Obituary: Professor James Burns, 90

Prof James Burns achieved much in his impressive career

Prof James Burns achieved much in his impressive career

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A NATIONALLY renowned, Lothians-born expert on political theory has died at the age of 90.

Professor James Burns – known as Jimmy – was a distinguished scholar, teacher and historian who was much admired for his knowledge of the works of the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Born in Linlithgow on November 10, 1921, he was educated in the Capital, attending George Watson’s Boys’ College from 1932 to 1940.

It was as a schoolboy in the 1930s that Prof Burns discovered politics, with his fast-growing interest focusing initially on the international Communist movement.

As a history student at Edinburgh University during the Second World War, the depth of his intellectual ability soon became apparent.

He graduated with first-class honours and, having gained his MA, intended to contribute to the national war effort as the battle with Nazi Germany raged.

But he was unable to undertake front-line duties due to impaired sight. He did, however, accept war-related employment as a BBC sub-editor.

His interest in academic work soon re-emerged after the war ended in 1945 and, following his departure from the BBC, he accepted an offer to attend Balliol College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics.

As at Edinburgh, his warm and sociable nature quickly drew others to him and he made lifelong friends. But his focus remained steadfastly on work and he went on to achieve another first-class degree.

Prof Burns’ career as an academic began properly in 1947 after he returned to Scotland with his wife, Yvonne, who he met as an undergraduate at Edinburgh University only a few years earlier.

He accepted a post as a lecturer in political theory at Aberdeen University, completing his PhD and serving as head of department between 1952 and 1960.

It was during this period that the couple started a family, with Yvonne giving birth to two boys and a girl, Christine, who sadly died in 1960.

Despite personal tragedy, Prof Burns’ academic career continued to go from strength to strength.

In 1961, he moved to University College London, where he was soon appointed professor of political thought and later became head of department.

He edited numerous seminal works, among them the collected works of the English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, as well as titles including The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought. In 1992, he became a Fellow of the British Academy.

Prof Burns is survived by his sons, Michael and Anthony, and granddaughters Emma and Anna. Yvonne died in 2010.