John Barron, 1934-2008

October 2, 2008

John Barron, a Classics scholar who played a key role in the reform of British higher education, has died.

He was born in Morley, West Yorkshire, on April 1934, the son of a mathematics teacher, and educated at Wakefield Grammar School and Clifton College in Bristol.

He went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1953, intending to train as a barrister, but his tutors persuaded him to continue with his Classics studies instead. A DPhil thesis on the early history of Samos led to a lifelong passion for Greece and eventually a major study, The Silver Coins of Samos (1966). He was also to publish Greek Sculpture (1965), a general introduction to the subject, and contributed many chapters to The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (1985).

Professor Barron started his academic career in London and, with his wide-ranging knowledge of the ancient world, taught archaeology, Latin and numismatics before becoming professor of Greek language and literature at King's College London from 1971 to 1991. As well as serving as director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London (1984-91), he became a member of the University Funding Council (1989-93) at a time when many academics feared it was simply a tool of the Conservative Government of the day to impose unacceptable changes on universities. This allowed him to play a part in the rapid expansion of higher education, although his review of the state of British Classics departments led to a programme of "rationalisation" and closures that called on all his considerable reserves of firmness and diplomacy.

In 1991, Professor Barron became master of St Peter's College, Oxford, where he served for two five-year periods before being asked to stay on for two more years. Because the college was comparatively young and cash-strapped, he devoted much energy to fundraising and expanding accommodation, even coming up with an ambitious plan to convert the town prison into student lodgings.

Henrietta Leyser, until recently tutor for admissions at St Peter's, remembers him for the warmth of his personality. "He made the college seem like a welcoming place, didn't bear grudges, and loved talking to undergraduates and being a paterfamilias to them."

A committed Anglican, Professor Barron made a point of attending Sunday evensong at St Peter's. He also oversaw the redecoration of the chapel and the restoration of the 19th-century "Father Willis" organ. "John relished being master," recalls Ms Leyser, "and he wanted his funeral to be in St Peter's, the place that was dearest to his heart."

He died on 16 August and is survived by his wife, Caroline Barron, a distinguished medieval historian, and their daughters Catherine and Helen.

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