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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  November 2012  /  Death of Tony French

Death of Tony French

Scholar of Russian historical geography and popular lecturer

Death of Tony French

News

Dr Tony French, from the 1950s to the 1990s one of the few British scholars teaching the geography of Russia, died peacefully on 24 November 2012 following a long period of failing health.

Tony came to UCL in 1950 after gaining a first-class degree in geography at the University of Liverpool. He researched his M.A. thesis on the historical geography of Russia, learning Russian, living with expatriate Russian families and using specialist libraries in Paris, Helsinki and London at a time when the USSR was closed to western scholars. He was appointed lecturer in geography at UCL in 1955 and remained there until he retired in 1994.

His lectures focused on the human geography of the USSR (later Russia and adjacent territories), paying special attention to historical geography, his first academic love. His initial research was on the drainage of Russian marshland (a theme close to the interests of H.C. Darby at UCL), and his doctorate was on the historical geography of Belorussia in the 16th century.

Once the Berlin Wall had fallen, Tony’s lectures concentrated more on social geography. Jointly with Frank Carter, he delivered a popular second-year course on Eastern Europe and Russia during his final years on the staff. He also taught undergraduates and masters students at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Once retired, Tony spent part of each year (the British winter) in New Zealand, where his artist wife, Vivian, had a house. He was also guest lecturer on inland cruises between Moscow and St Petersburg. For all his intellectual rigour, Tony was always great fun to be with and was a true ‘gentleman’. He was a kind, supportive teacher and colleague, who held the collegial  community of UCL in great affection. He will be missed greatly.

For a fuller version by Hugh Clout, click on Obituary above.

Obituary

TONY FRENCH, 1929-2012

At the age of 83, Dr. Tony French died peacefully in his sleep on 24 November, after a long period of failing health.  He was the British expert on the geography of Russia, publishing books and articles on its historical and socio-economic geography. Unlike most other geographers who wrote about Russia, Tony visited the country’s libraries and archives, and interacted with Russians in order to ensure the rigour of his work. He came to UCL in 1950, having gained a first-class degree in geography at the University of Liverpool, where one of his tutors was Bill Mead (later head of geography at UCL). Professor H.C. Darby also left Liverpool for UCL at that time, and was well aware of Tony’s scholarly potential. Between 1950 and 1953, Tony researched his M.A. thesis on the historical geography of Russia, learning Russian, living with expatriate Russian families, and using specialist libraries in Paris, Helsinki and London; the USSR was closed to western scholars at this time of the Cold War. Military service in the intelligence corps followed, with further intensive instruction in Russian language. In 1955, Tony was appointed lecturer in geography at UCL, and would remain on the academic staff of the College until he retired in 1994. In fact, he spent a year on the Soviet Studies Program at Harvard University (1955-56) before starting his teaching career. Later research and exchange periods would involve Moscow State University (1959-60), the University of Wisconsin (1971), the University of Minnesota (1985, 1993), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington DC (1988), and various Russian universities once the Cold War had thawed.

His lectures focused on the human geography of the USSR (later Russia and adjacent territories), with special attention being paid to historical geography which was his first academic love. His initial research was on the drainage of Russian marshland (very much a Darby theme), and his doctorate was on the historical geography of Belorussia in the 16th century. ‘Once a historical geographer, always a historical geographer’ was one of his favourite sayings. Tony’s classes were researched meticulously and his lectures were delivered with great clarity, always challenging his audience to evaluate the source material being used and to assess the claims being made, especially those by Soviet politicians and scholars, or by ‘fellow travellers’ in the West who took propaganda statements at face value. Once the Berlin Wall had fallen, Tony’s lectures concentrated rather more on social geography. Jointly with Frank Carter, he delivered a very popular second-year course on Eastern Europe and Russia in his final years on the staff. He also taught undergraduates and masters students at SSEES.

As a tutor, Tony was extremely encouraging toward those judged to have potential but he gave short shrift to time wasters. As an author, he was a perfectionist both in terms of conducting research and committing his findings to paper. He insisted that his doctoral students should be similarly rigorous. His main books were: The Socialist City (edited with F.E.I. Hamilton, 1979), Studies in Russian Historical Geography (2 volumes, edited with J.H. Bater, 1983), The Development of Siberia (edited with A. Wood, 1989), and Plans, Pragmatism and People: the legacy of Soviet Planning to today’s cities (1995). It is a pity that this final book came so late in his career. Beyond UCL, he served as Honorary Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society for many years, employing his skills of diplomacy to good effect.

Once retired, Tony spent part of each year (the British winter) in New Zealand, where his artist wife, Vivian, had a house. On several occasions, he was guest lecturer on inland cruises between Moscow and St Petersburg. For all his intellectual rigour, Tony was always great fun to be with and was a true ‘gentleman’. He was a kind, supportive teacher and colleague, who held the collegial community of UCL in great affection. He will be missed greatly.

Hugh Clout


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Dr Tony French


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