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Iain Richard Wright (1944–2006)

by Simon Haines

Iain Richard Wright was born in Edinburgh on 27 December 1944. His father, a Londoner, was away at war in France; his mother was a Scot, and Iain retained all his life a profound attachment to the culture and landscape of Scotland, especially the Cuillin mountains and his beloved Skye. Iain and his younger sister, Sheila, grew up on the edge of Richmond Park. Like his father and grandfather, he attended (1953–64) the Latymer grammar school in North London; an outstanding scholar, he was the first in the family to go to university. At Cambridge, he continued to excel, taking a double first in the English Tripos (1964–67), and then becoming successively Research Fellow, Fellow, Director of Studies in English, and Life Fellow of Queens’ College. His affection for the college was deep, open and abiding.

Iain’s passion for the theatre began in his undergraduate years. In 1964, he joined the Cambridge University Players, a touring company based on the Bats, the Queens’ College dramatic society, in which he was also a leading light. He was regarded as a fine actor, both vocally and physically, even by the high standards of Cambridge at the time; he played many leading roles including Troilus, Edgar and Hal, notably for the Players’ summer tours to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

As a senior academic at Cambridge, Iain taught widely in the modern novel (including the Russian: he was proud of his reading ability in the language), Greek and Renaissance tragedy, 17th-century literature, modern drama, critical theory and—of course—Scottish literature. He wrote principally on E.M. Forster and on modern criticism and cultural theory. He also became Senior Tutor at Queens’, giving, as ever, a great deal of his time to administrative and pastoral work. He was Keeper of the Old Library and Archives (how he loved that library!). He also found time for the World University Service, of which he was UK Chairman from 1975 to 1978 and International President from 1978 to 1980. He was from 1969 to 1973 editor of the Cambridge Review, attracting Noam Chomsky among others to its pages. Politically speaking, he was deeply affected by his first-hand witnessing of the events in Paris in 1968, and of the fall of Allende in Chile in 1973. He always remained a committed man of the left.

The year 1982 was a turning point in Iain’s life. He married Penelope Pollitt and became the devoted stepfather of Madeleine and Davey. Penelope and Iain’s daughter, Catriona, was born that year. So was Iain’s association with Canberra and the ANU, with a visiting fellowship at the Humanities Research Centre; he returned for visits to ANU, and to Melbourne and Adelaide universities, in 1988.

In 1991 Iain arrived with his family to take up the ANU Chair in English. During his 15 years in Canberra and at the University, Iain held numerous senior posts on campus, including staff representative on council, Head of English, Head of the School of Humanities and Deputy Dean of Arts. He even re-translated the university motto. As Secretary and Deputy President of the Cambridge Australia Trust he did much to strengthen the links between his two homes. As ever, Iain put most of his administrative effort into pastoral care and collegial encouragement. Meanwhile, he continued his research on modern criticism and, in recent years, became a Shakespeare scholar of some note, with his new work on illusion and special effects in Macbeth and other Shakespearean theatre. His research and intellectual interests were diverse and wide-ranging, from the contemporary literary cultural theorist Edward Said to the Welsh physician, playwright and musician, Matthew Gwinne, whose life Iain recently wrote for the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; or from Forster, on whom he wrote an as-yet unpublished book-length study, to philosophical hermeneutics, a recent school of literary theory in which his is a respected name. But it was as a teacher that Iain made his greatest contribution to the life of the University. As a lecturer, a tutor and a PhD supervisor, his enthusiasm, generosity, range of reference and use of new multimedia techniques, as well as his warmth and his occasionally wicked sense of humour, left an unforgettable impression on a generation of students. Many have spoken of how they find it impossible to believe that he is gone.

In his last few years, Iain found great happiness with Caroline. They had all too little time together. He died in Melbourne on 4 September 2006, leaving Caroline; Penelope and Catriona; Madeleine and Davey; two step-grandchildren, Harry and Leila; Caroline’s daughters, Jo, Olivia, Madeleine and Alexandra; his sister, Sheila; and his many friends, colleagues and students. He left us much too soon. He will be sorely missed, and long remembered.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Simon Haines, 'Wright, Iain Richard (1944–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1944
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


4 September, 2006 (aged 61)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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