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Mitchison [née Wrong], Rosalind Mary [Rowy] (1919–2002), historian, was born at 10 Clowes Street, Withington, Manchester, on 11 April 1919, the eldest daughter of (Edward) Murray Wrong (1889–1928), historian, son of , historian. Her mother was Rosalind Grace, née Smith (1892–1983), also a historian, and sixth of the seven daughters of , historian and master of Balliol. She had her future profession in her blood. At the time of her birth her father was vice-principal of Manchester College of Technology, but later the same year he became Beit lecturer in colonial history at Oxford and (from the following year) a fellow and tutor in history at Magdalen College, Oxford. Nevertheless her childhood was not easy. Her father died young of rheumatic fever when she was eight, and in 1931 the family was obliged by financial difficulties to split, the three eldest children including herself remaining with their mother and the three youngest being sent to their grandparents in Canada. She had attended the Dragon School in Oxford for the five previous years, but now went to St Paul's School for Girls, Hammersmith, which she detested. She had been there a year when she, too, developed rheumatic fever: she spent one year in bed and a second recuperating before completing school at Channing School, Highgate. She then went to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford to read mathematics. She obtained a first in mathematical moderations in 1940 but then switched to modern history, graduating in 1942 with a first-class degree. After a year with the Nuffield social reconstruction survey under Douglas Cole, she became assistant lecturer in history under Lewis Namier in Manchester, before returning after three years to tutor in history at her old college in Oxford.

On 21 June 1947 Rosalind Wrong married a brilliant young Cambridge zoologist, (John) Murdoch Mitchison (1922–2011), and they enjoyed a long and strikingly happy relationship until her death. He came from an intellectual family himself: his mother was the writer , and his father was Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison (1890–1970), a Labour MP ennobled as Baron Mitchison in 1970. Rosalind and Murdoch Mitchison had four children, Sally (b. 1948), Neil (b. 1951), Harriet (b. 1955), and Amanda (b. 1959). Rosalind, or Rowy as she was known by her friends, became famous for many qualities—talkativeness, energy, laying down the law, good sense, fine cooking, and generous hospitality. But it was her exuberant ability to bring up and cherish a large demanding family while pursuing a vigorously successful career that most awed other wives of her generation. In Cambridge she taught history part-time at Pembroke and Girton. One undergraduate recalled phoning to say he couldn't manage a tutorial on Wednesday: ‘she said she knew it was the 1000 guineas at Newmarket … Thursday was OK but not Friday as she was due to have a baby that day’ (Mitchison, 9).

In 1953 Murdoch Mitchison accepted a post at Edinburgh University, and the family moved north. It was difficult for Rowy Mitchison to find a university post herself in Scotland. One professor informed her in writing that he did not appoint women to permanent jobs, and recommended school teaching. She spent fourteen years in successive part-time or temporary appointments for the departments of history and economic history in Edinburgh, and of Scottish history in Glasgow. For a year she also worked for the History of Parliament Trust under her old mentor Lewis Namier. It was he who suggested the subject of her first major book, the biography of Sir John Sinclair, published in 1962.

In 1967 Mitchison was at last appointed to a full-time lectureship in economic history at Edinburgh, a strong department that provided an environment where she could be at her most productive. Promotion followed, to a readership in 1976 and to a personal chair in 1981. Her work at Edinburgh led in several directions, but normally her focus was on Scotland. To the outside world, her best-known book was the History of Scotland (1970), a beautifully written and refreshingly unstuffy volume that went through several reprints and three editions, the last in 2002. To economic and social historians, her pioneering work on grain prices and on demography was of singular importance, the latter as one of a team led by Michael Flinn writing Scottish Population History (1977), in which she was responsible for the eighteenth century. A social history, Life in Scotland (1978), followed, and her interest in political history was maintained in several astute articles and a volume in the New History of Scotland, Lordship to Patronage (1983), on the seventeenth century. Following her retirement in 1986 she remained a busy scholar in the department she loved. Her scholarly interests returned to the poor law, which had fascinated her since working on an article for Past and Present in 1974. It was a topic much obscured by misrepresentation, but very suitable for her gifts of critical demolition and careful reconstruction. In addition to articles and published lectures, she published a monograph, The Old Poor Law in Scotland, in 2000. In the interim she had also written, with her colleague and friend Leah Leneman, two volume-length studies also based on kirk session records, on illegitimacy and sexual mores in early modern Scotland.

Mitchison was a fine empirical historian of the old school, suspicious of theory and dismissive of fad, a feminist in outlook who could disappoint feminist historians by a lack of fury, and a student of social problems who irritated some highland historians by insisting on an objective economic and demographic element in the clearances. She was a keen supporter of local history, editing the East Lothian Transactions from 1977 to 1991, and she contributed eight biographies to the Oxford DNB. In 1968 she became a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and in 1994, very belatedly, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She died at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, on 20 September 2002, following a stroke, and was cremated ten days later. She was survived by her husband, Murdoch, and their four children.

T. C. Smout

Sources  

The Independent (21 Sept 2002); (25 Sept 2002) · Daily Telegraph (24 Sept 2002) · The Scotsman (26 Sept 2002) · The Times (27 Sept 2002) · The Guardian (4 Oct 2002) · J. M. Mitchison, Rowy: Rosalind Mitchison, a memoir (2005) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

U. Edin. L.  

FILM

 

IHR, video interviews with historians, Rosalind Mitchison with Christopher Smout

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, millennium memory bank interview, 27 Nov 1997


Likenesses  

obituary photographs