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Dr Joyce Reynolds is oldest person to earn an honorary Cambridge degree


By Ben Comber


99-year-old classicist and epigrapher Joyce Reynolds. Picture: Keith Heppell
99-year-old classicist and epigrapher Joyce Reynolds. Picture: Keith Heppell

The renowned historian and epigraphist received the university’s highest honour, aged 99.

Senate House, eight new honorary doctors including the oldest ever, 99-year-old classicist and epigrapher Joyce Reynolds. Picture: Keith Heppell
Senate House, eight new honorary doctors including the oldest ever, 99-year-old classicist and epigrapher Joyce Reynolds. Picture: Keith Heppell

Renowned for her contribution to our understanding of Roman history and archaeology, Dr Joyce Reynolds has become the oldest person to be given an honorary degree by the University of Cambridge, at 99 years old.

She was among eight recipients of the university’s highest honour.

Dr Reynolds went to Rome in the late 40s and there became an epigraphist and, as one of very women working in the field at that time, paved the way for others who would follow.

She is an honorary fellow of Newnham College and still works three days a week, currently revealing details of Pompeiian family life through a study of pottery.

Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz received an honoroary degree. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz received an honoroary degree. Picture: Keith Heppell

She doesn’t use the internet, but continues her work with books. “They’ve always worked,” she told the Cambridge Independent.

“I just keep on working,” she said. “I’ve always liked my work and I was more interested the more I could find.

“There weren’t in those days very many women doing the sort of thing that I did.

“When I started in an academic job it was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was very shortly after the war and the staff was in any case small, so I easily got to know everyone of them and the things that needed doing. I had been a civil servant during the war and was used to doing things, so I did them.”

The University of Cambridge has given eight new honorary degrees, including to Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC LMB. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge has given eight new honorary degrees, including to Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC LMB. Picture: Keith Heppell

During the war Dr Reynolds worked for the Board of Trade.

“We were aiming to discover whether a reasonable number of basic household goods, like saucepans, actually got to the shops throughout the country. Interestingly enough, my German friends said oh, we never had anything like that.

“I failed the civil service examination, and I had to think about what to do next. I could have taken it again but I thought, blast them. I took up a scholarship in academic work and went to Rome.

“It was a Rome that was really still very deprived. A lot of things had been repaired in England because it had been properly organised. They didn’t. On the other hand they had lots of lovely food.”

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

This was in the late 40s, and within months of arriving in Rome, working as a postgraduate Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome, Dr Reynolds embarked on her first expedition as an epigrapher.

“The director of the school was planning an expedition and he knew he needed an epigraphist, so I went to Tripolitania,” she said. “We went to a series of sites and I found that I rather liked being an epigraphist. You find things and they’re new, and they say new things and you wonder what they mean. Sometimes they’re badly damaged and the letters are not there.”

It was fascinating work, she said, and as well the discoveries she made Dr Reynolds said some of her fondest memories are befriending the locals and helping them learn English.

In 1951 she became a fellow of Newnham College, three years after women had been admitted to degrees. In the same decade Dr Reynolds drove an all-woman party of archaeologists across North Africa. She has taught many students who have gone on to shape the field of classics in their turn, including Dame Mary Beard, who said: “Joyce’s work at Aphrodisias [Turkey] really changed historians’ views about how the Roman empire worked. I bet it will still be being read in 200 years time.”

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dr Reynolds is reader in Roman historical epigraphy emerita, gold medallist of the Society of Antiquaries and a fellow of the British Academy. She became a doctor of letters.

Eight honoured

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz is Chair of Cancer Research UK. The former vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, he is an immunologist and physician.

Born in Wales to parents who had escaped wartime Poland, Prof Borysiewicz studied medicine in Cardiff and obtained a PhD at the University of London.

He first came to Cambridge and Wolfson College, of which he is both a Fellow and Honorary Fellow, as a University Lecturer in 1988.

He was knighted in 2001 for work in developing medical education and vaccines. He was made a Doctor of Law in recognition of his academic leadership.

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

Prof Dame Frances Ashcroft is Professor of Physiology in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford, and leads a team that is world-renowned in the area of pancreatic beta cell and ATP-sensitive channel physiology.

She is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Her collaborations with Professor Andrew Hattersley on channel mutations causing neonatal diabetes have revolutionised the understanding and treatment of this disease.

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier is a world-leader in the understanding of regulatory mechanisms underlying infection and immunity.

Her work in genome editing is acclaimed as one of the outstanding advances of our time in biology and medicine. She is Director of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Founding and Acting Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin and a Honorary Professor at Humboldt University.

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a Group Leader in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, a Fellow of Trinity College and Honorary Professor Structural Biology.

Born in India, and a citizen of both Britain and the United States, Dr Ramakrishnan was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Ada Yonath and Thomas A. Steitz), for the study of ribosomal structure and function. He is President of the Royal Society and a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy, Venki Ramakrishnan received the Padma Vibhushan in 2010 and a knighthood in 2012.

Prof Sir Michael Edwards is a dual English and French national, the poet and literary scholar. He studied as both an undergraduate and a PhD student at Christ’s College, of which he is now an Honorary Fellow.

The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell
The University of Cambridge ceremony. Picture: Keith Heppell

He has published extensively; on Homer, Ovid and Dante, on Shakespeare, Poe and Eliot, and also Molière, Racine and Baudelaire. His poetry spans both English and French and, elected one of the forty members of the Académie française, he is the first Briton to sit amongst les Immortels.

Prof Robert Evans is Regius Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Oxford. He was an undergraduate and a PhD student in Cambridge, at Jesus College.

Acclaimed for his work on Central and Eastern Europe and especially the Habsburg Empire, he is, in addition to a Fellowship of the British Academy and founding Fellowship of the Learned Society of Wales, a Fellow of both the Austrian and Hungarian Academies of Sciences and of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic.

Prof Ira Katznelson is an American political scientist and historian serving as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College in 2017-18.

He is Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University, where he was an undergraduate before coming to Cambridge and St. John’s College to earn his PhD. He is acclaimed for analytical and historical work on matters of race, pluralism, toleration, policy decisions, and social knowledge within the liberal political tradition.



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