The family business

Matthew Reisz speaks to scholars with learned bloodlines about the inspirations, insights and rebellions that come with growing up in the very midst of the academy

July 26, 2012

Katherine Duncan-Jones, senior research fellow in English at Somerville College, Oxford, is the daughter of two academics, the sister of an academic, and the mother, godmother and mother-in-law of academics. Since there were no other academics among her father's seven siblings and their children, there was a moment when the line became "a thin beanpole in a wide family tree". But it also stretches back four generations.

"My father [the philosopher Austin Duncan-Jones] came from a line of clergymen," she explains, "some of whom were also academics, including two heads of college. My great-great-grandfather was the principal of Jesus College, Cambridge, and his daughter married the head of Gonville and Caius." Her own daughter Emily Wilson, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is, therefore, certainly a third-generation female academic - and has claims to be a rare sixth-generation academic. It is worth reflecting on what this means. Given that Duncan-Jones père was born in 1908, three further generations must take us back almost to the time when academic sex was invented, with Caius, in 1860, becoming the first Cambridge college to abolish compulsory celibacy for all of its fellows. The lines are much shorter and strewn with obstacles on the female side. Austin's mother turned down a scholarship to read maths in the late 1890s. His wife, the literary scholar Elsie Duncan-Jones, was sacked from her first academic post, as assistant lecturer at what was then the University College of Southampton, when she got married in 1933. Although she went on to work at the University of Birmingham as a lecturer and then a reader in English from 1936 to 1975, she was granted no maternity leave.

All this makes Katherine Duncan-Jones part of a remarkable academic dynasty, but how did such a background influence her own life path? She remembers "growing up in a house full of books, where people read at breakfast, lunch and tea. Although my mother was more open-minded, my father was seriously committed to the intellectual life and inclined to think anything other than academic work second-rate."

In her late teens, she was "quite sure [she] didn't want to be an academic", but in fact her rebellion never went further than making her father "seriously angry" when she secured a scholarship to Oxford rather than Cambridge. She went on to become a research fellow at Somerville at the age of 22 and, apart from a single year, has been there ever since.

Like everybody else, academics have parents they may admire or even idolise, parents they want to placate, imitate or impress, parents they need to rebel against or beat at their own game. One can see all these familiar patterns playing out in academic families.

"I was never tempted to rebel," says Roey Sweet, professor of urban history at the University of Leicester, "which probably says more about my desire to conform, and the regard in which my father was held by his family and anyone else who knew him, than anything else!"

Canon John Sweet (19-2009) was based at Selwyn College, Cambridge, from 1956 until his retirement in 1994, but he also played a wider role in training the clergy, including the present archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales. His daughter says she derived "implicit encouragement" from his belief in "the importance of education and teaching as a social good". She also stresses the advantages of "having a parent who is willing to be interested and fully engaged with what you are studying".

Yet, more than all this, her background helped habituate her to the norms and rituals of academic life, since "the whole business of university was demystified - and our upbringing was more of a total immersion than many: we lived in college more or less until I was 11, we had undergraduates to lunch every Sunday, our lives were structured around the academic year, and as chaplain my father participated fully in all aspects of college life and got us involved as well".

Mary Laven, senior lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, also followed a pattern set by her father, Peter. Like him and her older brother David, she is an expert on Italian history, and she grew up in a household where "it was right to talk about politics and religion at dinner! There were always arguments at mealtimes and usually someone would get up and check something in a reference book." She also spent a good deal of time in Italy as a child. Yet, despite the family's "proximity of interests", she also points to differences in emphasis. While her father's and brother's publications focus on government, authority and administration, her own work addresses issues of gender, religion and the family.

Given her upbringing, Laven reports, she "was never really tempted" to pursue a different path. "I toyed with the idea of reading another subject, but my father and brother were effective in convincing me that I really wanted to do a history degree. The influence was always most effective when least direct. I certainly didn't appreciate my father's attempts to teach me Latin at the age of seven!"

