Cornford, Francis Macdonald (1874-1943) classical scholar and poet

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Cornford, Francis Macdonald (1874-1943) classical scholar and poet

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1874-1943

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Francis MacDonald Cornford was born at Eastbourne on 27 February 1874, son of The Revd James Cornford and Mary Emma MacDonald. He attensed St Paul's School and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge on 13 June 1893 and was elected a Scholar the following year. Cornford obtained firsts in both parts of the classical tripos in 1905 and 1907; he was awarded the Chancellor's Classical Medal in the latter year. In 1897 he applied for the Chair of Greek at Cardiff, but was unsuccessful. However, in 1899 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity. He was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Classics at the College in 1902 and Lecturer in 1904. In 1909 Cornford Married Frances Darwin, daughter of Ellen Crofts of Newnham College and the botanist Francis Darwin. Frances was to become a poet of note and as such an influence on their eldest son Rupert John (known simply as John), born in 1915. Three further children followed, Christopher Francis, born 1917, a son in 1921 and a daughter two years later. During WWI Cornford was a musketry instructor at Grantham and rose to the rank of Captain before transferring to the Ministry of Munitions.
In 1921 and 1928 Cornford was unsuccessfully a candidate for the Regius Chair of Greek. In 1927 he was appointed Brereton Reader in Classics and four years later became the first to hold the Laurence Chair in Ancient Philosophy, a post which he held until retirement in 1939. He was elected FBA in 1937.
Early in his academic career, Cornford became disenchanted with "Cambridge classics" with its emphasis on philology and published "The Cambridge Classical Course: an essay in anticipation of further reform". in 1903. He soon allied with like-minded persons such as Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray and A B Cook in a group that became known as the 'Cambridge Ritualists' who looked for the underlying thoughts and myths that underpinned classical Greece. A string of publications ensued: "Thucydides Mythistoricus" (1907), "From Religion to Philosophy: a study in the origins of Western speculation" (1912), "The Origins of Attic Comedy" (1914), "Greek Religious thought from Homer to Alexander" (1923), "The Laws of Motion in Ancient Thought" (1931), "Before and After Socrates" (1931), "Plato's Theory of Knowledge: the Theaetetus and Sophist of Plato" (1935), "Plato's Cosmology: the Timaeus of Plato" (1937), "Plato and Parmenides" (1939). A series of essays, "Unwritten Philosophy and Other essays" was published posthumously.
Cornford was also active politically on the Cambridge scene. In 1897 he organised a student petition in favour of degrees for women and in 1904 published an anonymous flysheet on the subject of compulsory chapel. To support rationalist moves in the University he joined with C K Ogden in founding the Heretics. His most famous excursion into University politics was <emph>Microcosmographia Academica</emph>, first published anonymously in 1908 and reissued many times since. In it he satirises the Cambridge system and the types of administrator that it produced. During WWI, when Bertrand Russell was deprived of his College lectureship, Cornford was one of the body of Fellows that attempted to get him reinstated.
Cornford died at his home, Conduit Head on 3 January 1943.

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