Vale Professor Bob Milns
I’ve just heard the sad news that my old university supervisor Bob Milns has passed away. He was greatly respected in academic circles but also just a lovely, kind-hearted man. His loss will be felt by many.
It was Bob’s lecturing that first drew me to Classics and Ancient History. He was passionate about what he taught—especially Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedon—and knew just how to instill that passion in others. Those undergraduate lectures led us to many one-on-one meetings in the years that followed.
Though a leading authority, Bob always encouraged his students to think for themselves. In my honours year, he set an assignment that required us to critically assess one of his early papers. Being a teacher not an egoist, Bob chose one where his findings had later been disproven!
Bob was generous with his time and benevolent in imparting his knowledge. I vividly remember a discussion we had about one chapter of my master’s thesis, where he told me, ‘I don’t personally agree with you but I can’t fault your argument.’ Any question I put to Bob, he could answer; but he would never pull rank.
Bob was always affable, and had an impish sense of humour. When I wanted to upgrade from an MA to a PhD but didn’t have the language requirements, I went to Bob to plead my case. As Head of Department, he was inflexible. Latin or Greek were essential, he explained. When I wouldn’t accept his position, he made a wily backtrack to the modern language stipulations for the master’s degree itself:
‘Remind me, Jacob,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Is it French or German you have?’
I suspect he knew that I didn’t have either.
‘Definitely not German,’ I extemporised; and we left it at that.
It was Bob who then suggested I read up on the Duke of Wellington, thus sowing the seeds for my shift to Modern History. Ultimately this came to nothing—my doctoral thesis on Wellington remains researched but not written—yet if only I could have taken Professor Milns with me, I think it would have turned out differently.
Years later, I received a postcard from Bob. It showed a fully armoured Indian war elephant (in reference to my honours thesis), and had been acquired by him while leading a tour party through Iran. It still makes me happy to think of Bob following in Alexander’s footsteps.
Years later again, I sent Bob an offprint of an article I’d had published—a lengthy expansion on that very point of my master’s thesis we’d agreed to disagree on. Though long-since retired, Bob wrote back with his customary warmth and enthusiasm. He never forgot his students and he always took a genuine interest in their work.
Thank you, Bob, for your inspiration and support. (Thank you for being able to recognise me just from my knock on your door, and for unfailingly calling out ‘Come in, Jacob’; never ‘I’m busy’ or ‘Not now.’) Thank you for bringing me to Ancient History.
Thank you for your wisdom.
— Jacob Edwards, 25 February 2020