Rosalind Mary Mitchison

11 April 1919 –19 September 2002

Social Historian

Rosalind  (Rowy) Mary Mitchison [née Wrong], historian, was born in Manchester, on 11 April 1919, the eldest daughter of (Edward) Murray Wrong (1889–1928), historian, son of George Mackinnon Wrong (1860–1948), historian. Her mother was Rosalind Grace, née Smith (1892–1983), also a historian. 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. Rosalind and Murdoch Mitchison had four children. In Cambridge she taught history part-time at Pembroke and Girton.

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.

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). Following her retirement in 1986 she remained a busy scholar in the department she loved.

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.

© Oxford University Press 2004–14



T. C. Smout, ‘Mitchison , Rosalind Mary (1919–2002)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2006; online edn, May 2014

Rosalind Mary Mitchison (1919–2002): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/77261 



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