Obituary: Professor Donald MacRae
Monday 26 January 1998
Of all that gathering of outstanding figures in the social sciences who came together at the London School of Economics in the years immediately after the Second World War, Donald MacRae must surely rank not only as among the greatest, but among the most extraordinarily enigmatic.
Yet, just as in his lifetime he was sometimes marginalised, generally by those who could never aspire to intellectual equality with him, so too, in his death he will not be universally mourned for what he was, an outstanding scholar and an exceptional teacher; for he could at times drive his academic colleagues to distraction.
Though he grew up in Glasgow, he spent long periods in the grandparental home on Skye and, after a first degree at Glasgow University, arrived at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1943. With a First in PPE, he joined the Sociology Department at LSE in 1945, where he was to remain for over 40 years. Until the end of the Sixties, this was a golden time, not in the sense of a golden age but, rather, the gilded glow of the sunset of the collegiate university. Senior figures, like Tom Marshall and Morris Ginsberg, were a gauge of that past, but MacRae and his generation were to be the last of its line.
Throughout the 1950s, when the LSE was the very epicentre of the social sciences in Britain, MacRae was an inspiration to undergraduate audiences. With polymathic skills of stellar brilliance, he could range - without a note - from Adam Ferguson to Ibn Khaldoun; from the minutiae of Radcliffe Brown's fieldwork in the Andaman Islands to the works of John Buchan seen against the background of witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland; to a disquisition on the writings of J.B. Priestley as a social record of England between the wars. These were gifts, rather than skills, and would sit uneasily in the modern university in which the model of a community of scholarship has been replaced by that of the knowledge factory.
Although he published few books, notably Ideology and Society (1960) and Max Weber (1974), MacRae was responsible for a vast output of articles and introductions to other works. Among the most lasting monuments to his ability is the British Journal of Sociology, of which he was managing editor, from its foundation in 1950 until 1965.
In 1961 he was appointed to a personal chair in sociology and when, in 1979, David Glass retired from the Martin White Professorship (the most senior in the country), MacRae succeeded him. His contribution to sociology and the social sciences generally was, nevertheless, by no means restricted to the LSE. He held visiting chairs in Ghana, in South Africa (at Witwatersrand) and at the University of California at Berkeley. As a member of the Council for National Academic Awards, he contributed to the development of fledgling sociology departments within many of those polytechnics that were later to become universities. Nor did he fail to contribute to wider social debate, being a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury's group on divorce law (1964-66) and the Gaitskell Commission of Inquiry into Advertising (1962-66).
His room was always piled with the new books that he was reading and absorbing into what was a phenomenally stocked photographic memory. He had enduring friendships with many social scientists in North America and was particularly close to Talcott Parsons, with whom he shared his great interest in Weber. His many graduate students were able to draw deep from the wells of knowledge and ideas that MacRae had made accessible.
There is no doubt but that his powers were progressively limited by the increasing severity of the illness which had for years overshadowed his life and which was finally to lay him low. His marriage to Helen McHardy, with whom he had two daughters, was dissolved and in 1987 he married Jean Ridyard who became a vital balm of tranquillity to his by now often greatly troubled spirit.
Notwithstanding his urbanity, the passion of the Gael was never extinguished in him and, if he failed to write a library of books, his legacy has been other things - the word, the phrase, the idea, the brilliant wit - encapsulated in the memories of those who were privileged to hear him.
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