix, which was won by a Finn, and I asked him how the Hungarians and Finns came to speak related languages. There followed an elegant and extended account of the westerly migrations of the Finns in the eighth century and the separation of a kindred group, which came to be known as Magyars, from the surrounding Slavs and how, although now called Hungarians, they had nothing to do with the Huns.

Colin McEvedy's father had died of cancer at 61 and he always saw his own natural term as three-score years. In his sixties he developed a benign irregularity of cardiac rhythm but in 2003, when he was 73, a routine blood test showed abnormal cells characteristic of myelofibrosis, a disorder of stem cells in bone marrow. While at first relatively quiescent, in April this year it moved into its final aggressive phase.

William Dorrell

Comments