By Allan Gotthelf

This is the uncut version of an obituary that appeared, in an edited version in The Guardian of London, shortly after David Balme's death in 1989. Its author Allan Gotthelf was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at The College of New Jersey, a visiting professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a visiting professor of History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

He first met David Balme in 1973, and was an associate and friend until David's death in 1989. He prepared for publication two of David's posthumous books (see second note at end). The information in this obituary is based on a 1985 fuller biographical essay (see first note at end), itself based in part on an extensive interview with David about his life. Allan was a Friend Member of the former 207 Squadron RAF Association in honour of his friendship with David. He died on August 30, 2013.

By Allan Gotthelf

David Mowbray Balme, Professor Emeritus of Classics, Queen Mary College, University of London, died on 23 February 1989, at the age 76, leaving behind his wife of 52 years, Margaret, and their five children and eight grandchildren. He also left behind a legacy to higher education in West Africa and to the study of the philosopher Aristotle that will not easily be forgotten.

Professor Balme was born in Carlisle, but spent his first ten years in China, where his father was Professor of Surgery and President at Cheloo University. He was educated at Marlborough and at Clare College, Cambridge, where he took Firsts in both parts of the Classical Tripos in 1934. It was as an undergraduate and then postgraduate at Clare and at the University of Halle in Germany, studying with the great scholars of ancient Greek philosophy, F.M. Cornford and Julius Stenzel, that perhaps his deepest professional love, for the philosophy of Aristotle, developed.

He was but one term into a position as Tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, when he joined the RAF, in 1940. As a bomber pilot, of Lancasters, he achieved a distinguished record that was frequently remarked upon for years afterwards by his academic colleagues, rising to Wing Commander and earning the DFC and DSO.

In 1945 Professor Balme resumed his position at Jesus College, where he soon rose to Senior Tutor, a position in which his devotion and talents in the realm of education were soon apparent. They came to the attention of the Colonial Office and in 1948 he was appointed first Principal of the fledgling University College of the Gold Coast, now the University of Ghana, Legon.

'Looking back over what we have been trying to do at Legon', David Balme stated in a farewell radio broadcast in Ghana in 1957, 'I think it could all be summed up in the words "setting standards". We have been trying to set a good university standard.'

The aim was to provide all of the university's graduates, including the nation's future leaders, with a certain intellectual and moral training, which 'purely academic studies - the severer the better' can uniquely provide. His explanation of this says as much about the man as it does about his philosophy of education:

'A man cannot be a successful scholar without acquiring certain virtues which are of value outside universities: He must train his memory; he must learn to distinguish good from bad arguments; he must discipline himself to work hard. He needs firmness of purpose and honesty of mind. He must learn to reason dispassionately, and dispassionate discussions lead to tolerance. All these are useful qualities, which are transferable to ordinary life.'

His nine years of effort left a strong, widely respected institution, which continued its commitments to excellence. Through the debates that followed his departure about the mission of the new University of Ghana, Professor Balme continued to be remembered with great respect and often fondly for his commitment to excellence and for the respect for the new nation which it implied. The University's collection of books is now housed in the David Balme Library.

From the beginning of his tenure as Principal, Professor Balme earned the exasperation of his secretary: at the start of every morning he locked himself in his office for two undisturbed hours of study of Aristotle. The result was confirmation of an idea that had begun to take shape in his mind much earlier: the biological works of Aristotle, some 25% of his surviving corpus yet largely neglected by philosophically-oriented Aristotelian scholars, were of great value in understanding more central areas of Aristotelian thought, areas represented rather tersely and often cryptically in his more well-known philosophical treatises. The biological works exemplified and illuminated Aristotle's theory of scientific method Professor Balme came to realize, and exhibited the key ideas of his metaphysics and natural philosophy busily at work in a fuller and more accessible context.

David Balme accepted a Readership in Classics at Queen Mary College, London upon his return, and in 1965 he was elected Professor and Chairman of Classics. His devotion to education led him to innovations in the teaching of the classical languages, including seminars conducted wholly in Latin. His publications on Aristotle's zoology and its philosophical significance soon brought him to prominence, though it did not immediately stimulate much work in this area by other established scholars.

