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Thistlethwaite, Frank (1915–2003), historian and university administrator, was born on 24 July 1915 at 11 Powell Street, Burnley, Lancashire, the elder son of Lee Thistlethwaite (1885–1973), cotton cloth merchant and manufacturer, and his wife, Florence Nightingale, née Thornber (1892–1983). Both sides of the family came from a long line of nonconformist ancestors in the north-east Lancashire cotton industry, who had risen from handloom weavers to manufacturers.

Thistlethwaite was educated at Coal Clough elementary school and the grammar school in Burnley before going on to the Quaker Bootham School in York. From there he gained an open exhibition in history at St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied history and English. He also edited the Cambridge Review and acquired an admiration for New Deal America. Accordingly he won a Commonwealth Fund fellowship in 1938 to study at the University of Minnesota. He travelled in the mid-west and California, and there he met Jane Hosford (1918–1992), daughter of H. Lindley Hosford, of Lyme, Connecticut; they married on 11 August 1940 and had three daughters and two sons.

Thistlethwaite had intended to return to wartime Britain but was urged by the British ambassador to stay to work for the British Library and its offshoot the British Press Service, where he worked with a team which included Isaiah Berlin, providing the British view of the war to (neutral) American journalists and reporting on the American media coverage for the Foreign Office. However, he determined to return to Britain in November 1941 and, his eyesight disqualifying him from a flying commission, he modestly enlisted in the RAF as an aircraftsman second class, becoming a radar plotter at Rudloe Manor, Wiltshire. This underuse of his abilities was rectified by Geoffrey Crowther, who recruited him to the Ministry of Production in June 1942. He joined the joint American secretariat of the war cabinet office to co-ordinate supply issues with the Americans under the Lend Lease Act, and was co-secretary of the North American supplies committee, with the temporary rank of principal. In 1945 he returned to Washington with the British civil secretariat, the counterpart of the joint American secretariat, then went back to the war cabinet as secretary of the UK delegation to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration council.

At the end of the war Thistlethwaite chose to return to Cambridge as a fellow of St John's College rather than continue his already high-level civil service career. His mission as a Cambridge academic was the development of American studies. He attended the first Salzburg seminar in American studies in 1947. As lecturer in American economic history he taught the new history of the USA course for part one of the historical tripos, became secretary of the Cambridge conference of the Fulbright Commission in 1952, and was a moving spirit in creating the British Association of American Studies in 1956, serving as chairman until 1959. His reputation was underpinned by his books The Great Experiment (1955) and The Anglo American Connection (1958), and as visiting professor at Rochester, New York (1950), Princeton (1954), and Pennsylvania (1956). Within American studies he developed a special interest in Atlantic migration, his paper on this at the Stockholm Congress of Historical Sciences in 1960 being regarded as seminal in such studies.

Thistlethwaite's background of high administrative work in the 1940s and innovative academic writing in the 1950s made him the ideal vice-chancellor for the new University of East Anglia, where he was appointed in 1961. He brought fresh ideas to Norwich based on his own experience. First was a belief in interdisciplinary studies rather than single-subject degrees. His own Cambridge studies and teaching had been in history, English, and economics, and the Salzburg seminar had shown the virtues of the multi-disciplinary approach. American studies became a school at East Anglia, linked with English. Secondly he introduced American-style seminar teaching and coursework assessment, which later became commonplace at other universities. Thirdly, his artistic sensibilities shaped the university. His lifelong interest in architecture (he was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects) determined him to make the East Anglia site the location of some of the finest campus architecture in Britain, by Bernard Feilden, Denys Lasdun, and Norman Foster among others. His friendship with Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury led to the donation of their priceless art collection and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, designed by Foster. A concert-class pianist himself, he created the school of music, led by Philip Ledger and advised by Benjamin Britten.

In 1980 Thistlethwaite retired to Cambridge as an honorary fellow of St John's College and chairman of the Friends of the University Library. He had been appointed CBE in 1979 and was awarded honorary degrees from East Anglia, Minnesota, and Colorado. In retirement a visiting chair at Minnesota resulted in his book on seventeenth-century Dorset migrants to New England. He also wrote four volumes of autobiography. He died of pneumonia and heart failure at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, on 17 February 2003, and was cremated in Cambridge on 24 February. He was survived by three daughters and a son, one son having died in 1951 and his wife, Jane, having also predeceased him.

Michael Sanderson


F. Thistlethwaite, A Lancashire family inheritance (1996) · F. Thistlethwaite, Our war, 1938–1945 (1997) · F. Thistlethwaite, Cambridge years, 1945–1961 (1999) · F. Thistlethwaite, Origins: a personal reminiscence of UEA's foundation (2002) · M. Sanderson, The history of the University of East Anglia, Norwich (2002) · Frank Thistlethwaite's personal archives as vice-chancellor, University of East Anglia, archives · private information (2007) · The Guardian (19 Feb 2003) · The Independent (19 Feb 2003) · The Times (24 Feb 2003) · b. cert. · d. cert.


University of East Anglia  



University of East Anglia, audio visual centre, footage of university events




University of East Anglia, audio visual centre, speech at congregation, 1980


W. Bird, photograph, 1963, NPG · M. Noakes, oils, 1979–80, priv. coll. · M. Noakes, oils, 1980, University of East Anglia · photograph, c.1980, University of East Anglia; repro. in Sanderson, University of East Anglia, pl. 14 · obituary photographs