Obituary: Professor J. B. Skemp

Gavin Townend
Thursday 15 October 1992 23:02

Joseph Bright Skemp, Greek scholar, born 10 May 1910, Unofficial Drosier Fellow Gonville and Caius College Cambridge 1936-47, Secretary Society for the Protection of Science and Learning 1944-46, Lecturer in Greek and Latin Manchester Univesity 1946-49, Reader in Greek Durham University (Newcastle) 1949-50, Professor of Greek Durham University 1950-73 (Emeritus), Joint Editor Phronesis 1955- 64, married 1941 Ruby James (died 1987), died 10 October 1992.

J. B. SKEMP's life was dedicated primarily to the study of Greek philosophy, and particularly of Plato.

Educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, he read Classics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and then took a Ph D at Edinburgh. He returned to Caius with a Drosier fellowship and remained in Cambridge throughout the Second World War, playing a prominent part in the Refugees' Club from as early as 1936, when he was able to help among others, a number of important scholars from the Continent.

In 1946 he went to Manchester University as lecturer, moving to Newcastle in 1949 as Reader, before being appointed to Durham as Professor of Greek. In 1963, when Newcastle became a separate university, he was the first Dean of Arts in Durham, gaining a reputation as an unusually thorough and conscientious administrator throughout a period of profound reorganisation and rapid growth.

During the war he had published The Theory of Motion in Plato's Dialogues (1942), and in 1952 produced a translation and commentary on Plato's Statesman, which has not been superseded and was revised in 1987. In 1964 there followed The Greeks and the Gospel, combining his two great interests, and in 1976 he was the obvious person to be asked to write his very useful summary of work on Plato in the series of 'New Surveys in the Classics' produced by the journal Greece and Rome.

As Professor in a steadily growing department of Classics, he gladly took classes in language and literature as well as in philosophy; but probably his favourite course was one on The Republic (on which he wrote a number of important papers) to introduce Greek philosophy to Honours students. Outside the university he was one of the two founder-editors of the philosophical journal Phronesis in 1955.

Joe Skemp was always a keen Baptist; and as soon as he came to Durham, which then had no Baptist church, he began the formation of a group which before long was able to build its own centre. He was for a long time the presiding elder and was appointed a Life Deacon. While always devoted to his students as individuals, he made a particular point of entertaining those students and other young people who were members of his church; and when he and his wife retired to Cambridge, their flat in Hills Road was always open to Baptist students there.

This continued when ill-health forced them to move to the softer climate of Bristol. For many years they enjoyed holidays in a cottage rented at Abergynolwyn, chosen largely for its proximity to the recently revived Tal-y-llyn railway; for Skemp was a keen student of the railway system of Britain and loved nothing so much as to plot itineraries for his friends between widely separated places across the country. He never learnt to drive a car.

Joe Skemp was a very friendly man, especially in the common room at University College, Durham, and at Caius, where he resumed active membership after retirement. As a collegaue, he was tolerant, kind and considerate; and his Christian convictions shone through his life at all times.

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