She remains grateful for the way her father was supportive of her work and, although he was "of a disposition and generation not persuaded by feminism", he gave her two pioneering works of feminist and psychoanalytic history as a wedding present. Even more simply, however, Laven was convinced that academic life made him happy and might make her happy too - as has indeed proved to be the case. Her children, however, now eight and 11, show no early signs of wanting to become academics - and Laven certainly hasn't tried to teach them Latin.

All these examples concern British academics and archetypally English institutions such as Oxbridge colleges and the Anglican Church. Yet many of the emigre scholars who left Central Europe to make new lives in Britain after Hitler came to power also created dynasties. Among the outstanding stars, Nobel laureates Ernst Chain (1906-79), Hans Krebs (1900-81) and Max Perutz (1914-2002) all emigrated to England in the 1930s and produced academic children.

The grandfathers of Bernard Wasserstein, the Harriet and Ulrich E. Meyer professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago, were "a raincoat manufacturer in Berlin and a carpenter in Budapest". His German-born father Abraham, however, was a distinguished classicist whose career took him from Glasgow and Leicester to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His brother David is professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. His other sibling, Celia Wasserstein Fassberg, is a professor of private international and interreligious law at the Hebrew University.

For Wasserstein, the academic profession was "simply something akin to a family business into which I naturally relapsed". Yet he acknowledges that he "derived a great deal from (his father): admiration for serious scholarship, scorn for flashy academic fads, impatience with academic bureaucracy and its jargon, love for language and respect for the importance of rigorous linguistic training".

But he doubts that the line will continue. Wasserstein's adult daughter is a lawyer in Los Angeles and his four-year-old son, when asked if he wanted to become a professor, emitted what Wasserstein "can only describe as a scornful snort".

Fassberg offers further insight into how their father's example helped propel her into an academic career.

"Some of my fondest childhood memories of Leicester", she recalls, "are associated with going into the university with my father 'to pick up mail', browsing in the university bookshop and having lunch in university cafeterias.

"My parents' friends were almost all academics. They had a vibrant social life filled with interesting people talking about interesting things and often had parties for colleagues and students. All of this conjured up a picture of a wonderful life, filled with thinking, talking and humour."

The only downsides were the occasional "high-spirited conversations about debates in the Senate and the typical academic outrage associated with (things such as) the preposterous idea of allowing people to eat or smoke in the library, allowing people to teach Greek texts in translation, moving libraries, holding up promotions, and cancelling positions."

In building her own career, Fassberg found that she enjoyed having a job in the same university as her father, and "being able to bump into him in the corridors". But she identified the university "entirely with his generation of scholars, and their seniority seemed quite remote and unattainable to me then. Having now been here far longer than he ever was, it still seems to me that the real Hebrew University is the one where he taught and where I was just a student and young lecturer."

Both the example and conscious guidance of his mathematician father shaped the academic career of Carl Nightingale, associate professor of transnational studies and American studies at the University of Buffalo. His father, Dale Husemöller, gave a lecture series at Haverford College in Philadelphia, Nightingale recalls, which "brought in a regular stream of the world's greatest scholars. I associate the sound of mathematicians discussing their work in their incomprehensible language - punctuated by cut-throat games of ping-pong in our basement - with the warmth of a relatively happy childhood."

Equally important to Nightingale was the moral strength "the maths community" revealed in "caring for its own - one striking example being its role in the recovery from mental illness of the great John Nash at Princeton, a story which occurred while I was a graduate student in history there. [Those scholars] transmitted to me a vision of a community of learning and sharing of knowledge that served as a moral compass for me whenever I have encountered the less savoury depths academic communities can dive into."

Although Nightingale says he never had the mathematical ability to pursue the same path, his father pointed to the example of a former roommate who had become "a budding historian of the Habsburg Empire".

"My dad is quite a persuasive guy, and he began working on me when I was 12 or so. At one point during that period I remember climbing a hill at a rest stop on the autobahn in Austria and, looking around at the surrounding hills and mountains, I found myself vowing (to myself) in a choked-up voice that 'I will write the history of this place'."

Other academics report more tangled feeling about following close in parental footsteps.

