Scotsman Obituaries: Dr Karin McPherson, expert in East German literature

Dr Karin-Maria Dorothee McPherson. Born: 6 September 1932 in Berlin, Germany. Died: 11 November 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 90

Dr Karin McPherson was a retired senior lecturer and researcher who spent her entire career at the University of Edinburgh’s German department where she taught generations of students and became a leading authority on East German literature.

Born Karin Langenheim in Berlin months before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, her entire life was imbued with the spirit of the Weimar Republic, which was in its dying days.

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Her father Konrad, a professor of agriculture, and her mother Luise created a wonderful home environment for Karin and her younger sister Wiebke, despite the shadow of the Nazi government and the impending threat of war. In September 1943, the family was evacuated from Berlin to the West Pomeranian town of Lippehne (today Lipiany in Poland) where they remained until the advancing Soviet Army made it imperative to flee back westwards to the comparative safety of Berlin.

Dr Karin McPherson speaking to students at the University of Edinburgh in 1993

They departed by horse-drawn sled on 27 January 1945 and were lucky to be aboard the final train to cross the river Oder before the retreating Germans blew it up behind them. After a short period back in Berlin, the family were on the move again, this time to Schleswig-Holstein and it was there that they were liberated by the British in April of that year.

The extremely harsh post-war years were a time of dislocation and family breakdown, with the suicide of her mother in 1946 and her father’s subsequent remarriage fracturing the sense of family unity which had existed until the end of the war.

Moving to Kiel to be part of her father’s new family, which grew to include three younger brothers, Karin completed her schooling there before studying at both Kiel and Freiburg universities, graduating in 1959. Later that year, she was appointed a foreign language assistant at the University of Edinburgh’s School of German, where she had already spent a year as a student from 1956, falling in love with the city and Scotland, the country she would call home for the next six decades.

In 1962, she completed her PhD on the Modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke. That same year she married Dr Frank McPherson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, and they remained together until divorcing in 1992.

The now Dr Karin McPherson continued to work in the German department for the rest of the 1960s, during which time the couple had a son and daughter.

Despite being overlooked for the job of lecturer due to the University’s concerns that she would not be able to combine work with her family “duties”, it was with the support of the departmental professor Eudo C Mason that she was eventually appointed a lecturer in German Studies in 1969.

During the early 1970s, Dr McPherson developed a fascination for the literature which was coming out of the German Democratic Republic, and she became an expert in the writings of acclaimed women authors such as Anna Seghers, Brigitte Reimann and particularly Christa Wolf, about whom she taught and wrote extensively.

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Wolf became a friend and visited the McPherson home while on a trip to Edinburgh in 1978. Dr McPherson’s interest in the genre led her to accumulate one of the largest private collections of East German literature in the world, which is now housed as an eponymous collection of more than 1,600 titles within the University of Edinburgh Library’s Special Collection.

Throughout the 1970s until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Dr McPherson made numerous visits to the GDR, attending events and conferences and helping to administer an exchange programme with the University of Leipzig which allowed students to study in East Germany at a time when it was regarded as a pariah state by many in the academic world.

She was a leading light in the Anna Seghers Gesellschaft, while at home she was a central figure for many years in the Edinburgh German Circle, which was formed in 1932 and dissolved 80 years later, and the Scotland-GDR Society, an organisation which at one time had a membership of over 500 and sought to influence the left-wing movement in Scotland. In addition, Dr McPherson was a much sought-after guest speaker, lecturer and writer both at home and internationally, and active in the Association of University Teachers trade union.

In the decades following her retirement as a senior lecturer in 1997, Dr McPherson continued to take a lively interest in the work of research students and staff in German Studies and supported the university department's events. She also dedicated herself to travel and visiting a vast network of friends and family in the reunified Germany and beyond.

She was devoted to the five grandchildren who came into her life from 2002, and continued to develop interests and pastimes such as walking and birdwatching, as well as addressing an unquenchable thirst for literary knowledge, film and theatre.

She died in November 2022 in Craiglockhart, the area of Edinburgh where she had lived in since 1964.

She is survived by her son Colin and daughter Katrina, sister Wiebke, brother Kay and five grandchildren.

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