Nan Dunbar

Editor of Aristophanes' 'Birds' and Classics tutor at Somerville College, Oxford

Nan Dunbar was for 30 years from 1965 Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Somerville College, Oxford. She established herself as a scholar of note by her magnum opus, an edition of Aristophanes' Birds, the longest of his surviving plays. It was the work of a lifetime, not seeing the light of day until 1995.

Nan Vance Dunbar, classical scholar: born Glasgow 18 July 1928; Lecturer in Greek, Edinburgh University 1952-55; Research Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge 1955-57; Lecturer in Humanity, St Andrews University 1957-65; Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Somerville College, Oxford 1965-95, Vice-Principal 1983-85, Emeritus Fellow 1995-2005; married 1972 D. Mervyn Jones; died Oxford 3 April 2005.

Nan Dunbar was for 30 years from 1965 Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Somerville College, Oxford. She established herself as a scholar of note by her magnum opus, an edition of Aristophanes' Birds, the longest of his surviving plays. It was the work of a lifetime, not seeing the light of day until 1995.

Birds, published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, runs to 799 pages in large format, and the preface acknowledges that the original manuscript was even longer. One former pupil recalled encountering it in 1970 when it "consisted of folders full of curling pages brought down as needed". I first heard of it (and her) in 1955 during a tutorial with Hugh (now Sir Hugh) Lloyd-Jones, who told me that there was a promising young researcher in Cambridge working on a commentary; this was said, no doubt with the exaggeration provoked by enthusiasm, to be well advanced.

One important reason for the long delay in completion was that Professor Geoffrey Arnott of Leeds rightly persuaded Dunbar that she should make herself an expert in ornithology. This advice was taken seriously and she spent a lot of time at the Institute of Ornithology in Oxford and on bird-watching expeditions. Her edition deals with 150 species, twice the number mentioned in the text of the play, and it is clear that her research represents a real advance on the previously standard treatment by D'Arcy Thompson, author of A Glossary of Greek Birds (1895 and 1936).

Apart from that, the commentary gives meticulous coverage of the other questions that scholars ask about the text and is a notable achievement. It is one of the best commentaries that there will ever be on a play of Aristophanes. Its merits received further recognition through the issue of an abridged version for students in 1998. It is a sad comment on the running of modern universities that virtually no scholar can nowadays contemplate a project on the grand scale such as this was.

The eldest of four children, Nan Dunbar was born, in 1928, and brought up in Glasgow, attending Hutcheson's Girls School and Glasgow University. The family did not include graduates, but the Scottish tradition was that clever children deserved education and there were scholarships to ensure that this happened. A brilliant school and university career was followed by an equally brilliant second degree at Girton College, Cambridge, where Dunbar again won numerous prizes, as well as achieving a First in both parts of the Classical Tripos.

In 1952 she became Lecturer in Greek at Edinburgh University while retaining a bye- fellowship at Girton for three years, after which she returned to her Cambridge college as a research fellow and Lecturer in Classics. Her next post was a lectureship in Humanity at St Andrews University, where she stayed until 1965, at which point, notwithstanding her loyalty to her Scottish roots, she was induced to accept a fellowship at Somerville.

Dunbar's progress on Birds was of course delayed by the typical licensed interruptions of an academic career. Her teaching duties had not altered much on going to St Andrews, but the move to Somerville confronted her with the challenges that face all Oxford tutors. She was not a person to take obligations lightly, and proved herself a very attentive tutor, who realised that many of her pupils had not had the traditional rigorous training at school. In addition, she played a significant role in the life of the college, serving on the finance committee and holding at one time or other almost all the college offices; she was the college's first Tutor for Admissions and in 1983 became Vice-Principal. Her immense vitality and fund of evident good-will contributed enormously to maintaining a congenial atmosphere in and about the college.

In 1972 she married Mervyn Jones, who had been one of her tutors at Glasgow in 1948; he subsequently became an Oxford tutorial fellow and then an expert in Hungarian and East European affairs. She remained Nan Dunbar in college, naturally; but she showed her interest in her husband's field by learning Hungarian and asking him for a precise explanation of any Hungarian phrase that came up in conversation. Since he worked in London, they had a flat in Pimlico as well as a home in Oxford. Visitors to the latter could see in various objects round the house evidence of ornithological interests and might be persuaded by their hostess that haggis obtained from the best supplier in Edinburgh was good to eat.

In retirement Nan Dunbar continued to enjoy walking holidays and travel, venturing with a sister as far as Vancouver and Alaska. She devoted some of her great energy to the Association of University Pensioners. Her committed Christian belief, which had sustained her since her schooldays, was shown in college by her tenure for many years of the office of Chapel Steward (Somerville has a non-denominational chapel, in which Nan and Mervyn were married), and was also manifested by her staunch support of St Columba's Church in Oxford, where she edited the newsletter.

Anyone who met her could not fail to be struck by her energy and gift for lively conversation, punctuated frequently by hearty chuckles and laughter. Only a few days before her death I was able to take a short walk with her and, although she knew that her state of health gave cause for concern, the flow of conversation was the same as usual.

Nigel Wilson


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