Chronicles from beyond the grave

December 14, 2007

The "glittering achievements and charmed lives" of the 20th century's academic elite have been laid bare this week in a study of recent obituaries entitled Dead Academics .

The author of the research paper, Malcolm Tight, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said he was left "awestruck" by the achievements of those deemed worthy of posthumous celebration.

He said: "This feeling is compounded by the mythic quality - which is not to say that they are untrue - of many of the statements and anecdotes included. Most of us in academic life are truly not worthy by comparison."

The paper, presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference, looked at 100 obituaries published in the first nine months of this year.

Most of the academics commemorated were men, their average age was 79 and almost half had studied - and a quarter had worked - at Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Professor Tight said the sheer quantity of obituaries printed illustrated the "high regard" in which academics are held, adding that he had been surprised by how quickly he was able to collect his 100-strong sample.

Of the academics featured in his paper, 85 were men and 15 women, with an age range of 46 to 98, and they were equally split between the arts and humanities and science and medicine.

The majority, 81, had been professors; six were vice-chancellors; there were five Nobel laureates and six had been knighted. In addition, 25 had chaired academic societies, 11 had edited journals and at least 30 had served in the Second World War.

Noting the monastic origins of academia, the study notes that 13 had never married and a quarter had had no children - although one made up the numbers with seven offspring.

Professor Tight said: "The story these obituaries impart to me about postwar academic work and life is one of lots of individuals striving hard and putting in long hours, caring for their students, colleagues and research topics, and achieving a great deal in often trying circumstances."

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