Though others gave occasional attention to the biological treatises in their publications on Aristotle, Professor Balme was almost alone for some years in his commitment to the centrality of these treatises, at least until the 1970s when his work came to the attention of some younger scholars, especially in America but also in Germany and France. A series of international conferences in the 1980s and several recent books have brought this area of Aristotelian studies, and Professor Balme's contributions to it, to widespread scholarly attention, and this area is now a burgeoning one, as established scholars turn more regularly to the biology and an increasing number of graduate students choose aspects of it as dissertation topics.

Professor Balme's achievements were celebrated by some 24 scholars in 1982, in a 70th birthday Festschrift, published three years later in Britain and America under the title, Aristotle on Nature and Living Things. In a recent review of that book, Professor G.E.R. Lloyd, of King's College, Cambridge, himself one of the most distinguished historians of ancient science, described Professor Balme as 'the doyen of scholars writing in English - indeed in any language - in this field'; the view is universally shared. (A bibliography of Professor Balme's writings, and a biographical essay, may be found in the Festschrift.*)

Professor Balme was busy at work on Aristotle until he took ill this past autumn [1988], preparing a new scholarly edition with philosophical commentary of the Historia Animalium, the largest and least studied of Aristotle's works.**

His last professional appearance was in June-July 1988, for two weeks of the six-week (U.S.) N.E.H. Summer Institute on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Biology, and Ethics, a large gathering of Aristotelian teacher-scholars being brought up to date on the latest research in their field. Professor Balme's presence was for those participating one of the highlights of the Institute. With his characteristic incisiveness, depth of insight, and command of the Greek language, but also his gentlemanliness, kindness, and relaxed dignity, Professor Balme charmed the attendees, making new fans of the younger Aristotelians.

Two of his life-long loves had been music (he played the piano nearly every day) and horses; in addition to his lectures and participation in scholarly discussion, Professor Balme joined in regular chamber music sessions and could often be seen discussing horses with an accomplished young horsewoman-scholar. A special tour was arranged for Professor Balme of a nearby U.S. Air Force Base, and the three of us who accompanied him will long remember a 75 year old retired professor of Classics sitting in the pilot's seat of an FB-111 supersonic bomber, swapping stories and information with the young American captain.

It was not just David Balme's work but also his presence and his person that had an impact on his colleagues. One young American at the Summer Institute wrote of his delight at meeting Professor Balme and of experiencing thereby the best of what the British Empire has produced. The relaxed dignity already mentioned, a strong but non-oppressive sense of correctness, and a subtle wit and charm, made one hang on every word, and generated a respect and an affection beyond what is typical in the profession.

Professor Balme's passion for the things he cared about was quiet yet undisguised, and Summer Institute members remember how moved everyone present was, at the close of a special evening lecture on the editing of ancient texts which Professor Balme gave, when he spoke of the motivation that drove the grueling, lonely effort to recover, so far as one could from often corrupted medieval manuscripts, the original words of an ancient man of genius -- the sheer love of it all, as he put it.

Professor Balme was loved in return by those of us who knew his work the most, and was admired by everyone who worked the field of ancient philosophy. He played a central part in the exciting revitalization the field has experienced in the past twenty-five years, and takes his place among the most important scholars of Aristotle in the past two hundred or more. For his achievements and his character he will be sorely missed.

by permission of The Guardian

*Aristotle on Nature and Living Things: Philosophical and Historical Studies Presented to David M. Balme on his Seventieth Birthday, edited by A. Gotthelf, Pittsburgh (U.S.): Mathesis Publications and Bristol (U.K.): Bristol Classical Press, 1985.

Aristotle, Historia Animalium, vol. I: Text - Books I-X, edited by D.M. Balme, prepared for publication by A. Gotthelf. Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge University Press, October 2002. (Volume II will be published in a couple of years.) This book was preceded by Aristotle, History of Animals, Books VII-X, edited and translated by D.M. Balme, prepared for publication by A. Gotthelf. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass. (U.S.): Harvard University Press, 1991.

last updated 1 Jul 2005: 26 Dec 13