Obituary: Francis Doherty
Thursday 19 August 1993
KEELE UNIVERSITY's high reputation for the tutorial care that it gives to its students is owing to no single person more than to Francis Doherty. He was a born teacher who every day learnt more, both from himself and from his students, about the art of teaching. His sudden and early death at once deprives the university of one of its best-loved and longest-serving faculty members and removes from a generation of students the chance to draw from an unrivalled well of kindness and wisdom.
Being taught by Frank Doherty was never a predictable experience: even his formal lectures might suddenly take off on a new flight as the particular quality of the moment struck him, and all occasions were apt to be enlivened by great gusts of humour as his mind lit on one of the oddities that gave him such delight.
He was an Irishman born and brought up in Yorkshire, in whom down-to-earth good sense, warm affection and mercurial wit and charm were wonderfully blended. There was a darker side: though he was endlessly patient whenever a serious student - or a friend - came to him in difficulties, Doherty was not fond of shirkers or con men; and he suffered much when, following the savage cuts of 1981, Keele seemed to be sinking into terminal despair. Drastic remedies brought pains of a different kind with the troubles of running a department beset by the increasing toils of educational bureaucracy; but he won through, and his spirits in his last few months were particularly bright.
He remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, though generously receptive to truths in other churches and other religions, and frequently critical of reactionary deviations in his own. He had little sympathy with the clerical politics of Pope John Paul II, remarking once, in allusion to the Pope's much-vaunted skill in languages, that he himself did not speak Polish.
Doherty needed both time and exploration to find his own way of serving his fellows. His first leaning was toward the priesthood: on leaving school he went to the seminary at Ushaw, where he showed conspicuous gifts in English and Philosophy, but he was too much of an individualist to prosper under its particular rigours. National service spent largely in Kenya exposed him to the horrors of Mau-Mau and its equally brutal suppression and gave him in the process a considerable knowledge of medicine. In 1956 he went to Sheffield University to read English and fell, by no means uncritically, under the spell of William Empson, whose quirky mannerisms he would take off to perfection: he was a wonderful mimic, and pomp and pretentiousness withered before his parody. Following an MA at Manchester he taught briefly at University College, Dublin, before settling at Keele, where he spent the last 30 years of his life.
Frank Doherty's keenest literary interests centred in 18th-century England and 20th-century Ireland: he was a founder member both of the British Society for 18th-Century Studies and of the British Association for Irish Studies. His greatest hero was Samuel Johnson, whose alternations of sombre melancholy and huge laughter found something of a match in Doherty. He was generous of time and energy to the Johnson Society of Lichfield, on whose behalf he preached an anniversary sermon at Uttoxeter; his paper on the language of The Vanity of Human Wishes is one of the best things ever written on that magnificent poem.
His first book, however, was on Byron, whom he admired for his sinister energy while abhorring his cock-a-hoop affectation of superiority. A small book on Beckett in 1971 was the first fruit of a fascination always touched with a sense of the preposterous which continued until the end. He rediscovered the Irish short-story writer Daniel Corkery and edited a collection of his stories. William Trevor was another for whom he felt close affinity: things Irish were in fact more and more absorbing him - he had been looking forward to retiring to Donegal or Sligo and when he died he was at work on a book, sadly unfinished, on modern Irish tragedy.
Meanwhile two interests combined to lead Doherty into 18th-century arcana in pursuit of the 'anodyne necklace' - the hub of a world of quack medicine and fraudulent publicity, which he investigated with verve and gusto first in a long paper in Medical History and then at full length in his last completed book, published this year and drily called (to Doherty's disappointment) A Study in Eighteenth- Century Advertising - a title giving no indication of the fascination of the quest or the mischievous fun which lights it up.
His concern for teaching and a very heavy administrative load during his time as head of department cut down opportunities for research as did his self-neglectful work as a counsellor among bereaved and handicapped families in Stoke-on-Trent. But his interests were blossoming at the end, and he was taking particular pleasure in sharing them with colleagues in the several continental universities whose links with Keele he had done a great deal to foster. He was the most loyal and generous of friends and above all devoted to a family in whose growth into a third generation he took especial delight.
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