Obituary: Professor Abraham Wasserstein

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Abraham Wasserstein, classicist: born Frankfurt am Main 5 October 1921; Assistant in Greek, Glasgow University 1951-52, Lecturer 1952-60; Professor of Classics, Leicester University 1960-69, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1966-69; Professor of Greek, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1969- 89 (Emeritus); married 1942 Margaret (Macca) Ecker (two sons, one daughter); died Jerusalem 20 July 1995.

To all appearance Abraham Wasserstein was the archetypal absent-minded professor - a professor of Classics first at Leicester University and then at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The appearance concealed a generous devotion to persons and principles but a determination to fight wholeheartedly for the issues which were dear to him.

He was a man of extremely wide scholarship; there can be few professors of Classics who are also Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, and his inaugural lecture at Leicester, delivered a short while after he had taken up his appointment, moved broadly but confidently over the whole field of Hellenic endeavour. Greek mathematics, astronomy, musical theory, philosophy, and history - all were brought together to illustrate what he termed "Economy and Elegance".

He was not blind to the defects of the ancient Greeks, and indeed in this lecture drew parallels between the occasional cruelty of the Greeks and that of the Nazis. But his aim was to justify his study of the Greeks and that he did in no small measure. Apart from his popular edition of a selection from the works of Josephus, Flavius Josephus (1974), all his writing showed this love of Greek scholarship. His major work was a translation of Galen's commentary on Hippocrates, Galen, On Airs, Waters, Places (1982), but there was a mass of learned articles on Greek drama, Greek mathematics, and on the minutiae of Greek texts. Had he been sparing of the time he gave to his graduate students and their theses, his own corpus would have been much greater.

Wasserstein was born in Germany and, as with so many of his contemporaries, his early education was distorted by the impact of Nazi rule; he was educated at a Jewish school in Berlin to which, he was proud to claim, many of the German-Jewish intelligentsia also came. He was fortunate enough to be able to escape to Rome and from there, with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, as he later acknowledged, to Turkey and Palestine.

After the end of the Second World War he came to Britain and studied Classics part-time at Birkbeck College, London, whence he graduated with his BA in 1949 and his doctorate in 1951. That year he was appointed as Assistant to the Department of Greek in Glasgow, where he stayed for nine years, subsequently as Lecturer in Greek; in later years he emphasised the debt he owed to the patterns of Glasgow's teaching and regarded it as a model to be followed.

In 1960 Wasserstein applied for the Chair of Classics in Leicester, with so little confidence in himself that he did not even wait to hear the results of the interview. But his stay in Leicester from 1960 to 1969 was to prove memorable for him. …