Ernest Gellner was at the height of his influence and leading a remarkable flowering of academic interest in nationalism when he was struck down by an unexpected heart attack at Prague airport on Sunday, aged 69.
As director of the centre for the study of nationalism at the Central European University in Prague, Professor Gellner was running a myriad of research projects, attracting some of the top scholars of nationalism, including the Scottish academic Tom Nairn.
Explaining the current fashion for nationalism studies, he looked beyond the rash of nationalist struggles and pointed to the decline of Marxist studies, and the new interest shown by former Marxist scholars in nationalism. In his last major interview, given to The THES two weeks ago, he said: "Marxism attracted or influenced a large proportion of comparative social scientists and they tended to think in terms of classes rather than nations: now that rival orientation has been largely eliminated."
Professor Gellner was a supporter of what he called "a pan-European authority", and he was also passionately interested in Central and Eastern Europe, not least because he grew up in Prague.
He was part of a generation of brilliant intellectuals that grew up in the Habsburg and post-Habsburg world and fled to England in the 1930s, and at the time of his death he was engaged in a study of the impact of such scholars on British thought. A professor at the London School of Economics and later at Cambridge, Professor Gellner was the supreme all-rounder. Jonathan Benthall, director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, said this week: "He could have been a professor of sociology, philosophy or political science."
But as Professor Gellner told The THES: "I am an academic because it corresponds to my temperament and inclination. I don't feel comfortable in the outside world."