A History of East Asian Studies at Leeds

Founding Professor Owen Lattimore: McCarthy Trials and Time at Leeds

The McCarthy Trials

Lattimore worked at Johns Hopkins University for 25 years. He was a popular lecturer, and his position as adviser to Chiang Kai-shek during WWII had elevated him to the status of a cult figure in the University. However, despite this popularity, his lack of formal academic training meant that he was not taken seriously in some academic circles.

In 1950, amid increasing anti-communist rhetoric in the USA, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Lattimore of being a communist spy. These accusations were completely unfounded, but he was still charged with seven counts of perjury. The charges were so tenuous that David Harvey, who researched Lattimore's life, called them “vengeful harassment”. The charges were eventually dismissed, but in an atmosphere of extreme paranoia, some trustees of Johns Hopkins began to call for Lattimore's dismissal.

Then I got a piece of paper and drafted a reply, realising that it would have to hit the front pages and hit them crisply. Clearly, this was going to be a fight to the finish, and a knockdown, drag-out fight. I had as yet no conception of the personality of McCarthy; but if he was a man who was willing to make a totally unfounded charge of espionage, this was going to be a dirty business. Owen Lattimore in Ordeal by Slander

- Owen Lattimore in Ordeal by Slander

Time at Leeds

Denied study leave and tenure, Lattimore's time at Johns Hopkins became increasingly difficult. So when in 1961 the publication of the Hayter Report led to the UK government funding the establishment of the Department of Chinese Studies at Leeds, Lattimore, with his vast experience, was an obvious candidate to head this new department. In 1963 he accepted an offer to become its first professor.

It's as if, in a weird way, Baltimore were the sleepy English village where nothing ever happened, and Leeds the driving, creative American city, with people thinking and doing all the time.

- Owen Lattimore, quoted in Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China

Lattimore launched himself into academic life at Leeds, making arrangements for the creation of a Chinese Studies library and quickly establishing excellence in Chinese language tuition. In October 1963 he gave his inaugural lecture "From China Looking Outward", advocating a new brand of Chinese Studies that takes Chinese perspectives as its point of departure.

…the student of modern China, even when doing his research and teaching outside of China, should cultivate an intellectual method of seeing China from within, and looking from China outward at the world.

Owen Lattimore in his inaugural lecture at the University of Leeds, “From China Looking Outward”

The broadcast of his inaugural lecture on the BBC was a resounding hit. Some members of the American public who had read in right-wing newspapers the unfounded allegations that Lattimore was a Soviet spy wrote to the University expressing alarm that a university of Leeds’ eminence would “subject your undergraduates to the indoctrinations of a man like Lattimore.” But the general response to his appointment was overwhelmingly positive.

Lattimore’s professorship at the University of Leeds was exciting and successful. His department grew to more than fifty undergraduate students, several postgraduate students, two Leverhulme Trust Sino-Soviet fellows, and the recent British Chargé d’Affaires in Mongolia who worked as a research fellow for a year.

Lattimore implemented an innovative two-pronged approach, aiming to train students in both Chinese language and culture, and in a single discipline. This was a departure from the way that Chinese was taught in the more traditional departments, and resulted in the University of Leeds becoming the leading UK institution for the study of modern China. Lattimore’s pragmatic approach, grounded in a deep and personal understanding of the Chinese way of life, produced highly trained graduates who were prepared to interact with China directly.

He had never been able to go to university, so he had really gained all his knowledge in the University of Life.

Judith Nordby, lecturer in Mongolian Studies at the University of Leeds and former student of Lattimore

There is no one on earth who could have the presumption to examine him… Holders of PhDs are available by the hundred; true scholars of the quality of Owen Lattimore are rare indeed.

Professor Mary C. Wright (Yale) discussing Lattimore’s lack of formal academic qualifications

Early in his tenure Lattimore was invited to interpret for the Queen when the UK established diplomatic relations with the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1963. In 1965 he finally received his first university degree, an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow; he was also appointed to the Council of the Royal Geographical Society.

Lattimore continued his passion for Mongolian Studies in both research and teaching, travelling to Mongolia and producing a documentary. He laid the groundwork for the establishment of Mongolian Studies at the University, the first programme of its kind in the UK. In 1969 he was given the honour of being appointed the first foreign member of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

In March 1970 Lattimore retired from the University of Leeds to return to Virginia in the U.S. with Eleanor, his wife. Tragically, Eleanor died suddenly on their flight to New York. Lattimore was adrift without her and after a short period in the U.S. he returned to take up a post as a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, before moving on to the University of Cambridge.