Obituary: Dr John Brown, historian, academic and lecturer who inspired a former prime minister

Dr John Brown was renowned for the care he gave his students, and the effort he put into teaching them
Dr John Brown was renowned for the care he gave his students, and the effort he put into teaching them
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Born: 17 December, 1937 in Castle Douglas. Died: 6 January, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 74

n Dr John Brown, lecturer. Born: 17 December, 1937 in Castle Douglas. Died: 6 January, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 74.

DR JOHN Brown, former senior lecturer in history at Edinburgh University, had many visitors during the final weeks of his life. Among them was one of his former students, former prime minister, Gordon Brown.

Back in 1986 the then MP for Dunfermline East brought out a fine biography of “Red Clydesider” James Maxton.

In its introduction he wrote that neither the book nor his PhD thesis on which it was based could ever have been completed without the constant advice and encouragement of John Brown at Edinburgh University.

The legendary care John gave to his students, as well as the work he put into his teaching, and his conscientious role in the history department’s administration, may well have set limits to his own output of published work.

He was, however, the author of some seminal articles and in 1995 his book The British Welfare State was published. This is still a sparkling piece of synthesis and clarification, the product of years of careful work on the genesis of social policy going back to his own doctorate which London University awarded him in 1962.

John was also a prolific reviewer of new books in history journals and in 1982 he was the driving force in creating what became the Newsletter of the Edinburgh University History Graduates Association.

Enlivened by his often acerbic wit as well as his affection for present and previous students, this will become a rich source on the way the study and teaching of history changed and enveloped at the university.

Not all that changed was to his liking and he became an implacable opponent of the crass managerialist and market-centred dogma that in the 1980s began to corrode universities and scholarship itself.

John’s personal and intellectual integrity would never have allowed him to be deceived by any of this and, unlike some, he was not afraid to speak out against it.

He never let himself be ground down either by the often brainless tyranny of research assessment exercises. In his view what drove them could be summed up in the words: “never mind the quality, just feel the width”.

His refuge from all this was his love of his subject and his commitment to teaching it to the highest standard as well as co-ordinating and sometimes chairing invigorating debates when guest speakers contributed to the department’s modern history seminar series. For John, these embodied the best of a collegiate ethos which by the time of his retirement he felt was being lost.

John was also sustained by an abiding passion for the arts, especially opera. His first outing with his student Geraldine, whom he later married, was to see The Marriage of Figaro.

He loved cinema too and was always keen to propound his opinions on films new and old over pints in the Bow Bar and in Sandy Bell’s. His pronouncements, whether on films or on football, could be dogmatic and in argument he had a talent to exasperate without ever letting it get personal or taking himself too seriously.

He also loved poetry and as the pints came up could quote at length and at will from TS Elliot, Yeats, Douglas Dunn, Hugh MacDiarmid and many others, but always Burns.

While in hospital in 2009 awaiting chemotherapy he found solace and pleasure from the collected verse and letters of Louis MacNeice.

John was a proud son of Galloway, born in Castle Douglas, where his father Walter was a machinist in local workshops and for some time in a factory in Dalbeattie.

His mother Margaret, like many women of that era had as her main focus the care of her family and was quick to recognise her only child’s academic potential.

He excelled at Kirkcudbright Academy where, in 1956 he was joint dux. He was also good at sport, playing rugby and cricket, games he loved and watched at every opportunity on television. He also became a skilled performer on the squash court.

Distance and a determination never to drive kept him away from Palmerston Park, but he was always happy to proclaim allegiance to Queen of the South.When they recently made it to their first ever Scottish Cup Final John was at Hampden, with what seemed like half of Dumfries to see history happen.

Sadly, the Queens – as John insisted they be called, rather than the Doonhamers – were unable to prevail against Rangers.

His first at Edinburgh University was entirely predictable and he returned to teach there in 1962 after doing the ground work in London for his PhD on the evolution of social welfare policy before 1914.

His teaching brought him the great good fortune of meeting Geraldine, whom he married in 1969. They had two sons, Daniel and Matthew, and later a grandson Euan.

Even as the chimes of midnight sounded and last orders were called, John’s conversation would invariably return to Geraldine, what she had been doing and things she had said.

He was hugely proud of her career in social work and proud too of their sons and of Euan. Time spent with them, a walk in the Meadows with Geraldine or a meal out with her mattered much more to him than what he called “strutting his stuff” on the academic conference circuit.

John died at home, where he would have wanted to, after an illness bravely borne.

To the end he was a loyal friend and also stoic who never ‘raged against the dying of the light”.

IAN S WOOD