Terry O'Connor

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Remembering Don Brothwell

This afternoon was going quite well. The sun was shining, a few irritating administrative loose ends had been tied up, there was gravadlax for lunch. Then the news came that Don Brothwell had died.
Don was one of the pioneers in the field of archaeological science, trained as an anthropologist but with an ability to turn his mind to whatever ideas and techniques might help to answer questions about the past and present of humanity. I was aware of him as a name at what was then the British Museum (Natural History) almost as soon as I became involved with archaeology as an obnoxious teenager. We first met, I think, when Don joined the staff of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, on the retirement of another great pioneer, Ian W. Cornwall. As a student with an interest in bones, I took a number of courses with Don and came to appreciate, if not always to understand, his eclectic fund of knowledge and capacity to link ideas and information across disciplines. When the UK’s Department of Education and Science (yes, the UK believed in such things in the 1970s!) saw fit to award me a Major State Studentship, Don became my PhD supervisor, which was quite a voyage of discovery for both of us.
Memories and anecdotes could fill many pages. There was the time we were briefly locked in a cell at Covent Garden police station following a misunderstanding over some freshly-excavated human bones. That was my first and, to date, only experience of being banged up, though as a young man Don served a spell in Lincoln prison for refusing to attend for National Service. Then there was the time we were on a small island in Orkney in foul January weather, collecting bones of the local sheep. Towards the end of a long day, we found a useful carcass and decided to cut off the feet, only to realise that my trusty penknife had fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the shore. Don was unconcerned. From the tideline he picked up a large pebble and a broken Carlsberg Special bottle. “Go on, knap a cutting edge onto that”. I did, and it served the purpose very well. Returning from that collecting expedition, we drove South through a snowy Scotland in Don’s erratic Hillman Imp. Arriving in Inverness at dusk, with light snow falling, Don said “Go find us tea and cake and I’ll book a room for tonight”. Minutes later he came into the café smiling. “That’s arranged. We just have to get to Perth in a couple of hours”. Readers familiar with Scottish roads and Scottish Januaries will appreciate the impracticality of that!
Don was a hobby artist, an atheist, a pacifist and a humanitarian, someone who really cared about people and what the world did to them, individually and collectively. His forensic work in the former Yugoslavia grew out of that concern, as did his willingness to explain the reprehensible behaviour of others as a consequence of the pressures on them rather than something inherent in the person themselves. I can only recall one occasion when Don was less than generous to a colleague. On hearing that a particularly eminent archaeologist had just died, he said to me “He was a brilliant man. Pity he was such a shit”. That is not how Don will be remembered: rather, I recall what he said on several occasions regarding his own funeral “When I go, just put me out with the bins”.

don-pic1

Don Brothwell, photographed at the Kings Manor, York. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/themanchestermuseum/3043187069  

 

 

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. I have memories of him saying to me that when he shuffled off he intended to leave his skeleton in a cupboard at King’s Manor somewhere, in the hope that it might FINALLY teach me the difference between human and sheep.

    • Thanks Katherine – that sounds absolutely typical of Don! Would you mind if the University adds your comment to the webpage that they are putting together in Don’s memory?

      Terry

  2. sootash1 says:

    DR. DON BROTHWELLL WAS AN AMAZING MAN, AND SO KIND AND THOGUHTFUL. HE WAS MY EXTERN IN THE 1980’S FOR MY MASTER’S ON DENTAL ANTHROPOLOGY, THE FIRST IN IRELAND IN THAT FIELD. DON WAS ALWAYS ENCOURAGING. I WAS THRILLED WHEN I WAS GIVEN APPROVAL FOR HIS VISIT TO THE ARCHAEOLOGY DEPARTMENT OF UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK . WE WERE IN AWE OF THIS GREAT MAN. HE PROVIDED MY STUDENTS AND I WITH A WONDERFUL WEEKEND OF TALKS. AFTERWARDS ROSEMARY, HIS WIFE AND THE CHILDREN WENT TOURING WEST CORK. WE HAD A
    WONDERFUL WEEK., AS DID DON AND HIS FAMILY. IT WAS A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE KNOWN HIM.
    I HAD BEEN IN TOUCH A NUMBER OF TIMES OVER THE YEARS, AS HE WAS ALWAYS SO WILLING TO GIVE ADVICE AND TO SHARE INFORMATION, BUT SADLY NOT AS MUCH AS I WOULD HAVE LIKED. I WAS JUST ABOUT TO POST HIM A COPY OF MY FIRST BOOK.

  3. I’m a former classmate of Don’s when we both attended Beeston Fields County Secondary School, in Beeston, Nottingham, and last saw him well over 60 years ago.
    I had little knowledge of his impressive successes – there must have been many for him to become such a pillar in his field – and your thoughts and memories are very much appreciated. He was clearly also a very humane person and this is good to know.
    Thank you for telling all you have done.
    Regards
    Douglas Worrall

  4. Brian & Helen vickers says:

    As former neighbours of Don in Avebury, we too found him a lovely man – and different!. He lived in the only house we have been in which had boxes of hundreds of years old skeletons in the hall. Also the only time we have had dinner accompanied by discussion of the contents of a 2000 year old bog man’s stomach – which Don’s colleague phoned through. RIP Don.

    • Thanks very much for that memory – typically Don! Would you mind if your words were added to a memorial webpage that the University is putting together? I would like to have a few words from people who knew Don socially, not only professionally.

      Terry

  5. Clark Larsen says:

    I have a wonderful memory of Don Brothwell. We only met once, but what a meeting it was. Out of the blue, I got an email from him in 2003, asking if he could visit me and to talk about bone pathology in living domestic animals and to investigate Ohio State University’s veterinarian library. He was making plans to undertake a comparative review of human and animal paleopathology and thinking about spending a Fulbright leave at Ohio State. I was excited to hear from this iconic figure. I invited him to stay at our house during his visit. So, he showed up, and we spent hours over the course of his visit talking about our respective families, life in general, and of course, paleopathology. He also met my next-door neighbor, a well known animal pathology specialist in our vet school. Don was such a gracious guest, and both my spouse and son (who was 8 at the time) enjoyed him. The visit was especially memorable owing to his interest in my family and the delightful time we had with him.

    Clark Larsen

    • Thank you so much for this memory. Don’s family have been really touched by the many messages that have come in from friends, colleagues, even an old school-friend. He was quite an unforgettable character and I’m just one of many who owe their career to Don’s inspiration.

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