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Bowett, Sir Derek William (1927–2009), jurist and college head, was born on 20 April 1927 at Denison House maternity home, Victoria Park, Rusholme, near Manchester, the son of Arnold William Bowett (1900–1961), a commercial traveller, and his first wife, Marion, née Wood (1898/9–1948). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 1457 Ashton Old Road, Higher Openshaw, Manchester. He was brought up near Manchester, becoming a chorister at the cathedral. His career as head foundationer was cut short, first by evacuation of the choir school after the Second World War broke out, and then, after the school's return to base, by the bombing of the cathedral in December 1940. He then went to William Hulme's School in Manchester, paying his fees out of his head chorister's earnings.

Anticipating his eighteenth birthday Bowett enlisted in the Royal Navy, hoping to see active duty before the end of the war. But Japan having surrendered, he spent the next few years in mine clearance work in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. In 1948, following demobilization, he went up to Downing College, Cambridge, to read law. While at Downing he represented the university against Oxford at lacrosse. A first-class degree brought him to the attention of Hersch Lauterpacht, the seventh Whewell professor of international law. At Lauterpacht's instigation, Bowett stayed on at Cambridge for a further year's graduate study. In 1951 he won the Whewell scholarship, awarded by competitive examination in international law.

Bowett's first job in 1951, following completion of the LLB degree, was a university lectureship in law at Manchester University. There he shared a house with three young women, including a statuesque blonde with a sharp sense of humour, Betty Northall (b. 1927), the daughter of William Sydney Northall, civil servant. They were married on 30 December 1952 at St Thomas's Church in Rhyl, Flintshire. The following year Bowett was called to the bar by the Middle Temple. He wrote his PhD thesis while holding the lectureship and helping to bring up a young family with Betty, which eventually grew to include their two sons, Richard (b. 1956) and Adam (b. 1958), and their daughter, Louise (b. 1961). The thesis, published under the title Self-Defence in International Law (1958), was still cited regularly half a century later.

Bowett's time at Manchester was interrupted by two years in the United Nations codification division in New York. In 1960 he returned to Cambridge as a university lecturer, becoming a fellow of Queens' College. His elevation to a (very young) president of the college followed in 1970. When Lauterpacht's successor, Sir Robert Jennings, resigned from the Whewell professorship in 1981, Bowett was elected to replace him. He increasingly came to find that his obligations to the college were irreconcilable with those of his chair, and he resigned from the presidency in 1982. He remained Whewell professor until taking early retirement from that too, in 1991.

During these years Bowett gained a distinguished reputation as an international lawyer, and managed to combine academic study with considerable practical experience. Apart from Self-Defence in International Law, a pioneer piece of research was United Nations Forces (1964). Though ostensibly produced by a committee with Bowett as reporter, it was, as Lord McNair made clear in his introduction, almost entirely Bowett's work. His text on The Law of International Institutions was first published in 1962: it was the first general book on the topic in English. He took it through four editions; Philippe Sands and Pierre Klein then revised it for two further editions, the second published a month after Bowett's death. He also became, through practice, an expert in the law of the sea and published a number of pieces, including The Legal Regime of Islands in International Law (1979). Bowett was highly regarded as a teacher at both graduate and (what is more difficult in Cambridge) undergraduate level. He counted among his students several who went on to become distinguished international lawyers, including a number of members of the International Court of Justice.

In 1964 Bowett was asked by the government of Somalia to advise it on its territorial disputes with Ethiopia and Kenya. This was his first international law brief, and the beginning of a glittering career as a practitioner. He spent two years, from 1966 to 1968, in Beirut as legal adviser to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, an experience that affected him deeply. He attained a well-deserved reputation as a forceful, utterly lucid advocate in international law cases, both in arbitrations and before the International Court, where he appeared on numerous occasions. He had the great advocate's ability to simplify and distil without distorting, reducing the case to carefully chosen essentials. But he also had a strong strategic sense—and a capacity to improvise, as when he fought a series of major expropriation cases, basing himself entirely on documents produced by the expropriated claimants (his own client, Iran, could produce no documents whatever). He took silk in 1978 (having been made an honorary bencher of the Middle Temple in 1975), and in his later career served a term as British member of the International Law Commission, from 1991 to 1996. For services to international law he was appointed CBE in 1983 and knighted in 1998. He also received honours from Denmark, Honduras, and Slovakia. In his last years he suffered from a long and debilitating illness which, supported by his family, he bore stoically. He died on 23 May 2009 of bronchopneumonia at his home in Hills Road, Cambridge, and was survived by Betty and their three children.

James Crawford


L. Dingle and D. Bates, ‘Conversations with Professor Sir Derek William Bowett: a contribution to the Squire Law Library Eminent Scholars archive’, Legal Information Management, 7 (2007), 277–83 · Sir Derek Bowett in conversation with Lesley Dingle, www.squire.law.cam.ac.uk/eminent_scholars/, accessed on 18 Jan 2012, Squire Law Library, Cambridge · The Times (3 Aug 2009) · The Guardian (25 Aug 2009) · British Yearbook of International Law, 80 (2009), 1–9 · WW (2009) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£1,026,603: probate, 23 Nov 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales