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Anna Morpurgo Davies, 21.6.1937 – 27.9.2014

28th September 2014

Professor Anna Morpurgo Davies DBE FSA FBA died on 27 September 2014, aged 77.

Anna was born on 21 June 1937 in Milan as the youngest of four children. The family was Jewish by background; her father Augusto lost his post as a result of Mussolini’s racial laws in 1938 and died in 1939, having contracted pneumonia when attempting to secure safe passage to Argentina for the family. She moved to Rome with her mother Maria; they survived the final year of the war in hiding and with false papers. Courage, fierce intelligence and a strong sense of family were to be enduring characteristics.

Her academic career was glittering: following a doctorate on Linear B at the University of Rome and a period as Junior Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Harvard, she was appointed as lecturer in Classical Philology at Oxford in 1964, at the age of 27, and became a fellow of St Hilda’s College in 1966. She had married the ancient historian John K. Davies in 1962 (marriage dissolved 1978). In 1971, she was appointed to the Chair of Comparative Philology, joining the very small group of female professors, and became a fellow of Somerville College. As the result of her successful fundraising, the chair was named the Diebold Chair in 2003 and thus secured for the future. Her publications spanned a wide area of comparative grammar; she was a world expert in Ancient Anatolian languages such as Hittite and one of the decipherers of Hieroglyphic Luwian. From 1992 to 2004 she served as a delegate of Oxford University Press – fitting for a scholar who was also a great lover of books. She retired in 2004, but remained active in the subject and in college.

Her distinction as a scholar was recognized internationally by a series of honours: she became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1974 and was elected to the British Academy in 1985. In 2001, she became an honorary Dame Commander of the British Empire, though as an Italian national, she could only use the post-nominals DBE. She held honorary doctorates from the universities of St Andrews (1981) and Nancy (2009), was made an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College in 1972, and was an honorary or corresponding member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien), the Linguistic Society of America, Academia Europaea, the American Philosophical Society, the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (Institut de France), the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, and the Accademia dei Lincei.

She was exceptional not just as a scholar: generations of graduate students, research fellows and young colleagues owe so much to the fact that Anna took them under her wing, offering wise advice and wry comment on the mysteries of the university system, Englishness, gardening, cats, and life in general. Her generosity was boundless; her vivacity and her ability to enjoy lit up every conversation, and she faced illness with characteristic courage. She will be much missed, because she was very much loved.

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To read the Holocaust Memorial Day address delivered by Anna Morpurgo Davies on 23 January 2005, please follow this link.

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