Nicolette Zeeman, fellow in English at King's College, Cambridge, sees "a huge plus in having academic parents". Her mathematician father Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman and psychologist stepfather David Salter "imbued me from an early age with a complete sense of the value of teaching and disinterested academic debate and research - if done with total commitment".

More complex was her relationship with her mother Elizabeth Salter, who worked in the precise areas of medieval literature Zeeman has now made her own. "I think it would be fair to say that it was difficult going into the same field as a well-known academic parent," she reflects. "I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone if they could possibly avoid it.

"However, the main reason it was difficult in my case was that my mother died [in 1980], just before I started my PhD; as a result, her memory overshadowed me in a particularly intense way, and made me very anxious that people would think I was trying to enter the field on the back of her reputation. I think that made the early years of my career more stressful than they would have been otherwise; if she'd been alive, she would just have told me to stop being ridiculous. However, as my career has developed, I have more than come to terms with all this now."

Another scholar, who asks to remain anonymous, describes ambivalent emotions about pursuing a career that seemed appealing but which she also wanted to reject. As a teenager, she had "thought of dropping out to be a hippy, but then realised that my hippy friends were very boring; hoped to be a doctor or a vet, but then realised I was too squeamish". When she eventually came round to the decision to follow her mother into the academy, she realised that the only way to avoid the "huge social and psychological awkwardness in going into the family business", and of being "too much defined as somebody's daughter", was to move to another country. She also discovered, particularly as a postgraduate student, that there were advantages to being a "faculty brat", notably that she was never tempted to "idolise the professors or assume that they had superpowers". Yet she remains adamant that "if any of my kids goes into academia, I'll probably think I did something wrong".

Questions of nature and nurture haunt the career of Georgina Born, professor of music and anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is the granddaughter of the renowned quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Max Born (1882-1970), who left Germany in 1933. His son and her father, Gustav Born, is emeritus professor of pharmacology at King's College London. So isn't this a case of the apple not falling far from the tree?

"It may look as if I were destined to end up where I am now," agrees Born, but in reality things weren't so simple. Her grandfather retired to Germany the year before she was born and her parents divorced when she was five. As a result, she "didn't grow up in an academic household and felt no pressure to become an academic, so nothing was preordained. I was not as close to my father as a teenager and young adult as I was later, and I got involved in a typical range of unconventional activities."

She went to the Royal College of Music aged 18 to study the cello but dropped out after six months, went to art school for a year and then became a cellist and bass guitarist for ensembles including Henry Cow, the Michael Nyman Band, Penguin Café Orchestra and Feminist Improvising Group. After a few years, however, she "realised music wasn't enough for me. I wanted to stop touring and do some thinking. I didn't go to University College London to study anthropology with the intention of becoming an academic. But I did well and so the department came and offered me a quota grant to continue with a PhD, which I accepted without much reflection."

A first academic post in Brunel University's Department of Human Sciences in 1986 led to jobs at Goldsmiths, University of London, Cambridge and now Oxford. Born works "at the junction between anthropology, media and music" and has carried out large fieldwork projects at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris and the BBC. She was recently awarded a major grant by the European Research Council to research the impact of digital media on musical practices in six different countries.

"I think I'm the lucky recipient of some good genes," Born muses. "I have self-belief in the power of my own creative thinking and intellectual capacity. I have been able to discuss with my father our shared awareness of how deeply rewarding it is to work through problems, but I don't see a direct link with the legacy of my grandfather.

"I had - as I think all we children of the third generation had - ambivalent feelings towards the scientific life; that's perhaps why I took some time and took my own route into all this. I think I did feel overawed and somehow unable to imagine attaining anything like the eminence of my grandfather. But by creating a distance between what I do and what my grandfather and father do, I could be my own person intellectually. The five-year interlude between school and university fed into my subsequent research. There's a lot to be said for people having some life experience before studying."

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Recent controversy over the future directions of both Stanford and Melbourne university presses have raised questions about the role of in-house publishing arms in a world of commercialisation, impact agendas, alternative facts – and ever-diminishing monograph sales. Anna McKie reports

3 October


Featured jobs

Finance Analyst

Bpp University

HR Adviser

University Of The West Of Scotland

Catering Assistant

Edinburgh Napier University