Obituary: Professor William Atkinson

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The Independent Online
William Christopher Atkinson, Hispanic scholar, born Belfast 9 August 1902, Lecturer in Spanish Armstrong College Newcastle upon Tyne 1926-32, Stevenson Professor of Hispanic Studies Glasgow University 1932-72, Head of Spanish and Portuguese sections Foreign Research and Press Service of Royal Institute of International Affairs 1939-43, Director Institute of Latin-American Studies Glasgow 1966-72, married 1928 Evelyn Wakefield (died 1990; one son, three daughters), died Shipton-under-Wychwood 19 September 1992.

WILLIAM ATKINSON had a long and distinguished career as Head of Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University.

Appointed to the Stevenson Chair of Spanish in 1932, he gradually expanded the curriculum by introducing the study of Portuguese language and literature. Further innovations prepared a solid basis for an honours course in Latin American history and literature in the late Fifties, the first honours course of its kind in the United Kingdom. Atkinson's pioneer work in this field proved invaluable when the Parry Committee prepared a report which led to the creation of Institutes of Latin-American Studies in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and Glasgow in the mid-Sixties. William Atkinson was the obvious choice as the Glasgow institute's first director, an onerous task which he tackled with his customary zeal and enthusiasm in addition to his duties as professor of Hispanic studies.

Born in Northern Ireland in 1902, William Atkinson read French and Spanish at Belfast University and graduated with First Class Honours in 1924. By the following year he had completed his MA. In 1926, he joined the Department of Spanish at Durham University, where he spent the next six years until appointed to a professorship in Glasgow at the age of 30. His retirement in 1972 ended a 40-year association with a department which came to reflect his wide research interests. A dedicated teacher and skilful administrator, he served on innumerable university committees and was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1944 until 1947.

During the Second World War he was seconded to the Foreign Office and stationed in Oxford. As a translator and analyst of foreign newspapers and documents he made a valuable contribution and was sent on several government missions to Spain and Portugal. No mere hiatus, the years away from the then tranquil environment of academic life provided him with a broader perspective of the socio-political realities affecting the Iberian peninsula. His anecdotes and tales drawn from his wartime experiences were in every way as absorbing as his excellent lectures on Latin American colonial history.

Once back in Glasgow, Atkinson renewed his efforts to build up a department which would fully represent every facet of Hispanic culture. Former students will remember how much he valued integrity, self-discipline, industry, competitiveness and, above all, good manners. His maxims were few but effective. Undergraduates were constantly being urged to deal with 'problems rather than topics'. A golden rule for any would-be researcher or academic.

Jealous of his department's reputation, Atkinson set high standards of scholarship which he vigorously defended in the face of declining standards. The high calibre of the teachers he appointed and the impressive reputation of visiting scholars and external examiners provided the clearest evidence of his determination to pursue excellence. Today, many of his former students hold academic posts throughout the United Kingdom and the Americas and they owe much to his encouragement, guidance and material assistance in securing scholarships and travel grants.

At the invitation of the British Council Atkinson lectured extensively in Latin America; he was nominated Honorary Professor of the National University of Colombia and recipient of a Rockefeller Award for research in Latin America. His academic ties with the US were equally strong. He was a member of the Hispanic Society of America and appointed Carnegie Research Fellow to the United States in 1955. In this country he was much in demand as External Examiner and Assessor and served as Honorary Secretary of the Modern Humanities Research Association from 1929 until 1936.

From a long list of publications, the following are of particular note: Spain: a brief history (1934), The Lusiads of Camoens (1952), The Remarkable Life of Don Diego (1958), A History of Spain and Portugal (1960), The Conquest of New Granada (1961) and The Happy Captive (1977). He wrote articles for The Encyclopaedia Britannica and, when the eminent Professor Allison Peers died in 1952, he anonymously edited the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies until a new appointment was made to the Liverpool chair. In 1972, Atkinson was made a Commander of the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator in recognition of his services to Portugal.

A devoted husband and father, William Atkinson was widowed two years ago. He is survived by his son and three daughters, and three grandchildren of whom he was immensely proud.

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