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Ramsay, Sir William Mitchelllocked

  • J. G. C. Anderson
  • , revised by Peter W. Lock

Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851–1939)

by James Russell & Sons

Ramsay, Sir William Mitchell (1851–1939), classical scholar and archaeologist, was born in Glasgow on 15 March 1851, the youngest son of Thomas Ramsay and his wife, Jane, daughter of William Mitchell, both of Alloa. Ramsay came from a family of lawyers, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather having all been advocates, his grandfather also procurator fiscal of Clackmannanshire. His father died in 1857, and the family returned to live in the country near Alloa. In his education his eldest brother and his maternal uncle, Andrew Mitchell, of Alloa, took an active interest. From the Gymnasium, Old Aberdeen, he went on to the University of Aberdeen and then won a scholarship at St John's College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in classical moderations (1874) and in literae humaniores (1876). In 1874, through his uncle's generosity, he was able to spend the long vacation at Göttingen, studying Sanskrit under a great scholar, Theodor Benfey. This was a critical period of his life: then for the first time, in his own words, he 'gained some insight into modern methods of literary investigation', and his 'thoughts ever since turned towards the border lands between European and Asian civilization'. A further stimulus was received from Henry Jardine Bidder, of St John's, who introduced him to the diverse elements which made up Hellenistic culture.

The opportunity to begin what was to become Ramsay's life work—exploration in Asia Minor for the study of its antiquities and history, with special reference to the influence of Asia on Greek civilization and the Graeco-Roman administration—was provided by his election in 1880 to an Oxford studentship for travel and research in Greek lands. At Smyrna he met Sir C. W. Wilson, then British consul-general in Anatolia, who advised him to explore the unknown inland regions of the country and in whose company he made two long journeys in 1881–2. So started an exploration that was to be continued, save for one considerable break (from 1891 to 1899), until 1914. Further funds were provided by his election to a research fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1882, and by the establishment of an Asia Minor Exploration Fund supported by individuals and societies. From 1885 to 1886 he held the newly created Lincoln and Merton professorship of classical archaeology and art at Oxford and became a fellow of Lincoln College; he was then appointed regius professor of humanity at Aberdeen, where he remained until 1911. After his retirement he continued to devote himself to Anatolian studies up to the very end of his long life.

Ramsay was knighted in 1906 and received many academic distinctions: three honorary fellowships of Oxford colleges (Exeter, 1898, Lincoln, 1899, and St John's, 1912) and honorary degrees from six British universities and from New York, Bordeaux, and Marburg. He was an original fellow of the British Academy but resigned in 1924. In 1893 he was awarded the gold medal of Pope Leo XIII, and in 1906 the Victoria medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He paid several visits to the United States of America to deliver courses of lectures, most of which were afterwards published.

Ramsay married first, in 1878, Agnes Dick (d. 1927), second daughter of the Revd William Marshall, of Leith, and granddaughter of the Revd Dr Andrew Marshall, of Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, one of the original seceders from the Church of Scotland. She shared with her husband the discomforts of travel in Turkey and aided him in his work. They had two sons, the younger of whom was killed in action in 1915, and four daughters. He married second, in 1928, Phyllis Eileen, daughter of Alfred Ernest Thorowgood, of Old Bosham, Sussex, who survived him. He died at his home, 34 Wentworth Avenue, Bournemouth, on 20 April 1939.

Ramsay's enduring claim to distinction is the immense advance, based upon a rich harvest of new evidence, which he achieved in the knowledge of the geography and topography of Asia Minor and of its political, social, and cultural (including religious) history. In his Historical Geography of Asia Minor (1890) and in subsequent articles he worked out a topographical scheme which, while leaving much to be settled by discovery, laid a sure foundation for historical study. Topography and history are combined in his local history of Phrygia (The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, 1895, 1897), uncompleted for lack of adequate evidence. The value of his historical work as a whole, largely scattered in journals and elsewhere (listed down to 1923 in W. H. Buchler and W. M. Calder, eds., Anatolian Studies, presented to him), cannot be discussed here. In his lifetime he was best known for his contributions to early Christian history, beginning with The Church in the Roman Empire before a.d. 170 (1893) and continuing in a series of books devoted mainly to St Paul and St Luke. His basic contention that St Luke was a first-class historian of the first century ad, remains a controversial issue and with it the value of the Acts of the Apostles as a historical source. However, his view that the Galatians to whom St Paul addressed his epistle were those, not of Galatia proper, but of the southern part of the Roman province has gained general acceptance. The judgements and polemics expressed in his New Testament studies have often been questioned subsequently, but not so the value of his topographical work and the stimulus which he gave to the exploration of Asia Minor in the early twentieth century.


  • The Times (22 April 1939)
  • S. Mitchell, Anatolia, 2 (1993)
  • W. H. Buchler and W. M. Calder, eds., Anatolian studies (1923)
  • D. G. Hogarth, The wandering scholar in the Levant (1898)
  • B. Levick, Roman colonies in southern Asia Minor (1967)


  • AM Oxf., corresp., notebooks, and papers
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • U. Aberdeen, archives of three expeditions Monumenta Asiae Minoris with retrospective (?) to Ramsay
  • U. Aberdeen, MSS relevant to university membership


  • J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Buchler and Calder, eds., Anatolian studies, frontispiece
  • portrait, U. Aberdeen, Marischal Museum

Wealth at Death

£1404 18s. 9d.: confirmation, 23 June 1939, CCI

£220 11s. 8d.: further grant, 6 Sept 1939, CCI